The City of Seneca Gardens, Kentucky is a sixth class city in Jefferson County, situated between Woodbourne Avenue, Carolina Avenue, Taylorsville Road, Bowman Field and Seneca Park. Its park-like atmosphere, strong sense of neighborhood and central location have made it popular with homeowners since its initial development in 1922.
Although completely surrounded by the city of Louisville since 1948, Seneca Gardens is self-governed through its election of a Mayor and four Commissioners. Appointed positions include; clerk, attorney, treasurer, engineer and forester. This team represents the residents in ensuring that the city maintains its beauty and is provided basic services. The services include police and fire protection, garbage collection, road maintenance and water drainage.
With the single exception of Keneseth Israel Synagogue, all buildings within the city are residential. There are 242 single-family structures, 28 duplexes and one triplex. All multi-family dwellings are located on Broadmeade Road, except one duplex on Trevilian Way.
Before the land now encompassing Seneca Gardens was settled by Europeans, it was a favorite hunting ground for the region's Indian tribes. Animals that provided the Indians with meat for food and hide for clothing frequently came to Beargrass Creek to drink. The Indians would hide in the hills overlooking the creek until ready to attack an unsuspecting prey. The kill would then be taken back to the hills for processing to avoid alerting remaining animals of the hunters' presence. Arrowheads, pottery, and other artifacts used by these tribes have recently been found within the City.
Years later as settlers continued their push from the Atlantic coast, the land, as part of a larger tract, was purchased by Judge John Speed and his second wife, Lucy Gilmer Fry. Fry was a Virginian who had family ties to Thomas Jefferson.
On the southern portion of the estate, the Speeds built their home in 1810 - the historic "Farmington". Visitors frequently were granted hospitality at the home. It is said that the Speeds entertained volunteers for the War of 1812 who passed Farmington sometimes in entire companies.
It was at Farmington that Abraham Lincoln spent three weeks in 1841 while he courted Mary Todd, of Lexington. Lincoln was a close friend of Joshua Speed, son of Judge Speed and Lucy Fry. It is said that on this visit Lincoln and Joshua's brother, James, spent many hours discussing the problems facing the country. James, who stood strongly against slavery, was named U. S. Attorney General in Lincoln's second administration.
In the early to mid 1800s, the Speeds sold sections of their estate. In 1825 and 1846 Jacob Wetstein, a German gardener, bought tracts of land from Judge John Speed. This land included much of what is now Seneca Gardens. He built his home there in 1846 and established Wetstein Community Church (Methodist) on the corner of his property facing Taylorsville Road. The church no longer stands on that site. Later, Wetstein's granddaughter and her husband, Edward F. Weigel, owned and lived in the original farmhouse with their two sons. Weigel, who was President of Wetstein Land Company, mortgaged his house and adjoining land in order to participate in the development of much of the property into the Broadmeade subdivision. In 1929 he was financially "wiped out" and shot himself in the upstairs front bedroom of the house. The 13 acres that remained in his name, the house, and a cottage reverted to the holders of the mortgage, including the Presbyterian Seminary. Wetstein and Weigel are still remembered by having nearby streets named for them.
When the Overstreets bought the Wetstein house and six acres in 1936, they heard from various sources that the house was haunted. Sam Overstreet seemed unconcerned as he replied "When our boys get there, the ghosts will leave". For years the property was used as a "private park" for the children in the neighborhood. Baseball, football, swamp fox, and kick the can were favorite games played on the property. The original Wetstein house has been beautifully modernized and is located at 2501 Denham Road.
Another early settler, Paul Discher, bought land adjacent to and northwest of Jacob Wetstein's property from Joseph Hildebrandt. Born June 7, 1816 in Baden, Germany, Discher came to America in 1835 and immediately settled in Jefferson County. In 1845 he married Teresa Huber, also from Germany. They had nine children. In the 1871 Louisville Directory, Discher is listed as a huckster (a vendor, often at a haymarket) at Citizens' Market. His residence, then listed as "country", was on what is now Meadow Road. Unfortunately, it no longer stands. In 1872 Discher died, but members of his family lived in the area until the middle 1900s. Discher Land Company, headed by Fred Moellein, was the co-developer (with Wetstein Land Company) of Seneca Gardens.
