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25 Things You Should Know About Louisville

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Most people know it as the home of the Kentucky Derby, that stylish party full of elaborate hats and mint juleps (followed by two minutes of horse racing). But there’s a lot more to this city of 750,000 than horses and bourbon, including its history as a transportation hub, a nifty collection of Victorian homes, and a signature dish known as the Hot Brown.

1. Louisville owes its existence to a stretch of rapids along the Ohio River known as the Falls of the Ohio. Located just north of the city, the falls posed a barrier to boat transportation in the late 1700s, requiring travelers to stop and portage further downriver. Several communities sprang up along this stopping point, including Louisville, which was fully incorporated as a town in 1780.

2. The name was a tribute to King Louis XVI of France, who had supported American colonists during the Revolutionary War. His countrymen didn’t view him quite as favorably, executing him by guillotine during the French Revolution in 1793.

3. In October of 1803 Meriwether Lewis met William Clark just across the river from Louisville, at the Falls of the Ohio. The two had corresponded for months about their expedition to the Pacific Ocean, and at Clark’s home they got down to the nitty gritty of planning and assembling the Corps of Discovery before setting out less than a month later.

4. Louisville was a major river and railroad transportation hub in the 1800s, serving the steady flow of commerce pushing westward. The city continues that tradition today as the worldwide air hub for UPS, where an average of 1.6 million packages are processed every day. 

5. Proximity to the Ohio River and low-lying land make Louisville prone to flooding. The worst flood, in 1937, submerged 60% of the city and forced 23,000 people to evacuate. Eight years later, the second-worst flood struck, forcing 50,000 out of their homes. Louisville has since installed a 29-mile floodwall system, and it’s credited with preventing widespread damage during ensuing floods. [PDF]

6. Louisville also has an unfortunate history with tornadoes. In 1890, a category 4 tornado ripped through downtown, killing more than 100 people. A Courier-Journal headline proclaimed that the city had been “Visited by the Storm Demon.” Decades later, in 1974, another category 4 tornado hit, destroying several hundred homes and killing two.

7. Horse racing has deep roots in the city. And like all great American sports, it began in the streets. The first reported races date back to the late 1700s on Market Street. Injuries to riders and spectators were apparently quite common, prompting the construction of racetracks like Elm Tree Gardens and Oakland Race Course, both predecessors to the famous Churchill Downs.

8. Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, was a financial failure at first. Founded in 1874 by Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., grandson of explorer William Clark, the track changed owners several times before finally turning a profit after 28 years in business, in 1903.  

9. Churchill Downs was originally called the Louisville Jockey Club. A local newspaper made the first mention of its current name in 1883, in reference to Clark’s uncle, John Churchill, who had formerly owned the 80 acres in what was then a rural area just south of Louisville. The name caught on, and in 1937 the venue was officially incorporated as Churchill Downs.

10. The Kentucky Derby’s signature drink, the Mint Julep, actually originated in Virginia and was typically made with rum instead of bourbon. Word has it the drink was a morning pick-me-up for field hands, who relished its boozy kick and the supposed medicinal properties of the mint. As Kentucky’s bourbon distilling industry grew, the local spirit replaced its Caribbean competitor, and in 1938 the Mint Julep became the official drink of the Derby.

11. Speaking of drinks, a bartender at Louisville’s swanky Pendennis Club is said to have invented the Old Fashioned in 1890.

12. Louisville’s signature dish is a comfort food free-for-all called the Hot Brown. It’s an open-faced sandwich with turkey and bacon smothered in Mornay sauce (main ingredients: butter and heavy cream), topped with Parmesan cheese and roma tomatoes, and oven-broiled. The name refers to the Brown Hotel, where the dish originated in 1920 as an after-hours treat. You can still order a Hot Brown at the hotel’s restaurant, but fair warning: Don’t try to take it down alone.

13. Nineteenth-century architecture enthusiasts, rejoice: Louisville has one of the largest collections of Victorian homes in the country, and the largest collection of cast-iron building facades outside of New York’s SoHo district. [PDF]

14. It’s the starting point for the wildly popular Bourbon Trail, a long weekend’s stumble through several Kentucky distilleries. For those who prefer not to leave town, there’s also the Urban Bourbon Trail, which features tastings at more than 30 local bars.

