It’s no coincidence that on the coldest day of the year, a relic of Louisville’s music scene is being torn to pieces. We’ve been watching slow progress of the building’s demise for months, and we’ve known this day — demolition day — was coming since founder Ben Rogers shuttered its doors on June 1, 2015.
Although a $50 million mixed-use housing complex will supersede the once-thriving nightclub, nothing will replace the memories many Louisvillians experienced in that dark, sordid maze of a complex. Part bar, part music venue, part playground for adults — or at least those 18 and over during college night — Phoenix Hill stood the test of time since 1976 and hosted everyone from Meatloaf to Miley Cyrus.
Some of you heard My Morning Jacket and the Velcro Pygmies for the first time there; some of you fell down the stairs; some of you hung your bras from the big fan in the Saloon; some of you made friends with the bathroom attendant; some of you got engaged; and some of you broke up in the Roof Garden.
Whether the memories are good, bad or embarrassing, they happened at a place that welcomed everyone — as long as you were of age and had money, you were invited in to experience a wild night that couldn’t be had at a downtown lounge or Highlands pub.
The last time I stepped foot inside was to observe the Wardlow Auctions crew dismantle the thousands of pieces of memorabilia strewn throughout place. It felt eerie and inappropriate to be there. The bar had been frozen in time, and when the lights came on, it felt as if it could just reopen and resume its place among Louisville’s most notorious nightclubs.
But the opposite happened: The dance cages were taken apart. The pole many people swung on became just another piece of abandoned shrapnel. The fans came down, the old-timey advertisements were stacked in a corner, the neon lights were unplugged.
That was the day the music died in the space, and now those spirits have been set free as four decades of mischievous memories come to an end. The building is being torn down floor by floor, and a large gaping hole exposes the back wall.
A sign near the front door still reads: “Thanks Louisville. It was great” — as if it was leaving a note on your nightstand as it snuck out the back door.
A cliche comes to mind, but it seems fitting for this occasion: Phoenix Hill Tavern soon will be gone, but it will never be forgotten.