Another Seneca Gardens house built in the mid-1800s, Cardinal Hill, remains tucked among trees on the hill overlooking the eastern end of Trevilian Way. When the house was built and by whom is not entirely certain. In a brochure written in the 1970s to promote its sale, its owner, R. C. Riebel, stated that it was built in the 1860s. The original owner was not mentioned. When the house was again being sold in the 1980s, a sales flyer dated the house to the early 1840s. It further stated that James Speed, son of Judge John Speed and Attorney General under Lincoln, was the builder. Regardless of its precise origins, the Greek Revival house graces the wooded hill on which it still stands. Sitting in a deep grotto northeast of the house, the original spring house is now protected by fencing, but can still be seen from Trevilian Way. Among the individuals who have owned and lived in the house are R. C. Riebel, who served as Seneca Gardens City Clerk for 32 years, and Col. C. E. Sears, who was editor of The Courier-Journal newspaper.
Local legend says that the Cardinal Hill owners and the Wetsteins were involved in the underground railroad, which helped black slaves escape to freedom. Some say that a tunnel linked the two houses and was used for that purpose. Another story is told that a cave runs from Cardinal Hill to near Lakeside Swim Club. It is uncertain as to whether the stories are factual and if the cave and tunnel were the same.
Development of the Property
Development of the Seneca Gardens area began with the platting of the Broadmeade Subdivision in 1922. Generally, Broadmeade and Meadow Roads were included in the land developed as a joint venture by the Discher Land Company, headed by Fred Moellein, and the Wetstein Land Company, directed by Edward F. Weigel. As mentioned earlier, each company derived its name from a family with long-standing holdings in the area under development. At least a portion of this land had been a potato field owned by Weigel. Most of the houses were built during the prosperous years of the 1920s.
In 1926, the Wetstein Land Company platted an expansion of the Broadmeade Subdivision. It appears that Valletta Road was developed at this time. Valletta was also extended from Trevilian Way to Taylorsville Road, with lots laid out on its western side. Six lots closest to Taylorsville Road on the eastern side of Trevilian were also platted along with two on Taylorsville Road east of Valletta.
In 1931 the Wetstein Land Company platted most of the remaining area north of Trevilian Way between Valletta and Seneca Park. Included were the easternmost section of Seneca Drive (then called Wetstein Way), Dell Road, Wood Creek (then called Broadview), and Seneca Valley Road (then called Gladstone).
The final tract to be developed was a small area between Trevilian Way and Dell Road and between the eastern terminus of Seneca Drive and Seneca Valley Road. Denver and Edith Cornett platted this land in 1937.
Several of the houses were built by a prominent local architect, Stratton Hammond. Examples of his work include 2313 Meadow Road, 2504 Seneca Valley Road, and 2543 Dell Road.
Incorporation of the City
Instrumental in the development of the Broadmeade and Seneca Gardens Subdivisions was the Fidelity and Columbia Trust Company, which had constructed all roads and the street lighting system. As long as it was interested in the property, roads and lights were maintained at the company's expense. In 1939 the company disposed of its remaining property in the area and immediately notified the residents that it would no longer maintain roads, mow grass on vacant lots, or keep the lighting system operational.
The residents immediately met with Louisville Mayor Scholtz to determine whether the city was contemplating annexation of the area. Louisville had just completed a study concluding that a purely residential area cost the city more to service than the income it produced. Upon being advised that there were no such plans, residents petitioned the Jefferson Circuit Court for incorporation in order to continue road maintenance, street lighting, weed cutting on common areas, and garbage collection.
On September 26, 1939 the Jefferson Circuit Court entered in action # 261,927, styled John M. Burge, et. al., petitioners, to incorporate the City of Seneca Gardens and appoint its first Board of Trustees. On October 2, 1939 those named by the court met to form the first government of the City. C. E. Baker was elected Chairman of the Board of Trustees by the other members: C. J. Holloway, Hugo G. Klosterman, Ernest Gaillard, and J. Hillsman Smith. Sworn in to appointed positions that night were James Curran, Marshall; John M. Burge, Assessor; W. G. Frank, Clerk; and W. D. Hough, Treasurer. William H. Crutcher, a Notary Public, officiated the swearing-in ceremony and was named the City Attorney at the next meeting.
The first full-year City budget, developed by John M. Burge, called for total expenditures of $1,600, requiring a tax rate of $.25 per $100 of assessed value.
