The Brown Hotel

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Discover The Brown Hotel, which has been a beloved Louisville landmark, attracting many social and political elite, since opening in 1923.

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The Brown Hotel, a charter member of Historic Hotels of America since 1989, dates back to 1923.

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A charter member of Historic Hotels of America, The Brown Hotel has been a beloved Louisville landmark since opening in 1923. The hotel was built by businessman James Graham Brown, the co-founder of the prosperous W.P. Brown and Sons Lumber Company. Observing the economic success of the neighboring Seelbach Hotel (also another member of the organization), Brown decided to construct his own beautiful structure that would serve as its rival. He subsequently selected a plot of land at the corner of Fourth and Broadway and brought in the renowned architect Preston J. Bradshaw to spearhead the building’s new design. What Brown created was nothing short of magnificent, relying upon a blend of Georgian Revival and Renaissance Revival architecture to crafts its appearance. The 16-story building was simply brilliant consisting of 600 guestrooms, as well as a number of ballrooms, shops, meeting rooms, and restaurants. Brown had spent extravagantly, too, investing more than $4 million into completing the project! Nevertheless, when the business opened as “The Brown Hotel” a year later, it rapidly emerged as one of Louisville’s most popular social gathering spots. In fact, David Lloyd George—the former Prime Minister of Great Britain—was the first person to sign the guest register. Soon enough, Louisville’s Herald-Post had taken to calling The Brown Hotel as “The Magic Corner,” due to the sheer amount of people who frequented the grounds. The hotel’s surging popularity even emboldened Brown to further develop the area, constructing the Brown Theater and Martin Brown building right next door.

During the 1920s, the hotel hosted popular dinner dances that impressively drew over 1,200 guests every evening. To appeal to the massive crowds, chef Fred K. Schmidt wanted to create something new to keep the arrival a novelty. As such, he invented the “Hot Brown” in 1926, which was a variation on the traditional Welsh rarebit. The open-faced sandwich of roast turkey and bacon was covered in a delicate Mornay sauce, and then baked (or broiled) until the bread was crisp. But the combination of Prohibition and the Great Depression a few years later led to hard times for the hotel. The Brown Hotel subsequently faced foreclosure when it defaulted on its mortgage in 1931! Employees were asked to work temporarily without pay—a sacrifice that managed to keep the hotel open throughout the turmoil. Then, in 1937, the Ohio River flooded, submerging large swathes of downtown Louisville in the process. The Brown Hotel was one of the affected buildings, as its entire first floor was underwater amid the deluge. (On a lighter note, the bell captain managed to catch a two-pound fish in the lobby that day.) One resident remembered: "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."

Thankfully, good fortune returned to The Brown Hotel during World War II, as thousands of servicemen on their way to Fort Knox often visited. All the guestrooms were constantly occupied and the venues radiated with the same vibrancy that had defined them at the height of the Roaring Twenties. As one former staff member recalled: "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." Unfortunately, the hotel’s prosperity proved short-lived, as The Brown Hotel fell back into another prolonged period of decline when the war ended. Making matters worse was the death of James Graham Brown in 1969, which left a leadership vacuum that no one could fill. The loss of Brown eventually led to the permanent closure of The Brown Hotel. Now sitting dormant, the building was then sold to the Jefferson County Public Schools and served as the home of the Board of Education. In the early 1980s, the building received yet another release on life when it was fully renovated and reopened as a Hilton Hotel. After being a part of the Camberley Hotel Company for some time thereafter, the current owners—1859 Historic Hotels—obtained the building in 2006. They masterfully restored The Brown Hotel, revitalizing its grand historic architecture back to its former glory. Thanks to the hard work of 1859 Historic Hotels, this magnificent historic hotel continues to be a celebrated landmark in the heart of Louisville.

  • About the Location +

    The Brown Hotel resides just moments away from the West Main Street Historic District, one of the most celebrated neighborhoods in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. While the area is now known for its fantastic array of cultural attractions, it first started out as the site for a rudimentary wilderness citadel back during the late 18th century. In 1778, a group of settlers led by Lieutenant Colonel George Rogers Clark arrived in the vicinity, dispatched to attack a British outpost several miles away. Establishing a settlement on nearby Corn Island, the pioneers remained in the area for months thereafter while Clark pushed forward toward his objective. The settlers eventually created a wooden stockade called “Fort Nelson” some four years later, with Richard Chenworth presiding over the small community that emerged around it. Then, in 1784, the Virginia General Assembly (Kentucky was still a part of Virginia) formally approved an official town charter recognizing the village as the community of “Louisville.” The locals had selected the name in honor of King Louis XVI, who had just helped the newly created United States defeat Great Britain during the American Revolutionary War. Louisville quickly became a point of embarkation for additional generations of frontiersmen eager to head west, with the most notable being Meriweather Lewis and William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition. But Louisville’s proximity along the banks of the Ohio River also made it a significant trade center. Hundreds of merchants opened their owns storefronts and warehouses around old Fort Nelson, which peddled products like whiskey and tobacco. Soon enough, Louisville was one of the most visited ports along the entire Ohio River, attracting all kinds of businesspeople from both the North and South. (Railroads also enhanced Louisville’s economic standing, starting with the arrival of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad in the mid-1850s.)

