Artist's rendition of Jefferson County Armory - ca. 1905
Postcard courtesy eBay
In 1893 the Kentucky state legislators passed a law which required every city of 1st or 2nd class to provide an armory with a drill hall and ammunition repository for the local branch of the state militia."
As it was not always possible to build a new armory, some of the towns
adapted existing buildings which were adequate to meet the needs of the
National Guard. In Louisville, a large plot of land was purchased in April of 1904 at the corner of Walnut Street, and Sixth Street from O.S. Basye and Company for $89,750.1
Originally it was the site where
Aleck and Annie Craig’s Louisville home once stood.*
The Jefferson County Armory at 525 Walnut St. Louisville,
KY - ca.1905
Photo courtesy John E. Kleber's "The encyclopedia of Louisville"
A large three-story brick, stone, and steel building on a raised
basement, it was designed by Louisville architect Brinton B. Davis, and
built by the Louisville firm of Caldwell & Drake. The building was
designed in the Beaux Arts style, and featured eagles perched atop the
facade, cannons along the cornice line, and an arched entranceway. The
raised basement/foundation was built of rough-cut stone. The building
cost a total of $440,000 to build, and it was largely finished and
dedicated on December 31, 1905. An estimated 10,000 people attended the
Although its main function was that of a military installation and
arsenal for the famed Louisville Legion (the Louisville Legion was
federally recognized as the 138th Field Artillery, Kentucky National
Guard, in June of 1922), the building was also intended as a community center for the City of Louisville, which did not have a large meeting/ recreational facility at the turn of the century.1
The armory also contained offices, a swimming pool and a rifle range in
the basement, a large drill hall with 53,055 square feet of floor space
and offices on the main floor, a gym, bathrooms, a band room on the
second floor, and locker rooms on the third floor.1
From the beginning, the armory served as a popular recreational and
community gathering place. Sports activities such as basketball, tennis,
badminton, roller skating, and ice hockey (a large sheet of ice was
placed on the drill hall floor for a time) all took place there. Roller
derbies and rodeos were other popular events which occurred at the
On November 8, 1911, President William Taft made a brief address
at the armory advocating his policies looking toward international
peace. The following year, ten thousand citizens attended a memorial service at the Armory following the Titanic disaster in 1912.
Numerous entertainment acts graced the Armory's stage, including Ray
Charles, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Mary Wells, Igor Stravinsky,
and a national broadcast of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1936.
Ohio River flood of 1937 it was used for
six thousand refugees who sought dry accommodations.2
On January 5, 1937 the University of Kentucky and Notre Dame would meet
in Louisville, Kentucky in the Armory, the first of
many meetings. The crowd of 6,352 people in attendance was the
largest to see a basketball game in the state of Kentucky up until that
time, and far larger than UK's Alumni Gymnasium, where they played
their home games, could accommodate. Despite concern over the state of
the playing surface, $5,700 was collected as gate receipts and the
experiment was considered a success.
The Southeastern Conference men's basketball tournament was held at the
Jefferson County Armory from 1941-1952. Additionally, the
Conference men's basketball tournament was held there from 1949-1955 and
again from 1964-1967.3
Over the years, community, sporting, and recreational events had eclipsed the building's main function as the home of the National Guard. The sheer number of activities which were held at the armory forced the Guard to find another location to drill. The Guard moved
out of the armory into facilities closer to Standiford Field at the
State fairgrounds and
elsewhere in the county in 1946.1
Leo A. Seltzer, a former film publicist, was only 26 years old when he owned a
chain of theaters in Portland, Oregon in 1929.
In 1931, he helped organize and promote "walkathons", which at that
time was another name for dance marathons, since most dancers ended up
merely shuffling around for the duration of the contests, which could
run as long as 40 days.4 He started the American Walkathon Company which
was billed as the "Best Walkathon Organization" in the United States.5 He
grossed $2 million before retiring, and moved his family to Chicago in
1933 citing that the events had become "vulgar."
