Heading away from downtown Louisville on West Broadway, the sights increasingly repeat themselves - abandoned industry and run-down factories replace the bustle of the heart of the city and the high-rise skyline falls away almost instantly. This is where Louisville’s industry used to thrive. While Louisville isn’t exactly in the rust belt, parts of West Broadway have that same feeling - abandoned factories, vacant lots, broken windows and graffiti mark the area, and some stretches seem almost completely devoid of human life. Many old buildings become re-purposed, giving them a second lease on life, and on South 13th Street lies one more piece of history getting another chance: The Mammoth.
Purchased by Aron Conaway and his partner Hallie Jones in 2012, The Mammoth is aptly named - it measures in at an amazing 90,000 square feet, which Conway envisions as a space for artists, musicians, and other creative people to work and eventually display their projects. To help fund upkeep and restoration of the hulking three-story building, the third floor is rented out as long-term residential and commercial storage; row upon row of boxed items sit neatly lined up between wooden pillars, going on almost endlessly into the recesses. The Mammoth seems to never end when all the lights aren’t on at full blast - there’s always another corner to duck around or shadows obscuring the far side.
Built in 1865, The Mammoth was originally meant to be a Union Army medical supply depot for the Civil War. The end of hostilities came just as the building was being completed, however, and it never realized its intended purpose. A short time later the Mammoth Complex - the property hosts three buildings - was purchased by the Magnolia Ham Company and used as a smokehouse, storage and distribution site. Magnolia Ham operated there for several decades, and the next record of a business at that address is the Louisville Paper Company, the name of which still graces the exterior. Conaway’s records trace the paper company to around 1919, and they were later replaced by Louisville Tin and Stove.
Having changed hands many times, there is an amazing amount of forgotten furniture and materials scattered throughout the nooks and crannies of the Mammoth. Old desks, industrial supplies, shelving and the like lay claim to the space like pockets of Louisville history - going into the basement can feel like exploring some sort of reliquary. Some relics have already been unearthed - while cleaning and organizing, Conaway found a stack of ledgers and record books kept by the
chapter in Louisville that date back to the mid 1800s - prior to the construction of the building. Signs on walls, old graffiti from employees and notes scribbled on columns all mark the building, making it an amazing piece of historical Louisville, something that Conaway feels needs to be preserved and re-utilized.
“I feel like I’m saving this building’s life, really,” he told me. Conaway works tirelessly to keep up the building, and a lot of work still needs to be done at The Mammoth. There’s an old outbuilding that needs to be brought down for safety reasons, there’s constant repairs and maintenance to do, and then there’s the gallery space Jones wants to establish. Right now, the second building on the property is only used by a blacksmith who is renting space, and she would like to turn it into a rotating gallery for tenants and other artists to display their work. It’s a big building, though nowhere the size of the main one, and would need a good deal of work to get it there. Regardless, Conaway is confident that he’ll have things to a good point by the end of 2014.
Walking into The Mammoth, I’m struck by almost everything - it’s obviously an artist’s collective - art on the walls, posters marking past and future events, and the feeling that it’s a living space where people work and create. In other parts of the building that feeling changes dramatically from one of creativity to one of history. Standing in the middle of The Mammoth’s unmodified portions, it gives a sense of the longevity of such a place, how many lives it has been through, and what’s to come for it. I marvel at such forces at work in one place, and I look forward to Conaway’s plans for the future. The Mammoth is thriving, and has plenty of space to keep doing so.
Pictures courtesy of Aron Conaway.