Filson Expansion Lightens Up Historic Louisville

Filson Expansion Lightens Up Historic Louisville

The Filson Historical Society’s new building references its Victorian-era context with massing and material palette, yet makes a modern statement.
Courtesy De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop

Since 1986, the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky has enjoyed an enviable home at the Ferguson Mansion, a turn-of-the-century structure set within one of America’s largest Victorian historic districts. But that made designing the society’s $6.4 million expansion especially fraught, given the institution’s aim to include educational space, offices, a 250-seat lecture hall, museum storage, and a landscaped plaza within the traditional Old Louisville neighborhood.

Fortunately, local firm De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop chose to look toward the future rather than replicate the society’s Victorian past, and its flairful approach to contextual design unanimously passed the Metro Louisville Landmarks Commission yesterday, setting the stage for a fundraising campaign this fall.

Tasked with setting a modern structure onto what is currently a parking lot, De Leon & Primmer reconsidered the typology of the area’s Italianate residences. “Part of the design is a representation of the typical Old Louisville house—load-bearing brick shells and heavy, carved-oak interiors,” principal Ross Primmer explained. The firm undertook extensive analysis of the historic neighborhood fabric to guide the design, and then set about translating Victorian methods to a modern idiom. “The detail that came from the tradition of carving the stone, molding the brick, and carving the oak is now detail coming from the infinite lengths, widths, and fluidity of current building methods, namely thin brick veneer and thin wood veneer,” Primmer said.

The new building’s massing is broken up with expanses of glass that add porosity while putting the society’s collection on display.

Unburdened by the heavy solidity of traditional design, the Filson’s design peels away space in distinctly modern ways to reveal expanses of glass underneath. Interior spaces are independently set away from the structure to reinforce this modern sensibility.

Still, Roberto de Leon characterized the project as “contextually specific” rather than “modern.” He explained that many aspects of the new building—massing, material palette, articulation—reflect the traditional neighborhood. “The primary difference is that we are deliberately expressing these elements in a way that we construct them today, through a composite layering of non-load bearing materials that allows for a more visually porous building that engages the community.”

A broad public plaza fronts on West Ormsby Avenue, creating axial passageways through the campus while preserving space for additional phases of expansion.

Surrounding the new structure, a landscaped plaza creates axial pedestrian promenades to connect the Filson campus and offers potential future expansion space. A central pedestrian artery runs past a three-story glass wall in the new building, displaying artifacts from the society’s collection—known for its nationally significant holdings on the history of Kentucky and the Ohio Valley—and allowing interior and exterior spaces to blend together.

Neighboring residents and business owners applauded the new design at the landmarks commission meeting on August 11. Bob Keesaer, Metro Planning & Design Project Architect, said the review process has been designed to encourage architecture that pays homage to historic context without creating false histories. “We are actually creating history today,” Keesaer said. “Fifty or 100 years from now, our own buildings will be landmarks.” With commission approval in hand, the society expects construction could begin in three to four years.