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    Almost from the time it was granted incorporation rights as a city of 7,000 in 1828, Louisville faced huge social-service conundrums, such as what to do about its desperately poor, its sick and disabled, its orphans and otherwise displaced citizens, its laggards and criminals, its dead and endgame aging. The forbidding, penitentiary-like structure you see here, built circa-1850 and greatly expanded in 1879, was supposed to supply the answer to at least a few of those concerns when earlier efforts west of Eighth Street became inadequate. Deemed the city’s workhouse/almshouse, it was located near the corner of Payne Street and Lexington Road, adjacent to Cave Hill Cemetery, on land — known as the Johnston farm — the city had purchased as much for its easily quarried limestone beds as for its burial capacity. Breslin Park occupies the workhouse grounds today.

    The Johnston family residence, built in 1788 atop a hillock that’s now part of Cave Hill’s Section 1, was repurposed as the city’s “pesthouse” — a quarantining facility for those with infectious diseases — in the mid 1840s, a couple of years before the cemetery’s official opening. Originally, workhouse inmates, sentenced to pay off their court costs and fines for misdemeanor crimes through sunup-to-sundown labor, including brick-making and breaking limestone for macadam roads and street curbs, were joined by the children of disabled and aged almshouse tenants, who toiled on the workhouse farm. The untenable pooling of guilty and innocent was remedied in 1851 when the almshouse was relocated to Duncan Street in Portland, and, in 1858, a second almshouse was established in Jeffersontown. (The last of the city-county poorhouses would open in Shively in 1874 and close in 1953.)

    With suburbs and municipalities sprouting up along the Third Street, Bardstown Road, Preston Street and Frankfort Avenue corridors in the post-Civil War era, cut limestone was in high demand, and the limestone quarried at Cave Hill by workhouse inmates (the site is just north of the main lake) was supplemented by a half-dozen other quarries along both sides of Daisy Lane (Grinstead Drive), including one where the Crescent Hill Woman’s Club now stands and one that encloses the Crescent Springs Condominiums. You can see quarrying results in many of the retaining walls and bridges along city streets and in Olmsted Parks.

    So in demand was that quarried stone that in 1879 Mayor Charles D. Jacob expanded the city workhouse from one four-tier cellblock to four of them, two brick and two limestone, surrounding a newly constructed superintendent’s residence. As imposing and impressive as the workhouse looks in the photo, the county couldn’t wait to close it in 1954. The reason? The downtown jail had a surplus of cells to fill and needed the bodies.

    Arrangements to raze the workhouse were beaten to the punch by a three-alarm fire in 1968.

    This originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Heart of Stone." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo from U of L Archives.

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