15. Frederick Law Olmstead, renowned designer of Central Park, designed an extensive parks system in Louisville that includes 18 parks and 6 parkways. Commissioned in 1891, it was the last major project of his career and also one of his largest.

16. Hillerich & Bradsby, makers of Louisville Slugger bats, started out as a woodworking shop in 1864. The owner, J. Frederick Hillerich, a German immigrant, was not a baseball fan, but his son, Bud, was an amateur player. The younger Hillerich, who apprenticed under his father, taught himself how to fashion bats, and according to company legend, offered to make one for local pro Pete Browning after watching Browning break his bat in a game. Browning agreed, and the new bat, made from white ash, delivered three hits in its first game in use. Browning continued to hit well with the bat, and eventually gained the nickname “Louisville Slugger.”

17. Burn, baby, burn! Louisville makes more disco balls than any other city in the U.S. At one point, the Omega National Products factory reportedly produced 90% of the country’s disco balls. There’s a campaign underway to produce the world’s largest disco ball in Louisville. It’s called “World’s Largest Disco Ball, Y’all”.

18. Venture down to the waterfront and there’s a good chance you’ll see the world’s oldest Mississippi River-style steamboat still in operation, The Belle of Louisville.

19. It went from the 67th largest city in the country to the 16th largest—overnight. On January 6, 2003 the city merged with surrounding Jefferson County, nearly tripling the population. Officials touted it as a move towards greater efficiency, but with so many “16th Largest City” signs posted around town, it was clearly a marketing move as well.

20. The largest building in the city (and in the state of Kentucky, for that matter) is a former limestone mine that’s been converted into an amusement park. Its support structures designate the underground cavern—part of a 17-mile chain of corridors that run beneath the city—as a building rather than, you know, an abandoned mine.

21. It has a recent history of medical firsts. Doctors at the Kleinert, Kutz and Associates Hand Care Center performed the first successful hand transplant, in 1999. Two years later, a team at Jewish Hospital installed the first self-contained artificial heart in a patient.

22. The country’s largest fireworks display, Thunder Over Louisville, takes place on the Ohio River every April during the Kentucky Derby festival. Pyrotechnic wizards the Zambelli family (a.k.a. the first family of world fireworks) fire off more than 60 tons of shells from barges on either side of the Second Street Bridge spanning the river, and from the bridge itself. Check out a video of the awesome display here.

23. The Louisville Water Tower is the oldest ornamental water tower in the country. It began operating in 1860 after cholera epidemics and several large-scale fires demonstrated the city’s need for lots of clean water. The 1890 tornado did irreparable damage to its pumping capabilities, and in 1903 it ceased operations. These days, it’s enjoying a second life as a museum situated in a picturesque city park.  

24. One of the world’s largest fast-food companies, Yum Brands, has its headquarters in Louisville. The conglomerate owns Pizza Hut, KFC, and Taco Bell, and has yearly sales of $13 billion. Little wonder that Kentucky has the most fast food restaurants per capita of any state in the nation.

25. Louisville is the hometown of Muhammad Ali, Diane Sawyer, Jennifer Lawrence and Hunter S. Thompson. It’s also where a young Tom Cruise landed his first gig—as a newspaper delivery boy.

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Art
A Beached Whale Sculpture Popped Up on the Banks of Paris's Seine River
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In Paris, dozens of fish varieties live in the Seine River. Now, the Associated Press reports that the famous waterway is home to a beached whale.

Rest assured, eco-warriors: The sperm whale is actually a lifelike sculpture, installed on an embankment next to Notre Dame Cathedral by Belgian artists’ collective Captain Boomer. It’s meant to raise environmental awareness, and evoke "the child in everyone who still is puzzled about what is real and what is not,” collective member Bart Van Peel told the Associated Press.

The 65-foot sculpture has reportedly startled and confused many Parisians, thanks in part to a team of fake scientists deployed to “survey” the whale. One collective member even posted a video on social media, warning Parisians that there “may be others in the water” if they opt to take a dip in the river, The Local reported.

The whale sculpture is only temporary—but as for Captain Boomer, this isn’t their first whale-related stunt. Last summer, the collective installed a similar riverside artwork in Rennes, France, and they also once strapped a large-scale whale sculpture to the back of a truck and drove it around France.

