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Southern Exposition

The elegant neighborhood now known as Old Louisville, where the annual St. James Court Art Show is held, is located on the site of a show that helped launch Louisville into a new era.

The Southern Exposition, the largest single display of agricultural machinery ever held, opened in Louisville on August 1, 1883 with a ceremony officiated by President Chester A. Arthur. It featured more than 1,500 commercial and mercantile attractions, plus a promenade, an art gallery, a picnic ground, and music. The grounds for the exhibition, approximately 45 acres, included land where St. James and Belgravia courts and Central Park now stand. The main building alone covered nearly 10 acres.

The event also featured the largest display of Thomas Edisonís new incandescent light bulb up to that time, with a total of 4,600 lamps.

The Southern Exposition was a commercial and social event that rivaled the international world fairs of its day. More than 770,000 people attended in just the first 88 days, and the number was near one million by the end of the initial 100-day run. The exposition was originally intended to close after that, but it ended up being staged annually through 1887, when it finally ran its course. The site was cleared for residential development in 1889.

More facts about the Southern Exposition:

  • The 4,600 Edison lamps that lit the Southern Exposition outnumbered those in use in the entire city of New York at the time.
  • The expo included an electric railway, a precursor of the electric trolley. Such trolleys would not appear on Louisville streets until six years later.
  • According to the Encyclopedia of Louisville, attractions added to the expo through the years included fireworks, a roller coaster, and a racetrack where some of Louisvilleís first bicycle races were held.
  • The year after the Southern Exposition closed its doors, the main building was used for a large floral exposition.
  • The demise of the Southern Exposition led to a major recycling project. Salvaged material from the expo was later used to build a 3,000-seat auditorium at Fourth and Hill streets.
  • The Filson Historical Society has several rare artifacts and items from the Southern Exposition in its collections. Some of them are displayed at the Filsonís carriage house museum on Third Street.
Program 201
Newly retired Brown-Forman executive Owsley Brown II, YouthBuild Louisville, The Kentucky Center Governor's School for the Arts, the history of Louisville's Southern Expo, and an interview with Kevin Kouba, president of Old Louisville Chamber of Commerce. (#201)