Discover Our Historic Louisville Hotel's Fascinating Past
A Brief History of a Long Louisville Tradition
Our historic Louisville story is one of fairytale romance and unforgiving reality, played out against the backdrop of some of the most remarkable events of the early 20th century. The Great Depression, the Ohio River Flood of 1937, World War II – each of these milestone events helped to shape the history of our storied hotel.
Built by wealthy Louisville businessman J. Graham Brown, the Brown Hotel opened in downtown Louisville at the corner of Fourth and Broadway on October 25, 1923. That year, Louisville was the 34th largest city in the country with a population of 235,000. Fourth Street was already an established promenade and the Brown became the cornerstone of "The Magic Corner." In the decades since, our historic hotel has played a starring role in the life of Louisville.
The Brown opened in 1923, only 10 months after construction began, at the cost of four million dollars. David Lloyd George, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, became the first person to sign the guest register. The 16-story concrete and steel hotel was built in the Georgian Revival style, faced in brick and trimmed in stone and terra cotta. The interior design of the Brown is primarily of the English Renaissance style with Adams period detail.
"Magic Corner" Hotel in Louisville Takes on a Whole New Meaning
The hotel quickly became the city's business and social center, bringing a new energy to downtown Louisville. Soon a lavish theater, a church and a large medical and professional building opened adjacent to the hotel. In 1925, J. Graham Brown built the Brown Office Building just east of the hotel, which included the recently refurbished Brown Theatre.
These were memorable years. Lily Pons, while playing at the Brown Theatre, let her pet lion cub roam free in her suite. Al Jolson, also playing at the Theatre, got in a fight in the hotel's English Grill, but said everything was all right—his makeup would cover the shiner. Queen Marie of Romania visited in 1926 and was entertained in the Crystal Ballroom, complete with red carpet and a gold throne on a dais. Victor Mature had a brief career as an elevator operator at the hotel before earning fame in Hollywood.
Prohibition was in effect from the time the hotel opened until 1933, and the Great Depression of the 1930's stalled J. Graham Brown's businesses. In 1931, Brown defaulted on the loan that had financed the hotel, and the bank threatened to foreclose. Financing was rearranged and Brown kept the hotel, but not without painful steps, including a humble appeal to employees to work temporarily without pay.
A Period of Transition for Historic Louisville Hotels
In January 1937, the Ohio River rose, invading Louisville. Nearly a thousand people from low-lying areas sought refuge in the hotel and found themselves stranded for ten days. A witness recalled, "We were rowing down Broadway and there was the Brown Hotel. The doors were open and the place was filled with water so we just rowed our boat in one door, went through the lobby and rowed out another." Spirits remained high, however. Charcoal grills in makeshift kitchens fed the multitudes, and bucket brigades carried water up the 15 flights of stairs to flush toilets. During the flood, the bell captain caught a fish in the second floor lobby.
Boom time for the Brown and downtown Louisville began with World War II. While waiting for word from the front, soldiers from Fort Knox and Louisville residents sought relief from the anxieties of war at The Brown. A bell captain remembered, "We were busiest during the War. Check-in at 5:00 p.m. was the worst. Two or three trains a day would come from Fort Knox—soldiers lined up for hours waiting for a room." A bartender noted, "Everybody had more money than they had ever seen before. Business was booming and you couldn't get bartenders. We'd hire anything that could walk and breathe."
The Star of Historic Louisville Hotels Comes into Its Own
Through the years, the Brown's public rooms provided tremendous visibility and customer loyalty for the hotel. Some say more business deals were struck in the English Grill than at any office in town. Countless couples enjoyed a generation of fine entertainers in the Bluegrass Room, and men and women of accomplishment were toasted in the Crystal Ballroom. In fact, many celebrities actually first made a name for themselves in the Bluegrass Room at the Brown Hotel, including George Gobel, Gene Krupa, Clyde McCoy, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin.
Yet no matter how popular the hotel was year-round, nothing could compare to the week of the Kentucky Derby, with Derby night the most important social holiday of the year. "The hotel was more or less like box seats at Churchill Downs—the same people every year and always the best," remembered an employee. Among the many well-known patrons of the Brown's superior accommodations have been the Duke of Windsor, Harry Truman, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Young, Joan Crawford, Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Carter, George H. Bush, and Barack Obama to name just a few.