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.”
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 repurposing. According 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.