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    Organic. It’s one of those terms as easily misunderstood in architecture as it is in food culture. In architecture, an organic building floats into the landscape like a long-missing puzzle piece. No meaty thumbs need jam it into reluctant surroundings. It just eases in. Like magic. Like a cedar tree.

    The Graeser Family Education Center in the new Waterfront Botanical Gardens is such a puzzle piece. Its sinuous shape complements the undulating landscape above the Ohio River. Inside, the windowed walls provide garden views on every side. From the outside, the windows are topped with bands of yellow-bronze cedar held aloft by 99 pillars of Southern yellow pine. Atop the roof, a second, smaller tier of cedar ribbons hides HVAC equipment. The wood’s rich colors complement the site’s wild fall foliage; the garden is only partially developed, not extending much beyond the new building itself. Over time, as the gardens spread to fill the 23 acres off River Road owned by the nonprofit Botanica, the cedar will weather to gray, providing a color as low-profile as the energy-efficient building itself, says architect and Louisville native Matthew Kuhl, who works in the Chicago office of the architecture firm Perkins & Will. “Instead of distracting or maybe overstepping or screaming its name out, we think, due to its size and materiality, (the building) will interact with the site,” Kuhl says. “Like everything, it will eventually age and show that age, and we hope it will age beautifully.”

    Despite the building’s harmony with its immediate surroundings, both it and the gardens remain brave outliers in their neighborhood. The gardens’ first building sits on a gentle rise just above the whining roar of I-71. To the east is Beargrass Creek and across the interstate to the south lies the city’s auto impound lot. To the west is Louisville’s skyline, only partially blocked by a big billboard ad. What lies underneath: layers of history, a past that created an engineering challenge. This $3-million building sits atop garbage — strata upon strata of garbage.

    A dump once sprawled along what a 1952 grand jury called the “last stinking mile” of Beargrass Creek, a pestilential mix of uncovered trash, dead fish and barrels of rotting chickens swarming with maggots, the i reported. The neighbors in Butchertown complained that any breeze brought both the dump’s stench and its refuse tumbling through their streets. In summer heat, even Crescent Hill awoke to its reek.

    But before it was ever a dump, people lived here. Stone mason Christian Heigold built his home on now-buried Marion Street, its façade covered with memorials to his newly adopted country: a bust of President James Buchanan, an image of George Washington alongside Lady Justice, encomia to the city, Buchanan and the Union, “Never Dissolve It.” But the house was more than patriotism; it was a declaration, a stand against the vicious anti-immigrant sentiment that, just a few years before Heigold began construction, led to Election Day attacks in Louisville’s German and Irish neighborhoods by members of the anti-immigrant Know Nothing party. (Buchanan was a staunch opponent.) Before the violence and arson ended on what became known as Bloody Monday, more than 22 people were dead. Most disturbing, after arsonists set fire to a row of houses in an Irish neighborhood at 11th and Main streets, the mob shot residents as they fled for their lives.

    But Heigold’s building and the surrounding neighborhood known as the Point were about to be overtaken by a force more powerful than hatred: the Ohio River. Year after year, the Point went subaquatic: 1883, 1884, 1907. In 1913, the New York Times reported, “On the Point, where only tops of houses can be seen, the Ohio has done its worst. Occasionally, one of the weather-beaten houses breaks from its moorings, turns over, and is swept downstream.” Finally, the event that has left a watermark on many Louisville tales, the 1937 Flood, put the Point and much of Louisville under water. That was the end. The city turned the Point into the final resting place for flood refuse. Over time, more dumps followed. In the early years, wild pigs rooted through the riverside refuse. Until the 1960s, ash and hot coal routinely set the dumps aflame. Firefighting efforts were futile as rats chewed through hoses. Many blazes were left to burn out on their own.

    The dumps’ cancerous growth led to one of the city’s oddest landmarks: the house façade in the middle of lower Frankfort Avenue, the last relic of Heigold’s home. The city stepped in to save it when the structure was no more than a brick island amid mounding trash.

