Private home, school for music, part of a seminary… Over the last 100 years the Gardencourt mansion, located at 1040 Alta Vista Road, has been home to all three. This summer, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, owners of the historical estate celebrated the home’s 100-year history within the Louisville community.
Gardencourt was built in 1906 for Lucie Underwood Norton, Martha ),
A. (Mattie) Norton, and Mrs. Minnie Norton Caldwell. They were among the wealthy granddaughters of William Norton (1781-1858), a successful regional manufacturer of hand tools, and the daughters of George W. Norton (1814-1889), who made his fortune as a Russellville storekeeper and banker and later as a Louisville banker (from the 1988 National Register Nomination).
The 20-room, three-story mansion, a wonderful example of the Beaux Arts style of architecture, was designed by architects Coolidge and Shattuck of Boston. It is a one-of-a-kind example of
their work. The firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, designers of New York City’s Central Park, planned the formal gardens and landscaping. The 14-acre site also included a carriage house and a gardener’s cottage with attached greenhouse.
In 1946, following the death of the last surviving sister, Mattie, the property was donated to the School of Music at the University of Louisville
. The Preparatory Dance program and the Kentucky Opera Association also found a home at Gardencourt. For decades the mansion and the gardens were filled with the sounds of symphonies and choral programs, string quartets and operas, recitals and music festivals, and included visits by Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, Virgil Thompson, George Perle, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Paul Hindemith. In 1962, the University added the auditorium built just off the main entrance corridor. After the University of Louisville Urban Studies Center became the principal tenant in 1969, dancers and musicians continued to practice there.
The University sold Gardencourt at an auction in 1987 to Mrs. Helen Rectin Combs for $2.2 million, but in June she sold the property to Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary for $2.25 million. The Seminary set out to restore the house and property and “recover the previous beauty of this tarnished local landmark and return it to public and educational use” (Courier-Journal, February 24, 1989).
In 1989, the Seminary began a massive fund-raising campaign to renovate the estate. When the rededication ceremony was held in 1990, Louisville Seminary had raised more than the $6.7 million needed to buy, restore, and endow the property, a direct result of
generous neighbors and individuals who were committed to preserving this gem of Alta Vista Road. Louisville Seminary received an Historic Preservation Alliance Award in 1991 in recognition of the renovation and the collaborative effort.
In June 2006, Louisville Seminary held a birthday party. Individuals who had supported the renovation project and others who took music lessons within its rooms attended, and many were eager to share their memories of the estate’s grandeur and the opportunities they had to study music there.
Alta Vista Road neighbor Dorothe G. Roulston shared her 5-year-old memory of summer evening soirees and concerts during the 1920s and a grand piano in the middle of what is now called the Anderson Room. “Gardencourt is a show place of Louisville,” she said, “and I am so pleased that the Seminary has been able to care for it well and to use it as it should be used.”
Yvonne Miles, a musician and local church organist, recalled the formality and significance of her senior recital, held at Gardencourt when it was home to the University of Louisville School of Music. And former LPTS Director of Public Relations Norma Porterfield remembered the press conference at which the Seminary announced its intention to launch the renovation project. “At one point during the speeches, the ceiling of the porch roof came crashing down behind us. Some say the timing was so precise that our fundraising would be effortless.”
The three-year renovation project did not include restoration of the carriage house. Sadly, after many owners and years of neglect, the carriage house deteriorated and required more than $1 million for repairs and renovation. The Louisville Historical League placed the carriage house on its list of the “Ten Most Endangered Historical Buildings in Louisville.”
By 1999, the unsafe condition of the decaying building forced the Seminary to consider demolition. In its search to find a solution for the lack of adequate resources, Presbyterian Homes and Services of Kentucky Inc. (PHS) partnered with Louisville Seminary in 2002. PHS completed the $1.6 million renovation as part of a 25-year lease agreement, and moved in May 2003.
Today Gardencourt estate is part of 67 park-like acres – the campus of Louisville Seminary. The mansion’s beautifully restored first-floor rooms are rented for meetings, parties, concerts, weddings, and
other events. The second and third floors house classrooms, faculty offices and institutional program offices such as The Louisville Institute
, the Grawemeyer Award in Religion
, Lifelong Learning, and Advanced Degrees
. The formal gardens, often the site for outdoor weddings, are meticulously maintained to reflect their former glory.
As part of the birthday celebration guests participated in a collective birthday gift for the grand home – refurbishing the formal rose gardens. Nearly $3,000 has been raised toward the $6,000 goal. Contributions are still being accepted, and tax-deductible gifts
may be sent to Louisville Seminary to honor Gardencourt’s 100-year-old history.
Individuals, faith groups, congregations, organizations, and corporate groups interested in renting the Gardencourt facilities or the adjacent Laws Lodge Retreat and Conference center facilities may find more information on the website
, or contact the rental offices at 502.992.0220, or toll-free at 800.264.1839.