    Louisville’s prominence as a commercial hub made it extremely important to the Union war effort during the American Civil War. Even though Kentucky as a whole was a slave state, it officially remained loyal to the nation due to its economic ties with the northern states of the Old Northwest. Fortunately, the city escaped suffering any damage amid the conflict, although several nearby communities—including Perryville and Corydon—experienced heavy fighting at one point or another. (The Battle of Perryville in 1862 was one of the war’s most strategically significant fights, as it prevented a large Confederate army from occupying the commonwealth and threatening the Midwest.) Louisville once again proceeded to grow rapidly as a regional economic powerhouse as soon as the hostilities ended, with a spate of new commercial edifices debuting downtown. Main Street in particular became a major site for the expanded construction work that characterized Louisville’s growth at the century’s end. The designs of the buildings subsequently were far more intricate, showcasing the beauty of Romanesque and Mediterranean-inspired architecture. Most of the structures even possessed their own unique detailing, including a rare array of cast iron facades. The area remained the heart of Louisville’s vibrant economy throughout much of the 20th century, until newer industries overtook shipping in importance. Today, most of the historic warehouses and storefronts have been thoroughly renovated, reopening as boutique shops, restaurants, and art galleries. In fact, the West Main Street Historic District is also known locally as “Museum Row,” due to the high number of museums that reside in the neighborhood. Among those cultural institutions active now are the Muhammad Ali Center, the Louisville Slugger Museum, the Frazier History Museum, and the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft. Additional attractions are nearby, too, with the most notable being the legendary Churchill Downs racetrack.


  • About the Architecture +

    When architect Preston J. Bradshaw first designed The Brown Hotel, he used Georgian Revival architecture to help craft its appearance. Georgian Revival-style architecture itself is a subset of a much more prominent architectural form known as “Colonial Revival.” Colonial Revival architecture today is perhaps the most widely used building form in the entire United States. It reached its zenith at the height of the Gilded Age, where countless Americans turned to the aesthetic to celebrate what they feared was America’s disappearing past. The movement came about in the aftermath of the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, in which people from across the country traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to commemorate the American Revolution. Many of the exhibitors chose to display cultural representations of 18th-century America, encouraging millions of people across the country to preserve the nation’s history. Architects were among those inspired, who looked to revitalize the design principles of colonial English and Dutch homes. This gradually gave way to a larger embrace of Georgian and Federal-style architecture, which focused exclusively on the country’s formative years. As such, structures built in the style of Colonial Revival architecture—as well as the Georgian Revival-style—featured such components as pilasters, brickwork, and modest, double-hung windows. Symmetrical designs defined their façades, anchored by a central, pedimented front door and simplistic portico. Gable roofs typically topped the buildings, although hipped and gambrel forms were used, too. This building form remained immensely popular for years until largely petering out in late 20th century.  

    But Bradshaw had also employed the use of Renaissance Revival design motifs to develop The Brown Hotel, specifically a subset that was that was unique to the British Isles. Renaissance Revival itself architecture—sometimes referred to as "Neo-Renaissance”—is a group of architecture revival styles that date back to the 19th century. Neither Grecian nor Gothic in their appearance, Renaissance Revival-style architecture drew inspiration from a wide range of structural motifs found throughout Early Modern Western Europe. Architects in France and Italy were the first to embrace the artistic movement, who saw the architectural forms of the European Renaissance as an opportunity to reinvigorate a sense of civic pride throughout their communities. As such, those intellectuals incorporated the colonnades and low-pitched roofs of Renaissance-era buildings with the specific characteristics of Mannerist and Baroque-themed architecture. Perhaps the greatest structural component to a Renaissance Revival-style building involved the installation of a grand staircase in a vein similar to those located at both the Château de Blois and the Château de Chambord in France’s Loire Valley. This particular feature served as a central focal point for the design, often directing guests to a magnificent lobby or exterior courtyard. But the nebulous nature of Renaissance Revival architecture meant that its appearance varied widely across Europe. As such, historians today sometimes find it difficult to provide a specific definition for the architectural movement. Regardless, Renaissance Revival architecture today remains one of the world’s most enduring, appearing in countless places across the globe.


  • Famous Historic Guests +

    Lily Pons, opera singer and actress known for her performances at the Metropolitan Opera during the 20th century.

    Al Jolson, actor and comedian known for starring in the first talking motion picture, The Jazz Singer.

    Elizabeth Taylor, actress known for her roles in Cleopatra and The Taming of the Shrew.   

    Joan Crawford, actress known for her roles in Mildred Place and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

    Gene Autry, singer and actor known for such roles in The Phantom Empire, In Old Santa Fe, and The Old Corral.  

    Eva Marie Saint, actress known for such roles in On the Waterfront, Exodus, and North by Northwest.

    Robert Young, actor best remembered for his roles on Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, M.D.

    Muhammad Ali, professional boxer and civil rights activist regarded as one of the best athletes of the 20th century.

    David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of Great Britain (1916 – 1922)

    Queen Marie of Romania (1914 – 1927)

    King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom (1936; abdicated and became the Duke of Windsor)

    Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States (1945 – 1953)

    Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States (1977 – 1981)

    George H. W. Bush, 41st President of the United States (1989 – 1993)

    Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States (2009 – 2017)


  • Film, TV and Media Connections +

    Elizabethtown (2005)


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