The iconic Hogan’s Fountain Pavilion in Cherokee Park was granted a lifeline Wednesday when a city committee voted against demolishing the deteriorating structure.
Louisville Metro’s Parks and Recreation Department had sought to tear down the 1965 structure, which it argued is too structurally unsound to remain standing and too costly to repair. But after nearly two hours of presentations and public comment, the city’s Individual Landmarks Architectural Review Committee voted 4-1 to deny the request.
Because the pavilion was designated a local landmark in 2012, additional protections require demolition to be weighed by that committee. Its members said they respected the structure’s historic and sentimental value and were encouraged by a preliminary analysis from a structural engineer showing options to save the pavilion, though he ultimately concluded such work wouldn’t be economical or preserve its architectural design.
“It’s clearly become beloved,” said committee member Ashlyn Ackerman. “I think there’s a way to save this.”
Another member, Daniel Preston, said he didn’t want to vote to approve demolition when an alternate plan — involving steel reinforcement — was being presented and could be further explored.
Public comment Wednesday was nearly entirely against the demolition, with speakers highlighting personal memories tied to the space and praising it for its unique Mid-Century Modern aesthetics.
The sole vote in favor of demolition was Robert Kirchdorfer, director of Louisville’s Codes and Regulations Department, who said while the structure is also special to him, it was “on the verge” of being an imminent danger, as evidenced by its measurable movement and rotting.
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Kirchdorfer told The Courier Journal the fencing around the structure, installed last May to keep the public a safe distance away, is one reason why his department hasn’t deemed it an imminent threat. But that determination could be made any time, depending on the state of the structure, and a subsequent emergency demolition order would trump the committee’s vote.
Jason Canuel, assistant director of Metro Parks and Recreation, said no decision has been made about whether to appeal. That call would be made by parks department leadership in consultation with the mayor’s office, he said.
The parks department can appeal in one of two ways.
It can submit a procedural appeal to the Landmarks Commission, which would review the lower committee’s finding for error, or pursue an “economic hardship exemption” through which the city would need to show that not allowing the demolition would deny the city “any reasonable beneficial use” or “any reasonable return” on the property.
A structure in disrepair
The 62-foot pavilion closed to the public in May 2022 after a report from a citizen and subsequent inspection led to discovery of rotting on the eight wooden arches that make up the cone-shaped structure.
Wood rot has been a problem before. The structure underwent a series of repairs in 1979, 1983 and 1989 to wrap the wooden beams in steel support sheaths.
Over the last nine months, structural engineers found severe deterioration throughout the beams, with wood so rotted that it was soft to the touch and, in some spots, nonexistent. One side has also shifted inches downward while the opposite side has moved upward in response.
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A 3-inch movement seen last May is now around 5 inches, said Jason Burkett, a structural engineer with consulting firm Tetra Tech.
“One thing that’s apparent to us is the structure’s moving,” he said. “It is not sitting static.”
Canuel closed his presentation Wednesday by opining the pavilion poses an imminent threat to public safety.
Repeating figures he gave in November 2022 at a Metro Council Parks and Sustainability Committee meeting, Canuel said repair costs ranged from $900,000 to $1.3 million while demolition would cost $56,000.
In an interview, Canual noted the budget ordinance approved in December 2022 allocated $100,000 for “shoring or demolition” of the structure, down from $1.4 million in budget surplus funds originally proposed for repairs.
Why is there a “teepee” in Cherokee Park?
Sitting atop Bonnycastle Hill in Cherokee Park, the pavilion is named for the nearby Hogan’s Fountain, though its shape has inspired other names, including “Teepee” and “Witch’s Hat.”
The structure was commissioned in 1964 and built the following year at the beloved public park, designed by acclaimed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in the late 1800s
The pavilion’s designer wanted to honor the park’s namesake by using natural materials and modeling the structure after a tipi, a conical dwelling used by Native Americans of the Great Plains.
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The Cherokee Nation, however, notes on its website that Cherokees aren’t believed to have lived in tipis. Rather, they transitioned from cave dwelling to wattle and daub homes through the 1700s and by the 1800s were living in log cabins.
In 2010, the pavilion faced an uncertain future when the city and Olmsted Parks Conservancy issued its master plan for the Hogan’s Fountain area. It concluded the structure wasn’t in keeping with Olmsted’s vision for the park and should be replaced with two smaller shelters.
A preservation group formed to push back, and the city agreed to not raze the structure if the group could raise enough money to restore it. The group raised more than $70,000 for roof and other repairs, including $10,000 from the family of the pavilion’s architect, E.J. Schickli Jr., The Courier Journal previously reported.
Multiple speakers referenced that history at Wednesday’s hearing, questioning if the parks department would seriously explore ways to preserve what they view as an iconic gem of Louisville’s park system.
Canuel previously told a Metro Council committee that a replacement pavilion would likely be smaller and structurally similar to the nearby Stegner Pavilion, built in 2018 for $375,000 (he noted 2023 costs would likely be closer to $500,000.)
He said that the master plan is a non-definitive “guide” now more than a decade old. A replacement structure has not been identified, he said, and any new structure would likely involve public input.
Business reporter Matthew Glowicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 502-582-4000 or on Twitter @mattglo.