The Owsley Brown II History Center
Architect: de Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop
Owner: The Filson Historical Society
Location: Louisville, Ky.
In Louisville, Kentucky, the Filson Historical Society endeavors to share the rich history of the state and the wider Ohio River Valley through its educational programs and cultural resources. The society’s new headquarters contrasts with the Beaux-Arts style residence it originally called home while still retaining a tangible link to the historic structure. Expanding the overall campus, the new Owsley Brown II History Center also helps dispel the notion that the society is a private, exclusive club rather than a vital cultural resource for the community.
The society was originally housed in the Ferguson Mansion in Old Louisville, one of the city’s historic neighborhoods developed in the early 1900s following the Southern Exposition. The society had outgrown the mansion and envisioned a new campus that spurred greater community engagement, expanded its research amenities and storage capacity, and refreshed its image as an inviting organization.
For many years, Old Louisville residents resisted new construction, concerned that development would diminish the neighborhood’s defining characteristic. Over the course of one year, the team gathered historic development maps and photo documentation of nearby historic structures to build consensus for its thoughtful design approach. The team’s efforts resulted in the society’s expansion becoming the first large-scale project in the district to be approved unanimously by Louisville’s landmark commission in more than 40 years.
The 21,000-square-foot center has an open and delicate masonry structure supported by modern construction techniques that rely on brick veneers and layered cavity walls. The center remains connected to the Ferguson Mansion through a new public plaza, and its visually porous facade reveals and highlights its programmatic functions. Inside, the team’s strategy of layering materials continues with an inner lining of wood slat paneling. Areas that are normally hidden, like archival storage, are instead revealed to showcase the society’s extensive assets. Throughout the building, glass-walled passages and informal exhibition spaces provide opportunities to explore and discover, seamlessly melding the boundaries between the center’s public and private spaces.
The center was clearly informed by the team’s research, and it evokes the handcrafted nature of the Ferguson Mansion’s architectural flourishes. Features like ornately decorated ceilings and hand-carved staircase balustrades are reinterpreted as abstracted motifs that reference the Ohio River Valley region. Working within a modest budget, the center relies on ordinary materials that are detailed in unexpected ways. In doing so, the team has reframed an understanding of material value wherein economy and luxury coexist.