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The Vault: Louisville's Brown Hotel roars back to life

The Brown Hotel in downtown is a Louisville landmark. For a moment, it's future was uncertain. Here's how the hotel made a glamourous comeback.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The “Roaring Twenties” and World Wars were time for great success for the Brown Hotel.

It was described as exciting, fun and magical. With a bustling downtown Louisville, it made it a glamourous and convenient choice for hotel guests.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the interest in downtown dwindled and so did the fortune of the Brown Hotel.

Two years after the hotel’s founder James Graham Brown died, financial shortfalls force the operation to shut down and then new interest almost brought new opportunity.

The Jefferson County Board of Education had purchased the Brown for office and classroom space but in 1979, they abandoned it and said they had enough of the old, worn out building.

It sat empty for four years until 1983 when the Broadway Renaissance Project got involved and renovations began.

The project was a public and private partnership with the goal of revitalizing downtown Louisville that would change the face of Fourth Street.

Credit: WHAS-TV
A TARC bus travels from Fourth Street onto West Broadway in front of the Brown Hotel in this 1980's photo.

Those plans included restorations of the historic hotel, a parking garage, Theatre Square, renovations at the Old Ohio Theater Marquee building, along with several apartment and condominium complexes in the heart of the city.

Professional artisans were brought in to perform the painstaking restoration. Painting, sculpting, removing walls and refinishing – it was a huge job.

After completion, the price tag was more than $22 million to restore the Brown. The rooms were fewer, but they were bigger and modern.

The magic of the hotel returned in January 1985 as it reopened in all its splendid glory. The Brown was under new management and held a celebration with 600 invited guests including Kentucky’s top politicos like then Governor Martha Layne Collins, Mayor Harvey Sloane and Senator Mitch McConnell.

“Glad to be here. This is an exciting evening after years of work to put the Brown back on its feet,” he told WHAS11 News.

Credit: WHAS-TV
The Jefferson County Board of Education was once housed at the Brown Hotel before its renovations in the 1970's.

The night festivities included not only dancing, but also a banquet, live music and a dedication ceremony.

Barry Bingham Sr., who owned WHAS-TV and radio along with the Courier-Journal marked a new beginning of the hotel, 61 years after his father Judge Robert Worth Bingham dedicated the original hotel.

“I’m proposing a toast to the Brown Hotel of the past so fondly remembered. The Brown Hotel of the present of which we are justly proud but most of all, The Brown Hotel of the future. I know it will be a very, very bright one. Let’s drink to it,” he said.

Credit: WHAS-TV
Renovations inside Louisville's Brown Hotel in the 1980's.

To this day, The Brown Hotel remains as a testament to the rebirth of Louisville as a destination city.

The Hotel also claims to be the birth place of the original "Kentucky Hot Brown" – an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and mornay sauce.

According to the hotel’s history, a chef first created the dish in the 1920s as a late-night option for guests who had finished dancing and wanted something filling before heading to bed.

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