In 1934 his organization was headquartered at the Arcadia Gardens
Ballroom in Chicago and was also the owner of the Coliseum there.5 In 1935 he invented the sport of roller derby, initially as an
endurance exhibition where skaters circled on a track traveling the
equivalent distance of skating from coast to coast. While this version
of the derby did prove to be popular, Seltzer quickly noticed that the
spectators seemed to really enjoy when the skaters occasionally came
into contact with each other and the crashes that ensued. In 1937, Leo
Seltzer re-launched Roller Derby as a full contact sport, played on a
banked track with teams competing against each other for points.5
In 1945 Seltzer leased the Armory in Louisville from
Jefferson County with a 15 year lease as the Kentucky National Guard
moved out. Irving Wayne was the manager at the Armory
for Seltzer Enterprises and according to Billboard, would be instrumental in signing the
Polack Bros. Circus to many successful exclusive (circus)
engagements there setting attendance records.
On September 30, 1948, while campaigning during the 1948
Presidential elections, in what would be considered as the greatest
election upset in American history, President Harry S. Truman spoke at
the Armory. His 9 p.m.
address was carried on a nationwide radio broadcast. So sure
was he expected to lose that The Chicago Tribune erroneously
announced his defeat by Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey. The paper
was printed before all the votes were counted.
In August of 1950, Billboard reported that the Federal government put a
tax lien of property belong to Seltzer enterprises against a claim of
$47,928.46 due the Federal and State as amusement tax on admissions
collected from October of 1945 thru July of 1949. After successful
audits it was found that "amusement taxes for events sponsored by the
company itself were handled and paid properly and in accordance with
government regulations." They were cleared of all charges.
Walnut St. looking East showing the Armory and the
Kentucky Hotel - ca 1950s
On November 25, 1956
Elvis, Scotty, Bill and DJ made their second appearance in Louisville
when booked to perform two shows at the Armory. They had performed a
year earlier in the City at the Rialto theater in an unadvertised show
show for Philip Morris employees at the
Rialto Theater a few blocks away. By this time though, they
were national news, had been on network television and Elvis had
completed his first movie, due to be released days before the show, at
the very theater they performed at the year before.
The Ohio Theater advertisement in the Courier-Journal
While Love Me Tender may have been playing
at the Rialto, it didn't stop other businesses in town to capitalize on
the excitement of the Elvis craze. While RCA was plugging the show
and record sales down the street from the Rialto, the Ohio Theater
street offered free 8 x 10's to the first 500 adults to show up to see an
Abbott and Costello double-feature. Gay's department stores were
giving a free ticket away to a show at the Armory with any purchase of
$9.95 or more in addition to selling tickets to the shows.
advertisement in Louisville Times
As excited as the fans were that Elvis was coming to Louisville, there
were other factions that didn't share in the enthusiasm and saw the
occasion as cause for concern.
Coincidentally, Bill Haley and the Comets were scheduled to appear at
the State fairgrounds across town the same day as the Armory shows. They
had received reports reputedly of rioting in other parts of the country
as a result of "simultaneous" rock and roll performances.
On November 7, the chief of the Louisville Police Department, Colonel
Carl E. Heustis, contacted the regional
F.B.I. field office in
Louisville requesting any information on how to prevent any riots
that might occur there, fearing a competition between Haley and Presley
camps for "the attention of Rock and Roll fans." The regional
office contacted Washington and Hoover responded saying they had no more
information on the riots and that they be "tactfully suggested" to
consult with the local police chiefs where the riots supposedly occurred. It
the first time, nor would it be the last,
that the F.B.I. had
been contacted regarding Elvis Presley.
Carl E. Heustis before he was police chief -
May 9, 1934
courtesy Photographic Archives, Ekstrom Library,
University of Louisville
On November 14th, in an attempt at censorship and to thwart potential
rioting, the chief announced that he was enforcing a "No Wiggle Ban" for Elvis' appearance at the show. The
report in the papers the next day read, A
no-wiggle restriction has been placed on Elvis Presley's appearance here
Nov. 25. Police chief Carl Heustis said yesterday he wont permit "any lewd,
lascivious contortion that would excite a crowd" when the long-sideburned,
guitar-strumming singer comes to town.
"As you can surmise," the Chief said, "I just don't happen to be one of
his admirers." Ultimately, portions of the
matinee show at the Armory filmed (reputedly by the police and most likely as evidence
in case Elvis violated his restrictions), unfortunately for posterity, without sound.
