Construction had recently begun on the much-anticipated 111 Whiskey Row, a redevelopment project that promised to transform three dilapidated historic buildings into a mixed-use space with a restaurant, retail and offices. A commercial property broker has been marketing the project to potential lessees, and while no tenants have been announced, interest has been high, according to one of the developers.
That makes sense, given the buildings’ prominence in the strip of cast-iron facades that make up Whiskey Row. They occupy not only a key real estate position in the redevelopment and rebranding of downtown Louisville; they represent a victory for preservationists, an early brokering of competing business interests for Mayor Greg Fischer, and a direct link to a boozy past that city boosters are seeking to revive to meet the world’s growing interest in bourbon.
Their unique architecture and commercial significance in the city’s early days as a booming trade city and their reimagined roles today make the buildings of Whiskey Row a key part of the city’s fabric and a point of pride for many here.
For now, though, their redevelopment is on hold.
Nearly four years after a group of investors closed on those three buildings — 111, 113 and 115 W. Main St. — as well as the next two west, which Brown-Forman will turn into the Old Forester Distillery, and after a nasty fight over preserving the historic buildings that city government had slated for demolition, they burned Monday evening and into Tuesday. The fire gutted the structures from the basements to the roofs, which are no longer there.
As the rain continued early Tuesday afternoon, three handfuls of Louisville firefighters were still on the scene, working to extinguish the smoldering hotspots. At a morning presser, a fire department official warned that the storms could put the remaining parts of the structures, which date back to 1870, at risk of collapse. The department expects to have personnel at Whiskey Row well into Tuesday night.
Craig Greenberg, who along with Valle Jones is a co-developer behind 111 Whiskey Row, said Tuesday morning they were working with the fire department to assess when it might be safe to get a structural engineering team to the site to assess the viability of what remains.
“Not only the facades took a beating, but so much of the rest of the building was lost from fire and water damage — just from fighting the fire — that the structural integrity of the facades, we still need to figure that out,” Greenberg said.
Brown-Forman, which is planning a groundbreaking event on its $45 million Old Forester Distillery — adjacent to 111 Whiskey Row — later this month, is also awaiting a report from its structural engineers on the status of its buildings.
“As far was we can tell (Tuesday) morning, there is little or no damage to our two Old Forester Distillery buildings,” said spokesman Phil Lynch. “But we won’t know for sure until we can get structural engineers into the building to inspect. That’s probably not going to happen to until later this week.”
Lynch said if they get the all-clear, the distillery’s construction schedule will remain the same, with an expected open date near the end of 2016.
The future of 111 Whiskey Row is decidedly less certain. Greenberg said it’s too soon to discuss specifics of the multimillion-dollar project’s future, but there is no doubt the fire is a catastrophic setback.
“Our team is firmly committed to continuing with this project and to continuing the historic revitalization of Whiskey Row,” he told IL, his tone a mix of defiance and fatigue.
Fischer, who spoke to media gathered at the scene Monday night, tweeted a photo of the buildings’ facades, two streams of water coming at them from opposite sides. He managed to capture the general sentiment with his accompanying message: “The physical buildings of Whiskey Row may burn, but our city’s history can’t be destroyed.”
The history of those buildings nearly concluded in 2011, in part because of Fischer, when they were slated for demolition to make way for developer Todd Blue’s proposed Iron Quarter. Amid stiff resistance from preservationists, Fischer settled a lawsuit Blue filed after city officials denied his request to tear down the buildings. Under the terms of the deal, Metro would allow the demolition to proceed after a 90-day period, during which Fischer’s administration sought a private buyer for the buildings. A group of investors including Christy Brown, Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, Edie Bingham, Jim and Marianne Welch, the Rev. Al Shands, and Brown-Forman ultimately bought the five buildings for $4.85 million on July 29, 2011.
That deal included a $1.5 million, zero-interest loan from Metro government to be forgiven in $100,000 increments for every $1 million investors spend on the development and stabilization of the facades — including the two in front of Blue’s surface parking lot, which occupies the corner lots at the eastern edge of the Whiskey Row strip. According to the development agreement, which IL obtained via an open records request, the loan is on a seven-year term. The group would have to spend $15 million for the loan to be fully forgiven.
Chris Poynter, spokesman for Fischer, told IL the investors and developers have not yet submitted invoices for any loan forgiveness. They would not have to, theoretically, until July 29, 2018 — seven years after the deal closed.
Valle Jones said the developers and investors have spent approximately $12 million on the five buildings and facades so far. According to Greenberg, that investment will continue.
“I think these buildings and all of the historic buildings on Whiskey Row are a very important part of the city’s history, authenticity, uniqueness,” Greenberg said. “And the attention that this unfortunate event has received, and the outpouring of support we’ve received, goes to show how important history and historic buildings are to what makes Louisville so special.”
Christy Brown said she is thankful no one was hurt during the fire, which she called a “heartbreaking tragedy.”
“These buildings are an iconic symbol in our community of its rich history,” she said. “They are also an important symbol of how, when a community comes together, we can find the appropriate creative solutions to protect our cultural heritage so as to lead to vibrant growth and economic progress.”
Marianne Zickuhr, executive director of Preservation Louisville, echoed that sentiment.
“At a time like this, I am reminded of how important it is to conserve what we have and to value it as part of the fabric of our heritage,” she said.