A history of UofL’s Belknap campus

I was recently discussing the addition of new buildings to the architectural landscape of the University of Louisville with another former student.  The conversation eventually turned to the history of the site prior to its use by the University.  There is nothing like working in a library when it comes to satisfying your curiosity regarding local history.  With a little research, I found that the former uses of UofL’s Belknap property include: a cemetery, a Civil War hospital, and a correctional facility for children.

In 1850, the land that would become the University of Louisville’s Belknap campus was sold to the city for use as a public cemetery.  At the time, the land was located in the southern sector of the city, and the cemetery, called Oakland, was intended to meet the burial needs of citizens in that section.  However, Oakland (also called Southern Cemetery) was never a popular resting place for Louisvillians.  An editorial in the Daily Courier on June 22, 1859 stated “many people believe it is not a desirable place for a burial ground” and “no one has been found willing to purchase a lot or bury his dead in the Southern Cemetery.”

An image of the buildings composing the House of Refuge campus. From the Fifteenth Annual Report of the Louisville House of Refuge, a pamphlet in the Filson library collection.

Since Oakland Cemetery was defunct, the city considered other uses for the land.  By 1860, the city had approved the transfer of land from Oakland Cemetery to an organization called the House of Refuge.  The House of Refuge had been founded back in 1854 to address problems of juvenile delinquency, with the goal of establishing a correctional facility for children in the city.  After several years without a campus, the land belonging to Oakland Cemetery seemed ideal for repurposingAccording to an April 18, 1860 article in the Daily Courier, citizens buried at Oakland were reinterred at Cave Hill Cemetery.  The city appropriated $60,000 for the House of Refuge, and by 1860 the first buildings were under construction. 

However, the Civil War commenced as the buildings were nearing completion, and the Union army seized the facilities for use as hospitals.  By 1863, nineteen temporary hospitals were operating in Louisville to serve Union and Confederate wounded.  At the end of the war, the buildings belonging to the House of Refuge were relinquished by the military and the first child was admitted in 1865.

Although its charter originally allowed for coeducation, the first inmates of the House were overwhelmingly male.  As the school facilities expanded over the next decades, buildings were added to house girls as well as African American children of both sexes.  In addition to dormitories, the campus also included a library, workshops, laundries, and a chapel.  Children studied arithmetic, geography, and writing in the campus classrooms.  They also labored in the laundries, shoe shop, sewing room, garden and farm, and greenhouses.

In 1886, the House of Refuge was renamed the Industrial School of Reform and in 1920 it relocated to a more rural setting in Lyndon.  In 1923, the University of Louisville purchased the property.  Some of the buildings of the former House of Refuge are still in use as Ford, Gardiner, Jouett, and Gottschalk Halls.

The grounds of the Louisville House of Refuge from the Fifteenth Annual Report. The House of Refuge is also documented in the Filson's manuscript holdings, including the Henry Whitestone Architectural Sketch and Account Books.

Jana Meyer

Jana Meyer is an Associate Curator of Collections. She received a degree in History from the University of Louisville and a master's degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Kentucky. Jana specializes in arranging and describing the Filson's manuscript collections. In her free time, she enjoys playing board games and hiking with her husband and three-legged dog, Rascal.

7 comments on “A history of UofL’s Belknap campus

  1. Mary Bennett Singleton

    My Great Grandfather,Peter Elder Caldwell, was superintendent of the House of Refuge. We have several pictures of the home and grounds.

  2. Jana Meyer

    Hello Mary, thanks for commenting. Your pictures sound very interesting. I’d love to see them sometime!

  3. David B.

    Thanks for this background, very interesting. I would be curious to know if records indicate whether any of the buildings still in use by U of L were among the nearly completed structures seized by the army and used as hospitals. Were early versions of Ford etc actually hospital buildings?

    1. Jana Meyer

      Hi David, thanks for commenting — I had fun tracking down the answer to your question! The House of Refuge’s first building was completed in 1861 and named after John G. Baxter, president of the institution (and later mayor of Louisville). The Baxter building was used as a Union hospital during the Civil War. It was damaged by fire and torn down in 1925 to make way for the Speed Art museum. Several buildings on UofL’s Belknap campus date from when the House of Refuge used the site, including Jouett, Ford, Gardiner, Gottschalk, Patterson, and the Belknap Playhouse Theater. The oldest surviving building is Gardiner Hall, which was completed in 1872. Thus, none of the surviving buildings at UofL date from the time period when the campus was used as a Civil War hospital. (This information from “The University of Louisville” by Dwayne D. Cox and William J. Morison, University Press of Kentucky, 2000.)

  4. Lisa Pepper

    This is great! I’m an early 90s grad (History Dept), but the info on the University was sketchy. Thanks for the info on the book

  5. Travis F Davis

    Does anyone here know of the total acreage of what became the Belknap campus at the time of the 1925 acquisition by UofL ?

    1. Jana Meyer

      Hi Travis,
      You are in luck — we have several histories of the University of Louisville in our library. The first one I checked lists the size of the property at the time of the 1925 acquisition as 47 acres (see pages 67-68, in “The University of Louisville” by Dwayne D. Cox and William J. Morison, University Press of Kentucky, 2000.) Another source says that the property consisted of “about 40 acres and numerous buildings at Third and Shipp streets” (see pages 185-186, A centennial history of the University of Louisville / by Kentucky Writers Project. University of Louisville, 1939.) Also, it wasn’t named Belknap Campus until 1927 and was initially known as University Campus.


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