Central Park dates from June 15, 1872, when the DuPont family opened the front lawn of their 17-acre estate to the public for the first time. It quickly became a popular gathering place during warm weather months for the citizens of Louisville where they could enjoy Sunday picnics and fashionable strolls, evening concerts, fireworks displays, balloon ascensions, and plays.
The DuPont family lived in a spacious Italianate mansion on the crest of the hill near where the Octagon is today, but the patriarch of the family, Alfred Victor DuPont, actually lived in a room downtown at the original Galt House at Second and Main. His brother, Biderman, took up residence in the Central Park home with his family, and he is responsible for opening the original park.
After Alfred’s murder in 1893, the family expressed interest in selling the estate to the city as a park, but negotiations dragged on and the family reluctantly began making plans to subdivide it into building lots. In 1896 the city renamed the park DuPont Square to encourage the family to keep it a park. Louisville’s civic leaders finally stepped up in 1904 and purchased the old estate for $297,500: well over $2 million in today’s currency. “DuPont Square” quickly faded from local memory.
The DuPonts had made contingency plans for a public park on their property as early as 1883. In 1901, they hired nationally renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to draw up a ground plan. Those plans finally came to fruition in 1904-05 when the old DuPont mansion was demolished and the present buildings and pergola were erected.
The original purpose of what’s now known as the Historic Old Louisville Neighborhood & Visitors Center was a women and children’s shelter. When it rained or during the heat of the summer, families could come into the building, which was open to the breeze and had 18”-thick walls. No doubt countless boys played marbles on the cool terrazzo floor while their sisters played with dollies and their mothers engaged in the latest gossip. Next door a gymnasium was built for the men and boys, complete with a swimming pool in the basement.
Generations of Louisvillians retain fond memories of the park and the shelter house. Some still remember a wishing well at the end of the pergola. Many others recall romping around the shelter. Throughout its history, it’s been used for many purposes. In the 1960s it was the site of amateur boxing matches. For a time in the 1980s, an LGBT chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous met there regularly. It’s been the site of weddings, meetings, and neighborhood gatherings for decades.
By the 1970s the park had fallen on hard times. The wishing well was no longer working and was filled in with dirt, the sidewalks were cracking, and the park became a magnet for unsavory activities. In late 1970, the old gymnasium building was turned into a Louisville police department substation. A few tears later the shelter underwent a radical transformation. No doubt because there was no money to do anything else, the open windows were filled in with cinder block and stucco, lockable doors were installed, and the remarkable yellow pine ceiling was hidden by drop panels. From an airy space lit by Louisville’s glowing late afternoon sun, it became a mausoleum.
Finally, in the last ten years, thanks to the efforts of the Old Louisville Neighborhood Council, several neighborhood associations, and such philanthropists as Jane and Ronald Harris, the cinder blocks and stucco were removed and replaced with insulated windows, the drop ceiling removed, and the interior returned to its former glory. Today it welcomes visitors from across the country and around the world to what has now rightfully been called “One of the Great Places in America.”