The Seelbach Hotel in Louisville - built in 1905
The night before the Louisville shows, the boys had performed in
Troy, Ohio. According to Lee Cotten,
after driving all night, Elvis arrived in Louisville, Kentucky, and
booked himself into the Seelbach Hotel. It
did not take long before fans began roaming the corridors in search of
their idol. At some point during the Louisville trip, Elvis
visited with his grandfather,
Jesse D. Presley, who lived in a small house in southern Louisville.
When Elvis left, he gave his grandfather a new car, a television set,
and a $100 bill. By that time, a crowd of 500 had gathered in front of
the elder Presley’s home. Later, J. D. and his second wife attended
Elvis' matinee performance. When tickets for this show went on
sale, mail orders came in from every county in Kentucky and more than
WKLO-DJ Pat Cowley introducing(?) Elvis
Elvis was introduced on stage at the shows at the Armory by WKLO deejays
Beecher Frank, and by his account, Pat Cowley. At that time WKLO
was basically a country music station and
Beecher Frank was the night disc jockey who played pop music and thus
built a huge teenage audience. At the show, Beecher was presented with
an award for his promotion of Elvis' music in Louisville. Pat Cowley was
hired as a backup to Frank in anticipation of his move to station WGRC.8
How Presley Affects Teen-Age Girls In Audience . . .
He Stays Calm
Louisville Times Photos
The reviews of the shows in Louisville's paper the following day were as
Elvis Plays To Near-Capacity Crowds At Jefferson Armory
ON STAGE By Eugene Lees
Elvis Presley and about 15,000 dyed-in-the wool fans yesterday gave
Louisville one of the most fascinating studies in mob psychology the
city has ever had the questionable pleasure of witnessing.
The event was of course, Presley's appearance at Jefferson County
Armory. Or rather, his two appearances, afternoon and evening.
Elvis was preceded by a vaudeville-type show that included a magician, a
balancing act and a male quartet-a very good quartet, if anyone bothered
to notice, the Jordinaires.
Elvis at the Armory - Nov. 25, 1956
Louisville Times Photo courtesy FECC/denon3910
Then came Beecher Frank, a disc jockey, who was awarded a plaque in
Presley's name for work in supporting the young singer from Memphis,
Tenn. Frank referred to recent "newspaper articles" critical of Presley
and said that in America, "it's not the cultural commissars, not the
social snobs," who have the say in choosing stars, "but we the people."
"God bless America and God bless Elvis," he cried, and introduced the
The north end of the armory went suddenly blazing white as kids fired
flashbulb camera. So intermittent was the firing that it seemed a huge
spotlight had been turned on.
Simultaneously a roar went up that seemed sure to blast the walls from
the armory. And Elvis appeared in a Kelly-green, neon-bright jacket. The
small combo of musicians to accommodate him wore dazzling red.
He stepped to the microphone. The teen-agers-girls far out numbered the
boys-screamed. Elvis turned his head. They screamed again. He blew
across the microphone (checking apparently if it was turned on.) The
He sang. But one couldn't hear a word of it, though his hit tunes such
as "Don't Be Cruel," were vaguely recognizable by by the dull chord
changes behind Presley.
Presley kept bumps and grinds to a minimum, in compliance with an order
issued some days ago by Col. Carl Heustis, chief of police. But there
were occasional hints of the pelvis manipulations that are credited, as
much as anything, with making Elvis Presley a household word. And those
really brought the house down.
Girls of 14 and 15 would go glassy eyed, tense, and quiver all over
before resuming their screaming.
Observers who remember the Frank Sinatra fad inclined to think it
exceeded, in more ways, even that. The Sinatra crowds lacked this sense
Even at that, the Louisville crowd was described as more subdued than
those the singer has encountered elsewhere.
The crowds at both performances were near the Armory's capacity. In the
afternoon, there were 8311 present, with a few hundred seats left empty.
At the evening show there were 8,349.
Elvis came, he saw, he conquered - those that were there, at any rate.
As Pogo would say, "Oog"
The Louisville Times -
Nov. 26, 1956
Barbara Kendal, 14, Sandra Thurston, 14, and Judie Noble,
15, all of French Lick, IN
Teen-agers Squeal, Flash Bulbs Pop as Elvis Sings and Emotes for Two
Shows Here Well Guarded, He Slips Away From His Fans
by Don Freeman
Teenagers deliriously squealed, the flash bulbs of shutterbugs shot off
all over-the whole armory suddenly felt like the inside of a heavily
Elvis Presley had sprung forth in all his glory, plus a green
dinner-type coat and black slacks.
Elvis-the ideal of every red-blooded American girl.
He wheeled squeals out of his fans with 23 minutes of high emotion
singing, then disappeared under heavy escort.
Unable to corner him, fans did the next best things.
A bevy of girls shriekingly touched the microphone he had used and some
other girls kissed the palms of their hands after rubbing them over the
stage dirt he hard trod, police said.
Show is a sellout
All this was at the matinee show yesterday. It drew a sellout crowd of
8500, armory officials said.
Last night, by Armory count, Mr. Sideburns played to a crowd of 8349.
The night crowd being more adult, was slightly more sedate, but Elvis
was even livelier this time, wearing a satiny gold coat and shaking
hands with two girls seated behind the stage.
Police Chief Carl E. Heustis, who attended both shows as an observer and
something of a cynic, said he generally was "well pleased" by the
Elvis at the Armory - Nov. 25, 1956
Girl Wants A Button
One exception, he said, was a 20-year old girl who offered police to get
a button off Presley's coat.
three men were arrested before the afternoon show for drinking in a
washroom and two Illinois girls were arrested at night on vulgarity
Heustis said Louisville's relative success in controlling the enthusiasm
of Presley fans was due largely to police and fire precautions.
About 100 police and 60 ushers were on hand spreading cordons around the
halls interior and exterior.
Heustis said this was a record number of ushers, but not of police-there
were more policemen at a Duke Ellington performance years ago, for
Presley drew a laugh from the crowd when he remarked good naturedly, "I
never knew I had so many fans in the Louisville Police Department."
Elvis at the Armory - Nov. 25, 1956
The matinee crowd waited impatiently for Elvis through 75 minutes of
tap-dances, impersonations, and the like.
Then, as he made his advent the bottled -up emotions burst the cork out.
He said, "Thank you," and there were shrieks from the crowd.
He panted briefly into the microphone. More shrieks.
He got into the first notes of that relatively early hit, "Heartbreak
Hotel." Still more shrieks.
Shoulders Hunch Up
Through the whole-hearted singing and half-hearted guitar strumming (he
had rhythm band accompaniment), he'd hunch up his shoulders like a
football tackle ready to leap.
Or he'd stomp back and forth with the mike, his 6 foot frame firmly
flexed, suggesting a Frankenstein's monster.
Every change of motion brought shrieks.
By moving back and forth rather than sideways, Presley adhered to the
strict rule that police officials had laid down with his agents.
Sideward motions, the police felt would have been lewdly suggestive.
The throng's "eeeeeeeehs" and "ohhhs" were so insistent that Presley's
words usually were unintelligible even by his standards.
But the voice came through, even if the words didn't. Here was a clean
voice, broad in range, sure in rhythm, and tender.
And the Presley spirit came through too. Here was the Presley of fast
modernism and shiny Cadillacs mixed with the Presley of boyish
simplicity, the hobby of collecting teddy bears, and the cotton-country
Elvis at the Armory - Nov. 25, 1956
Photo courtesy Sheila Roth
Sings Recorded Hits
Here was a figure who seems both innocent and knowing, a 21 year-old who
is both worldly and of the inner heart. That mixture of personality is
part of his magic.
He went through many of his recorded hits - knifing the air with his
hands in "Don't Be Cruel," sinking his voice and even choking in "Love
Me Tender," pointing an accusing finger in his final number, "Houn'
In honor of his Louisville grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. J. D. Pressley,
Elvis spells the family name with only one "S", who were in the
audience, he sang the type of hymn he had sung with his church going
family in childhood - "Peace In The Valley."
Many adults who had come out of curiosity and to check the
overexcitement of their children, listened with respect.
A big help in preserving order was the mystic swiftness of Presley's
entrance and exit.
A taxi whisked him to the Armory from a back door of the hotel where he
had slept and breakfasted in near secrecy until due in the afternoon
Before show time a few girls had managed to find out what floor of what
hotel he was in. But two special bodyguards, Billie Joseph and Nick
Pinto, kept them out of reach of Presley.
After Elvis returned to the hotel, 100 girls followed him there, even
looking for him in the basement. Again, no luck.
Armory officials tried to avoid selling tickets to youngsters not
chaperoned by parents. Except for the press and police, no one was
allowed to stand in front of the stage. all rows of seats were corded
together to keep them- and the sitters- from getting tossed around.
Part of the film taken by Louisville Police - Nov 25,
Along with the other public and private gendarmes yesterday, there were
volunteers who have been studying at Southern Police Institute -
policeman from Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Texas. Interviewed before his dash onstage Presley said of the criticism
that has been leveled at him:
"You've got to accept the criticism along with everything else, no
matter who you are."
There were some, he noted, who didn't like President Eisenhower or Adlai
Asked if he thought if his artistic style contributed to juvenile
delinquency, he answered, "I've never shot anybody or robbed anybody."
Does he plan to switch more from rock 'n' roll to the ballad type
singing represented by "Love Me Tender?"
"Well, I don't know, sire." he replied, pondering. "I'm just taking
things as they come. I don't want to switch anything as long as people
like it. It's if you've got a good complexion, you don't put any make up
on it." With a chuckle he added, "That makes sense."
Presley had expected his parents to be here from Memphis, "but the folks
got snowed in."
This, he noted, was not his first Louisville appearance. A year ago, he
said, he did a show for employees of a cigarette firm here. "But there
wasn't too much mobbing then."
Presley's big reputation had developed in the ensuing year. And as he
good naturedly told yesterday's turnouts, "You bring a lump - to my
Courier-Journal - Nov. 26, 1956
The Courier-Journal implied that Elvis' performance of
"Peace in the Valley" appeared to have won over some of the adults at
the Armory show(s). It would have the same effect two months later
on national viewers when he performed it on his last
Ed Sullivan appearance. Ed would
announce that Elvis was "a real decent fine boy." The
Armory shows completed the last of the tours for 1956 and the boys would
only make only one more appearance that year, in December, to fulfill a final
obligation to the Louisiana Hayride.
In 1963, a large-scale renovation of the Armory took
place, and the Louisville firm of Wagner & Potts redesigned the
interior. The Armory needed to be revamped and modernized because of its
age, and to attract more events. The renovation cost $1,950,000, and
included the addition of air-conditioning, the conversion of the drill
hall into a 5,000 seat arena with a stage at one end, and a considerable
change to the front facade of the building. The original arched entry
was removed, and a marquee was added on the main floor. The gym that had
been located on the 2nd floor was converted into a small arena. All of
these changes were made in order to attract new businesses and
organizations to Louisville to use the facility and to generate a higher
income for the county. In order to facilitate this, the building was
renamed the Louisville Convention Center.1
Roadwork in front of The Gardens of Louisville -
The renamed convention center assumed a different role in the community by hosting smaller meetings, musical acts, and sports while complementing the larger State fairgrounds and Freedom Hall. The
name was changed again in 1975 to avoid confusion with the new
Commonwealth Convention Center being constructed a few blocks away.
Dubbed Louisville Gardens, the Convention Center Operation Co. chose the
name to evoke images of the celebrated Boston Garden and Madison Square
Garden. In 1980 the building was added to the National Register of
Historic Places and beginning in 1991, was managed by the Kentucky
Center for the Arts. In December of 1998, the name was changed to The
Gardens of Louisville and underwent a $350,000 renovation.2
Laila Ali in Louisville Gardens - Feb. 14, 2003
In 1978, three years before Ali's permanent retirement, the city
renamed Walnut Street to Muhammad Ali Boulevard, after one of its most
famous former citizens. On February 14, 2003, fighting in her dad's original home town, Laila
Ali TKO'd former world champion Mary Ann Almager of Midland, Texas at 1:55 in the fourth
round at Louisville Gardens.9
In August of 2007, the Courier-Journal reported that Cordish Co. of Baltimore, owners of the 4th Street Live entertainment
complex in Louisville, agreed to take over operation of "The Gardens"
from the Metro Louisville Government as part of a $250 million
development in downtown Louisville with plans to renovate the Gardens
again into a performance and sports venue. That figure had jumped to
$442 million in December when more detailed plans were presented to the
tax commission for a preliminary vote.10