[h/t Associated Press]

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9 Notable Buildings With Secret Floors
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Secret floors have long captured the imagination; conspiracy theorists love to imagine that government buildings keep their darkest secrets within sealed-off stories. In the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “The After Hours,” the ninth floor of a department store is where the mannequins mysteriously come to life. Meanwhile, the hidden 7th-and-a-half floor of the Mertin-Flemmer building in New York was a portal for John Cusack into the actual brain of John Malkovich in the movie Being John Malkovich.

While these mysteries may have come from a writer’s imagination, there are notable buildings that have whole secret floors right under your nose—if you know where to look.

1. THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING, NEW YORK

One of the world’s most iconic and recognizable skyscrapers, the Empire State building is also one of Manhattan’s premiere tourist destinations. The gleaming Art Deco elevators speed thousands of visitors to the observation deck on the 86th floor every day, and there’s also an observation pod on the 102nd floor. But just above, hidden out of sight, is the secret 103rd floor. Off-limits to the public, there is no glass protecting visitors from the elements, just a narrow walkway surrounding the top of the building. Original plans are thought to have allowed airships to dock to the top of the Empire State building, with passengers disembarking on the 103rd floor, and the 102nd being their official port of entry into the United States. The plan never came to fruition, however, and the hidden 103rd floor remains sealed off high above New York City.

2. THE FIFTH FLOOR OF THE YANGGAKDO HOTEL, PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA

For Calvin Sun, of the adventurous travel blog Monsoon Diaries, a hotel in the world’s most isolated nation held a particularly odd secret. The hotel Yanggakdo’s elevator has no 5th floor. Getting out of the elevator on the 6th and walking down, his group reached something peculiar: an entire concreted hidden floor, filled with locked doors and no people. The floor was covered with what looked to be government-issued propaganda posters, with messages like “Let’s prepare thoroughly in order to defeat the invaders” and “Our General is the best.” Other intrepid adventurers have reported bunkers, steel doors, official-looking men with computers, and others listening to headphones. Some have speculated that there is another floor hidden within the 5th, but its purpose remains unknown.

3. THE GREENBRIER RESORT, WEST VIRGINIA

The Greenbrier is a luxury hotel and resort located amid the mountains of West Virginia. The local waters have been attracting guests since 1778, and the glittering guest list of the hotel, now a National Historic Landmark, has included 26 presidents. But hidden under the glamorous rooms and sprawling grounds is a massive underground complex, codenamed Project Greek Island. During the Cold War, it was built to hold the entire United States Congress in safety—just in case Washington was attacked by a Soviet nuclear strike.

The 112,000-square-foot bunker was big enough to hold both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and came complete with six months’ worth of food, 25-ton blast doors, decontamination chambers, water purification equipment, and its own hospital. The government’s construction of Project Greek Island was covered up by the building of a new west wing added to the existing hotel. To avoid detection, the huge amounts of land unearthed in the creation of the project were used in a new golf course, while the army of workers posed as employees of a fake audiovisual company called the Forsythe Associates, who “maintained” the hotel's 1000 television sets.

Project Greek Island fortunately remained unused, and was never officially acknowledged until a story in the Washington Post in 1992 exposed the secret. Today tours of this remarkable relic of the Cold War are given at the hotel, which still operates as a luxury resort.

4. OUR LORD IN THE ATTIC, AMSTERDAM

Luke Spencer

There’s an old house in Amsterdam that looks much like the other Queen Anne-style homes along the canals that give this old part of the city its distinctive character. This particular house, however, holds a remarkable secret hidden away in the attic: a miniature, fully functioning church. Complete with marble altar, pews enough for 150 worshippers, and elaborate gilt decoration, the church was hidden due to the persecution of Dutch Catholics in the 17th century. Access to the clandestine church is gained by a false wall in the living room that leads to a narrow spiral staircase. Today the church is a museum, but still regularly holds services hidden away in the attic, as they have done for nearly 400 years.

5. THE NEW YORKER HOTEL, MANHATTAN

Luke Spencer

When the New Yorker Hotel opened on 8th Avenue and 34th Street in 1930, it was one of the most technologically advanced hotels in the world. It came complete with its own in-house radio station, printing press, 50-chair barber salon, and a dining room that featured a retractable ice rink and skating show to entertain the guests. With 2500 rooms, it was promoted as a “vertical village.”

