The Brown Hotel
The Brown Hotel has been a beloved Louisville landmark since opening in 1923. The hotel was built by businessman James Graham Brown, co-founder of the W.P. Brown and Sons Lumber Company, at the then-staggering cost of $4 million. Designed by Preston J. Bradshaw, the hotel featured 600 guestrooms, ballrooms, shops, meeting rooms, and restaurants. The 16-story Georgian Revival hotel was built of concrete and steel, faced in brick, and trimmed in stone and terra cotta. The English Renaissance interior is complemented by Adams period detail.
The hotel opened on October 25, 1923, at the corner of Fourth and Broadway in downtown Louisville. David Lloyd George, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, was the first person to sign the guest register. As the area around the hotel developed, including the James Graham Brown erected Brown Theater and Martin Brown Building, it quickly became the city’s business and social center, and dubbed as “The Magic Corner” by the Herald-Post.
During the 1920s, the hotel hosted popular dinner dances, drawing over 1,200 guests each evening, and Chef Fred K. Schmidt wanted to create something new for these hungry guests. He invented the “Hot Brown” in 1926, a variation on the traditional Welsh rarebit, and as an alternative to the common ham and egg. The open-faced sandwich of roast turkey and bacon was covered in a delicate Mornay sauce, and baked or broiled until the bread was crisp and the sauce began to brown.
The combination of Prohibition and the Great Depression led to hard times for the hotel in the early 1930s. The Brown Hotel defaulted on its loan in 1931, and the bank threatened foreclosure. Employees were asked to work temporarily without pay, and the hotel was only able to stay open due to the loyal staff’s willingness to do so.
The Ohio River flood of 1937 affected large areas of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky, including Louisville. The first floor of The Brown Hotel was flooded and the bell captain even caught a two-pound fish in the lobby. One resident recalled, "We were rowing down Broadway and there was The Brown Hotel. The doors were open and the place was filled with water so we just rowed our boat in one door, went through the lobby and rowed out another." Nearly a thousand people whose homes were submerged stayed at the hotel. There was no electricity, makeshift kitchens with charcoal grills were used feed the multitudes, and bucket brigades carried water up the 15 flights of stairs to flush toilets.
Fortunes returned at the time of World War II. Fort Knox is a United States Army post in Kentucky, south of Louisville and north of Elizabethtown. Thousands of soldiers passing through would stay in the area, and the hotel would frequently be filled to capacity. A bell captain remembered, "We were busiest during the War. Check-in at 5:00 p.m. was the worst. Two or three trains a day would come from Fort Knox - soldiers lined up for hours waiting for a room."
Thereafter, the decline of the city of Louisville, in combination with the death of James Graham Brown in 1969, led to The Brown Hotel closing in 1971. The building was sold to the Jefferson County Public Schools and served as the home of the Board of Education in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, the building was sold, then fully renovated, and reopened as a Hilton Hotel. In 1993, the hotel was purchased by the Camberley Hotel Company, who altered the hotel by demolishing the dividing wall of every other room to double the guestroom size, taking it from the original 600 to the current 293 guestrooms. The hotel was subsequently sold to its current owner, 1859 Historic Hotels, in 2006.
Just three miles from Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Derby is the hotel’s most popular week, with Derby night culminating as the social event of the year at The Brown Hotel. Guests indulge in the traditional favorites of the Derby, like the Mint Julep, an ice-cold mix of bourbon, mint, and sugar, and the Kentucky Derby pie, a rich chocolate bourbon pecan pie. "The hotel was more or less like box seats at Churchill Downs - the same people every year and always the best," remembered an employee.
The Brown Hotel has hosted numerous celebrities and dignitaries over the years, including Lily Pons and her pet lion cub, Al Jolson, Queen Marie of Romania, the Duke of Windsor, Harry Truman, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford, Gene Autry, Eva Marie Saint, Muhammad Ali, Robert Young, Jimmy Carter, George H. Bush, and Barack Obama. The Brown Hotel is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, a member of Historic Hotels of America, named 2015 Travel + Leisure 500 The World’s Best Hotels, and 2015 Condé Nast Traveler Readers' Choice Awards Top 30 Hotels in the South. The hotel was featured in the film Elizabethtown, starring actors Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst.