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Big Old Houses: Survival Euphoria
by John Foreman


In 1821 the young, talented, bitter and self-pitying English poet John Keats died in Rome. "Here lies one whose name was writ in water," reads a portion of his wordy tombstone. It is human, I'll grant, to yearn for recognition, but truth be told, all of us will eventually be completely forgotten.

Keats cheated obscurity longer than many, and so, accidentally, did Thomas Brennan (born in Ireland in 1838, died in Louisville, KY in 1914) — the former by virtue of his poems, the latter by virtue of his house.
In 1884, rich from the manufacture of farm equipment, 46-year-old potato famine refugee Brennan moved his wife and a brood of children into this elegant South 5th Street Louisville mansion, built after the Civil War by a tobacco wholesaler named Francis Ronald. 631 South 5th Street has endured; everything around has not.
Brennan had 8 children (7 survived), virtually all of the latter, when they grew up, moved to New York. An exception was John Arvid Ouchterlony Brennan (1880-1963), seen in a passport photo below. He became a doctor, added an office wing to the family home in 1912, and stayed in it after everybody else left. Dr. Brennan never married and died here in 1963 at the age of 83.
Interesting fact: Louisville, KY is named after King Louis XVI. Revolutionary War uber-soldier Georges Rogers Clark (1752-1818) founded it in 1778, while its namesake still had his head. In those days, the Ohio River was navigable only as far as Louisville. A treacherous falls at the site required commerce in either direction to haul itself out of the water and portage past the danger. Such was the origin of Kentucky's modern capital of horse racing and fried chicken.
The back yard at 631 South 5th looks charmingly peaceful, but only in one direction.
Although the architect of this High Italianate period piece has not been absolutely identified, a hugely prolific local (also an Irish immigrant) named Henry Whitestone (1819-1893) usually gets the credit.
Not only has the Brennan house escaped demolition (not to mention mutilation), it has come through the years with its original contents intact — contents that include some perfectly amazing pieces of Victorian furniture.
A grand double parlor flanks the south side of the hall.
Let's go back to the hall and have a look at the dining room.
Like many old guys with marriage, children and boyfriends behind them, I work my way indiscriminately through the same pile of clean clothes that Chiqui stacks up for me every week. Somehow this yellow shirt keeps coming up on Saturday.
I guess they didn't have swing doors when the house was built in 1868, since the door to the service corridor is hinged. That miniature Jules Verne contraption at the end of the hall is a water heater.
Behind the water heater are doors leading to a breakfast room (currently fitted up for audio/visual presentations), a modernized hall bath (not shown), and the kitchen, the latter probably unchanged since Dr. Brennan's last day at home. A door from the kitchen leads to the back yard.
The Brennan house has three and a half bathrooms, the half being an afterthought squeezed onto a back stair landing between basement and first floor. In fact, in order to get to the basement at all, you must actually walk through the half bath.
Let's retrace our steps down the service hall and across the dining room for a look at the library.
There's such a sustained aura of luxe in this place that you don't notice at first what's missing, namely, a reception room. Steering casual visitors into that glittering double parlor seems oddly inappropriate, to me anyway. A more fitting space is needed for a different level of intercourse, and it ain't here. (P.S. I would kill for that red chair).
When Dr. Brennan added the office wing in 1912, the bay window in the library was bricked up and a connecting door inserted. Beyond the door is a literal time capsule, right down to original instruments, examination table, and waiting room.
Here's Brennan House Executive Director Marianne Zickuhr, stationed behind the doctor's receptionist desk, making sure I don't miss anything.
Time to go upstairs.
There are officially 6 family bedrooms on the second floor, although at least two have historically been used in combination as an owner's suite. The suite is on the south side of the hall, above the double parlor. It has no closets, but does have a little dressing room. It is nowhere near the closest bathroom, bathrooms being a later additions at 631 South 5th. The 3 doors in the image below access the owner's sitting room (on the left), bedroom (in the middle) and dressing room (at the end of the landing).
This astonishing bedroom set was manufactured in Louisville by the J.W. Davis Co. and exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876.
Next to the bed is a door to the dressing room. The doctor's little brother Napoleon (they called him Bruce) drew the picture of his father's house for school, and it's still here. Bruce Brennan, parenthetically, didn't get married until he was 77 years old.
Let's leave the dressing room and go back to the top of the stairs for a look at sister Mae's room.
Mae was a beauty, according to this painting over her brother's fireplace. She was married twice and lived in New York, but stayed in this room when visiting Louisville. Question: What is odd about this room? In fact, what is odd about the whole house? Answer: The windows are frosted. By 1916 the neighborhood had become so commercial the Brennans no longer wanted to look out.
The door beside Mae's fireplace connects to what appears to be a bedroom, although I believe she used it as a sitting room or boudoir. The black door beside the bed connects to the only en suite bathroom in the house.
Two more family bedrooms (hardly enough, it would seem, for all those Brennan children) plus a back stair to the kitchen occupy the rest of the second floor.
I couldn't open Mae's black door above, so we're slipping into her bathroom from a landing at the top of the back stair. A hall bath on the other side of the corridor was simply impossible to photograph — even for me.
Let's head up to 3 for a look at what's left. Dr. Brennan's will bequeathed the house to the Filson Club Historical Society, named after John Filson (1747-1788) explorer-author of "The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucky." Notable in the society's collection is a tree trunk into which has been carved the words, "D. Boon kilt a bar 1803."
Filson rented the top floor to the Kentucky Opera Company, whose office conversion presumably accounts for this combination of servants' rooms.
In 1986 Filson, which had been an excellent steward of the property, moved to grander quarters further south. Six years later, a non-profit corporation called Preservation Louisville took title to the house with a mission to protect and promote community heritage. It does this by giving tours, hosting events, providing a glamorous venue, and keeping the house in spectacular condition.
Residential fashion fled this stretch of 5th Street a century ago, but big old houses flourish elsewhere in Louisville.
Some dozen blocks south, the original look of South 5th survives on block after block of fantastic old houses. The mid-west is full of great stuff, as I discovered on this trip. But of course, you can't go inside these. The link to the Brennan House is www.thebrennanhouse.org.
Visit John Foreman's Big Old Houses.
 
Contact John Foreman here
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