    The development of I-71 in the late 1960s finally changed the Point’s fate by accidentally turning the dumps into a welcome mat for downtown Louisville. That did it; the whole mess was shut down and covered with two feet of dirt per EPA guidelines. Monitoring wells were installed to track any liquids leaching from the property. And slowly, nature performed its redemption, covering the site with green. Massive thickets of fragrant and invasive honeysuckle and native goldenrod took over. When Botanica began its work, the site was home to 74 nonnative species and 57 natives, including the uncommon rough pod copperleaf with its eensy green flowers, and the rare-for-Kentucky sleepy silene, which closes its tiny tired blossoms most of the day. Where possible, horticulturists hope to preserve some of the rarer plants.


    When Botanica members began talking to the city in earnest about purchasing the unused dumping grounds some eight years ago, the property’s history soon rose up to taunt them, says Kasey Maier, executive director of Waterfront Botanical Gardens. Despite more than 70 years of city possession, Louisville Metro couldn’t guarantee it actually owned the more than 135 lots beneath the garbage. Brian Voelker, Botanica board president at the time, worked with an attorney who knew his way around title searches to determine if there were any competing claims. It was not a trivial effort. The attorney managed to trace the deeds back to President Thomas Jefferson’s grant of the riverfront acreage to Jacob Geiger, whose family moved from Maryland to Jefferson County in 1791. Geiger also laid out the original Point neighborhoods. Settling the ownership issue was part of an agreement Voelker had negotiated with the city. Before Botanica could claim the former dump for $1, in addition to the title search, it conducted an environmental assessment, developed a master plan and raised $2 million for future garden development and operations.

    Even then, history continued to intrude. “The process was just full of surprises,” Maier says. With nearly everything ready for new construction, a lawyer realized that none of the streets — now under some 40 feet of trash and dirt — had been legally abandoned. The legal i-dotting was soon addressed.

    But history’s largest impact remains on the education center’s engineering. Layers of settling, shifting and compressing trash aren’t suitable foundation for much more than a pup tent. To understand how the building was secured, cast your mind down those 99 pine beams holding up the roof along the 300-foot serpentine perimeter. The beams end in a massive underground concrete support structure some three feet in width and four feet deep. This concrete structure distributes the weight carried by the beams, says Tim Gettelfinger, president of the Prospect engineering firm Structural Services. That’s just the beginning. Beneath the concrete support, 44 concrete-filled steel pipes, each about 65 feet long and a foot in diameter, plowed first through 45 feet of trash and then into another 20 feet of stable soils below, says Peggy Hagerty Duffy, president of Hagerty Engineering in Jeffersonville. The building isn’t going anywhere.

    The 99 beams serve another purpose besides roof-holding. Each carries the name of a $10,000 donor, a demonstration of the ways in which this building is foundational to the gardens’ future. It’s designed not only for lectures in its large open main room and smaller sunny conference room or to host groups of students studying nature or gardening. It’s also intended to make money to help pay for the other structures in the gardens’ master plan. So far, it’s working, Maier says. Before even a single flower was planted, people were calling to rent the space for weddings and other gatherings.

    That income will help complete this first phase of construction with the addition of a classroom building, a workshop and a working greenhouse. Later construction phases will add an overlook above Beargrass Creek, a conservatory — like a big greenhouse exhibition space — a visitors center with a living roof, and a Japanese teahouse. As those structures go up and the gardens expand, Botanica will begin charging admission. Right now, it’s free.

    As for the site’s wet past, any flooding should remain mere history. The years of dumping raised the Point above the river’s reach, proving that sometimes even garbage can contribute organically.


    This originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “Atop the Mound.” To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Joon Kim,

    Jenni Laidman's picture

    About Jenni Laidman

    I'm a freelance writer who specializes in science and medicine but is passionate about art. I'm a hell of a cook. I think of white wine as training wheels for people who will graduate to red. I love U of L women's basketball. The best bargain in town is the $3 admission to U of L volleyball. Really exciting stuff.

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