Underneath the lobby was a giant power plant, occupying a hidden floor around 80 feet below the sidewalk. The DC generating plant was so huge, it was powerful enough to provide electricity for a city of around 35,000 people. The plant was also so sophisticated that one of the hotel’s most famous long-term residents, the inventor Nikola Tesla, who lived there for the last decade of his life, is reported to have wandered down under the lobby to tinker with the plant and talk with the engineers. Remarkably, the plant is still down there, the switches for the old skating rink, coffee shop lights, and ballroom silent and unused. (Much of the plant was modernized in the 1960s, however, and switched over to the alternating current Tesla championed.)

6. WALT DISNEY WORLD, FLORIDA 

Observant visitors to the Magic Kingdom, upon disembarking from the monorail and heading toward Main Street, USA, may notice that they are walking on a slight incline. Indeed Cinderella’s Castle, which lies ahead, appears to be on a hill. In reality, the thousands of daily guests are unknowingly climbing over a vast hidden complex of secret floors, rooms, walkways, and tunnels. Disney World itself is built on top of an intricate hidden infrastructure that Cast Members consider the first floor. (The entire Magic Kingdom itself is technically the second and third floor.)

The story goes that Walt Disney was walking through the original Disneyland in California, and saw a Cast Member dressed as a cowboy walking from Frontierland through to Tomorrowland. Thinking that this would ruin the fantasy illusion for the visiting children, Disney World was designed on top of a hidden 9-acre system that would house walkways for Cast Members, trash collectors, kitchens, and break rooms. Today, tours are available for adults to see behind the curtain of the Magic Kingdom.

7. JOHN HANCOCK CENTER’S 44TH FLOOR, CHICAGO

The John Hancock Center on North Michigan Avenue is one of Chicago’s most iconic landmarks. When it was completed in 1969, it was the tallest building in the world, second only to the Empire State Building in New York. But what many people don’t realize is that it is actually possible to live inside one of America’s most famous skyscrapers. The residential floors run from the 45th to the 92nd floor, but it is the 44th floor that holds all the secrets. Off-limits to all but the residents, the 44th floor is home to a vast 5200-square-foot supermarket. There is also a library, concierge service, a high-ceilinged sky lounge, and the highest swimming pool in the United States. During elections it even has its own polling station.

8. PLYMOUTH CHURCH OF THE PILGRIMS, BROOKLYN

Luke Spencer

Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights is a church steeped in history. One of the oldest Congregationalist Churches in New York, it was once presided over by the inspirational orator, minister, and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. Described then as “the most famous man in America,” his fiery anti-slavery rhetoric was so renowned that Plymouth was the only church in New York visited by Abraham Lincoln. Beecher would hold mock slave auctions on the site, where parishioners would raise money to free slaves.

But the extraordinary events on the church floor covered a remarkable secret below it: a hidden floor, with the entrance through a door behind the organ. Dry, dusty chambers, brick archways, and tunnels are all that remain of one of the principal stops on the Underground Railroad. This hidden floor provided a sanctuary for so many escaping slaves that it became known in hushed voices as the Grand Central Depot. At great risk to themselves, the brave parishioners of Plymouth Church, led by Beecher, vowed to help as many slaves as possible. “I will both shelter them,” Beecher said, “conceal them or speed their flight.” The church is still vibrantly active today, and tours are available to visit what was once one of the most secret places in America.

Luke Spencer

9. THE OLD OPERATING THEATRE AND HERB GARRET, LONDON

Luke Spencer

Hidden in the roof of St. Thomas’ church in London is something as chilling as it is fascinating. Climbing the circular staircase of the old church to the garret (or attic) there lies one of the oldest known operating theaters still in existence. Once part of the ancient St. Thomas’ hospital, visitors today can crowd into the tiny theater and stand on steep wooden terraces overlooking the operating table. Here 19th-century medical students would watch the pre-eminent surgeons of the day practice their craft; one notable surgeon was said to be able to amputate and cauterize a limb in under a minute.

In the attic above the theater is the old herb apothecary and garden where herbs were stored and cured. Still well-stocked today, the Herb Garret resembles a Victorian cabinet of peculiar curiosities, featuring wormwood, poppies for opium, and a “bath of sheep heads for Woman suffering from unknown illness.” After St. Thomas relocated, the church garret was sealed up and forgotten for decades, until it was rediscovered in the 1960s. Today operating as a museum, tours are available for those who want to experience the lancets, blades, and bone saws of over a hundred years ago. 

Luke Spencer

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