Written by Walter Munday, Outreach and Volunteer Manager for Metro Parks.
Although the evolution of public parks here in Louisville most often is associated with Frederick Law Olmsted and his visit to Louisville in 1891, it was actually George Rogers Clark who designated areas for public lands on his 1779 map which laid the City of Louisville. After the city incorporated in 1780, it was a century later before city leaders seriously began thinking about parks, and in 1880, established the city’s first public park – Baxter Square Park between 11th & 12th Streets along Jefferson Street.
According to an article published in the Courier Journal Magazine on September 9, 1956, Baxter Square, prior to becoming the city’s first public park, was a cemetery. The graveyard made up lots Nos. 253, 254, 255, and 256 on an old plat of Louisville, and had been reserved as a public burying ground by the city trustees on May 4, 1786.
By 1820, the cemetery was filling up fast. In 1822, the yellow fever epidemic had hit Louisville hard, and as many as eight bodies were being buried there daily. These conditions prompted city leaders to acquire, in 1830, about 10 acres on Jefferson Street between what is now 15th & 18th Streets for a new graveyard which was named Western Cemetery. The old cemetery was closed.
A rumor began circulating that the old cemetery was going to be laid out in lots and sold, which caused many people to have their loved ones’ bodies moved to the new graveyard, or to private cemeteries throughout the city/county. It wasn’t too long afterwards that the old graveyard land, which was already on the edge of the city at that time, would become a lonely and desolate place where drinking and fighting routinely took place.
Several attempts to convert the old graveyard into a park were made, but never materialized. During the Civil War, the land was used for camping ground. After the war, the old cemetery was used as a children playground.
Finally, in 1880, under the leadership of Mayor John G. Baxter, a resolution was drafted and approved to improve the cemetery by constructing gates, walks and benches so that it could be used for the public benefit. Two fountains were built along with a new bandstand in the center of the square. The park was named Baxter Square Park in honor of Mayor Baxter. Soon after the park was completed, many concerts took place there. Baxter Square Park was the center of entertainment in the city.
All that changed ten years later when a tornado tore through Louisville and nearly destroyed the park. Many of the old, beautiful canopy trees were uprooted, and fences were damaged. The photos below show damage to the wrought gates and the tree canopy destruction from the tornado.
By the end of that year (1890), the city leaders stepped in again. This time, it was under Mayor Charles D. Jacob. He deeded the land to the newly established Board of Park Commissioners, and plans to restore the park to its former glory were underway.
At this time, the new Board of Park Commissioners, which included: General John B. Castleman, John Finzer, Andrew Cowan, Gottlieb Layer E.C. Bohne and Thomas H. Sherley had not only the renovations to Baxter Square Park on their agenda. Cowan, who had led the Salmagundi Club in proposing three large suburban parks in 1887, had convinced city leaders to move forward on his vision. Cowan invited Olmsted to speak at the Pendennis Club on May 20, 1891. Two days following his speech, Olmsted signed a contract to design a Louisville park system.
While Baxter Square Park was restored with an Olmsted-design, it never regained its former popularity. The city’s business development was moving east, and Baxter Square ceased to be in the center of town. By 1892, the focus was on the development of Iroquois, Shawnee and Cherokee Parks as well as Logan Place, Kenton Place and Boone Square Parks.
In 1941, the Beecher Terrace housing project was completed. A 30 foot strip of land was acquired by the Parks Board by judgment for the purpose of closing Liberty Street between 11th and 12th for park purposes. A recreation hall was also constructed. Today, the two acres which make up Baxter Square Park includes basketball courts, a picnic pavilion, a playground, spray-ground, tennis courts, and the former recreation hall which was converted to what is now the Baxter Square Community Center.
While Olmsted deserves significant credit for his role in developing our city’s park system, let’s not forget all of the others who played a significant role in the creation of one of our nation’s oldest park systems. Also, let’s not forget, that it all started on an old cemetery we know as Baxter Square Park.