In 1983, as Dan Stewart passed the corner of 6th and Kentucky Streets in Old Louisville, his imagination was captured by an old building that sat in disrepair. After doing some research, he learned of the building’s place in local history. Founded in 1873 (eight years after the Civil War), the structure was the first black public school in Kentucky, known as the Central Colored School. It would serve as a cultural and educational center for the city’s black community until 1894, when it would be relocated due to overcrowding. In 1917, the building was renamed after kindergarten pioneer Mary D. Hill, continuing as a place of education until 1970. A decade later it was vacant and largely forgotten.
Inspired by the building’s roots, Dan put an idea into motion and purchased the building. Deed in hand, he ventured down to the basement and stood in the stillness of the moment thinking to himself he might be sick. Stricken with doubt, he walked down a line of lockers still lining the wall, opening and closing their doors until he was stopped in his tracks. Inside one of the lockers he would find pages from a large “Dick and Jane” book that had been left behind. It was at that moment that he would have another idea; he would frame those pages and display them in homage to the building’s past. With his mind back on task, he enlisted local firefighters and others in the community to help clean up and restore the structure. In a little over a year’s time the building would become the new home of Stewart. 35 years later, Stewart and The SchoolHouse would face a challenge they never could have imagined.
On Saturday, June 28, 2018, the Louisville fire department received a call for 550 West Kentucky Street. When they arrived there was no smoke or fire, they were instead greeted by an estimated 10,000 gallons of water raining throughout the building. The source of the downpour; a collapsed section of the roof that severed a major water line in the building’s sprinkler system. One of our employees happened to be driving through the area as the fire department entered the building. As water continued to rain down, she was allowed to follow them in and cover computer equipment with tarps in an effort to minimize the damage.
After the water was turned off, it continued to seeped through the ceilings and air ducts, fill light fixtures, and cause plaster to fall from the ceilings and walls. Dan and Kate Stewart were contacted and word spread quickly to the rest of the staff. Stewart is like a family, and several employees dropped what they were doing and headed down to see what could be done to help. Everyone worked quickly to move as much as possible out of the affected rooms, but sadly most of the damage was already done.
The following Monday was an emotional sight as rain blanketed the region. Just below the roof line, there was now a gaping hole where support beams had pushed bricks from the side of the building. After absorbing the shock of everything, Kate gathered everyone together with tears in her eyes and a single goal in mind; to not miss a beat. Equipment was sifted through and everyone set up remotely to make sure deadlines were met. A week later Stewart would move to a temporary location in the heart of downtown Louisville, uncertain of what the future would hold.
Engineers began assessing the extent of the damage as demolition and stabilization was underway, and workers would create a makeshift funnel in the photo studio to divert rainwater out of the building. Artifacts from the building’s past were also discovered; while tearing out walls and carefully removing slate chalkboards, older chalkboards were revealed behind them that still displayed grammar lessons from the building’s past. After the collapsed section of the roof was removed, massive tarps were used to cover the exposed area. Due to bricks still falling from the roof line, the building was fenced off for the safety of the surrounding community. Equipment and belongings were carefully removed by Paul Davis Restoration and loaded into storage containers outside.
“As bad as this is, it still looks better than when I bought it.”
Over the next several weeks, an already devastating situation would grow much worse. All work was halted as engineers were brought in from Nashville, Lexington, and Louisville to determine the cost to restore the building according to the standards of the Louisville Historical Society.
As months went by and seasons changed, weather presented further challenges. Storms ripped through the area, pulling the tarps from the roof leaving the interior exposed to rain and wind. Near constant temperature changes and dampness turned the building into a giant petri-dish creating the perfect environment for mold and fungus to flourish. The damage trickled down through the rest of the building causing paint to peel, plaster to crumble, and floorboards to buckle. Mold wove intricate patterns into ceilings resembling something out of a sci-fi or horror film.
After several months of negotiations and planning, work would finally move forward. Every level of the building received extensive repairs and renovations. Sections of flooring were removed down to the subfloors while walls and ceilings were stripped to the bone. A newly built roof and supports would take shape while the rooms below were gutted leaving a clean slate for renovations to begin. Rooms began to take shape again in the coming months. Encouraged by the progress, thoughts of moving back into The Schoolhouse would soon be a reality.
Sixteen months after Stewart’s world was turned upside down, The SchoolHouse reopened its doors on September 23rd, 2019.
To Leo Post and Paul Davis Restoration, everyone at Stewart can’t thank you enough for your hard work and perseverance.
The Schoolhouse is not just a place of business; it’s a building rich in history, learning, creativity, and a place Stewart continues to proudly call home.