When the waters of the Great Flood of 1937 began to recede from the streets of Louisville, they left a soggy mess behind. Floodwaters had submerged large sections of the city, but one neighborhood had been almost completely destroyed. The Point had been a posh neighborhood, full of mansions built in the 1840s by wealthy transplants from New Orleans. The area flooded several times over the years, but the Great Flood of 1937 sealed the neighborhood’s fate once and for all. The Point had been washed away by the floodwaters and would never return.
Instead, the sodden wreckage from those mansions was hauled to a 23-acre site along Ohio Street that eventually became known as the Ohio Street Dump. This once-grand neighborhood was now a scene of urban blight. Wild pigs scavenged for scraps in the open dump, and the dumping of coal ash frequently caused fires that would smolder for days at a time.
The landfill was finally capped with 25 feet of dirt in 1973, and the site sat quiet and empty for nearly 45 years. All that’s changing now, thanks to the Waterfront Botanical Gardens organization and its executive director, Kasey Maier ’77. “There have been efforts to build botanical gardens in Louisville for more than 30 years,” Kasey said. “It’s been very rewarding to be part of making that dream into a reality.”
In 2013, Waterfront Botanical Gardens sealed a development deal with the city of Louisville, allowing them to buy the 23-acre site for a dollar. Starting with an initial $1.5 million bequest, the organization has raised another $6 million to date—enough to break ground on the first phase of an ambitious three-part plan.
For Kasey, who joined Waterfront Botanical Gardens as their first full-time employee four years ago, it’s been exhilarating. “When I got involved, my goal was just to raise awareness in the community. I started doing everything I could to get the word out, on hardly any money—having events, using social media, newsletters, everything we could do to get our name out there.” The word has certainly gotten out: more than 300 people attended the groundbreaking ceremony on September 15, including many former and current city and state government officials.
The first phase of the project will focus on construction of the Graeser Education Center, a 6,000-square-foot, glass-enclosed facility featuring classrooms, a kitchen, and conference facilities. “We’re starting with the education center because environmental education is what our mission is all about,” Kasey said. “The event venue will hold 250 people and will let us start bringing in revenue to support our operations.” This phase of the project will take about 18 months and is scheduled to open in April of 2019.
Following the completion of the education center, development will focus on creating a plaza and education gardens around the building as well as an overlook over Beargrass Creek, which runs along the eastern side of the site.
Further plans include more gardens surrounding a visitor center that will include a restaurant, gift shop, and offices. “The visitor center will be a beautiful, sloping building with a green roof. We’ll actually have green grass growing on top of the roof, which slopes up to give you a beautiful view of downtown and the bridges.”
The final phase of the project focuses on a conservatory, which will also offer sweeping views of the Ohio River and downtown.
Kasey said that it’s been thrilling to be a part of the greening of Louisville’s waterfront and the revitalization of the communities around it. “Neighborhood revitalization is a big part of this project,” she said. “It’s impacting the surrounding neighborhoods in a big way. Butchertown’s getting ready to skyrocket—first the botanical gardens and hopefully the soccer stadium next.” [On October 26, Louisville Metro Council approved a deal paving the way for a $200 million development district around a new soccer stadium—Ed.]
Kasey believes that the botanical gardens will be an important cultural asset for the city. “For me, the most important thing it can offer is environmental education. We want it to be available to every child in the city. They can get their hands in the dirt and start learning what it means to take care of a garden and what it means to take care of the Earth—why clean soil is important, why clean air is important. They can have those experiences and have fun at the same time.”
Kasey spent the first part of her career in banking and finance. Facing a career transition in 2008, she realized that her skills could be put to good use in the nonprofit world. “I found that the business skills I had developed in the banking and finance world over all those years mapped over to the nonprofit world quite beautifully,” she recalled.
In 2009, she became the business partner of Louisville artist Churchill Davenport, helping him launch what is now the Kentucky College of Art & Design at Spalding University. “We built [the art school] from nothing,” she said. “When I left in 2013, we had 11 full-time employees, 35,000 square feet, and 50 students.”
Changing careers can be a daunting task, but Kasey says that the confidence she learned at KCD has been invaluable. “What makes you successful is having the guts and confidence to keep moving forward,” she said. “KCD was an environment that helped me build confidence in so many different ways. Anything I wanted to be involved in, I could be involved in. I learned that if I wanted to do something, I could learn to do it and do it well, and that there were people there to guide me.
“At KCD, I learned that the point is not to be the best, because there’s always going to be somebody who’s prettier, smarter, or more talented than you are. The point is to find where you belong on a team and how to contribute to make that team successful. It’s about finding out where you belong, and I found that at KCD.”
For now, Kasey has found that she belongs with the Waterfront Botanical Gardens. As she walks the site, describing the gardens and buildings that will soon take shape there, you can tell that she’s caught up in the excitement of bringing these plans to life, this dream of a garden growing on this forgotten spot on the banks of the Ohio River.