In December, 1939 the City symbol, the head of an Indian, was adopted. It was introduced by W. J. Smith of the Seneca Gardens' zoning commission.
With the exceptions described in the following section, the City in 1939 had generally the same boundaries as today.
In 1941 lots between Trevilian and Taylorsville Road were included in the City. Later that same year property south of Trevilian on Valletta was also annexed.
In 1943 homeowners on the eastern side of Carolina Avenue voted 23 to 3 to be de-annexed from the City. The Trustees immediately passed an ordinance to satisfy that desire. It appears that many of the lots involved were actually partially inside the City of Louisville and partially in Seneca Gardens. It was some years later before these same lots were wholly brought into Louisville.
In 1946 Cardinal Hill and the two lots facing Seneca Park Road immediately south of Trevilian Way were added to the City.
The current boundaries were finalized in 1950 with the annexation of the original Wetstein home, then owned by Dr. and Mrs. Sam Overstreet. That same year the Overstreets had extended Denham Road across their property to Valletta. Lots they were developing on that extension, along with the land which now contains the Keneseth Israel Synagogue, were also annexed at this time.
In 1940 the Army constructed a very large air base on Bowman Field. Immediately thereafter, representatives of the U. S. Surgeon General contacted the City Board of Trustees and requested that immediate action be taken to correct a very dangerous situation which existed in Seneca Gardens. Because of the existence of limestone close to the surface, the homes' septic tanks were not functioning properly. Sewage was draining into streams and ditches in the City, which in turn drained into Beargrass Creek. The Army considered the situation dangerous to their troops stationed at Bowman Field. Obviously, the Board of Trustees also became concerned for City residents' safety.
The City prepared plans to install a sewer system to replace the septic tanks and were ready to let contracts for its construction when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. With the outbreak of war, all activity had to be temporarily suspended.
In 1943 the Army again requested that the situation be rectified and advised the City that restrictions due to the war no longer prevented construction of the sewer system. In November of that year, residents voted to issue bonds in order to pay the entire cost of the project.
A request was then made to the City of Louisville to connect this system to their sewer system. This began a long struggle between the two cities. Louisville insisted that only annexation into their city would create the potential for connecting the sewer systems. In November, 1944, Seneca Gardens residents voted on annexation by Louisville. Although voters clearly said "no", the election was voided because poll overseers gave the ballot to all voters at the precinct rather than limiting that question to Seneca Gardens residents. Once it was clear that residents would not agree to annexation, Louisville's Board of Aldermen said the connection could occur, but the price set was deemed extreme by Seneca Gardens' Trustees.
Finally, in 1946, an agreement was reached with Louisville and bonds were sold. When finished, the sewer system cost $69,700, of which $54,000 was raised through bonds which matured from 1950 through 1974. All houses were required to connect to the sewer and cease use of their septic tanks, ending the waste problem in the city.
In 1987, a localized downburst destroyed 100 mature oaks and maples in Seneca Gardens. A year later I was asked by former mayor, Jim MacDonald, to replace the fallen hardwoods.
Since that time, Seneca Gardens has subsidized the planting of about 1000 trees. The mission was to plant trees that will live for 100 years and give our neighborhood a sense of stability. The program expanded to include decorative trees like dogwoods and redbuds, but the primary effort remains the replacement of grand overstory trees.
The storm that destroyed so many trees in 1987 was a disaster, but what followed may be the most unique tree planting program in the United States. Rather than replace the fallen pin oaks with other pin oaks, we planted multiple varieties of oaks, many of them natives which thrive in our climate and calcareous soils. Instead of replanting the destroyed red maples with limited choices, we found dozens of maple varieties.
We planted ginkgos, elms, sassafras, beeches, cypress, dawn redwoods, black gums, Turkish hazelnuts, sycamores, katsuras, magnolias and yellowwoods in addition to oaks and maples. Each one of those species has multiple forms such as weeping, fastigiate, or variegated. Over time, our tree planting program created a neighborhood arboretum in the front yards of Seneca Gardens which can be viewed from our sidewalks and streets.
Since the storm of 1987 we have continued to lose our grand old trees, but less dramatically, one at a time, to old age, pollution, restricted roots, and construction. We lose five to ten large trees a year. That gradual loss adds up. We have lost more trees to attrition since 1987 than we lost in that storm.
That slow loss will continue. In my lifetime, I expect we will lose almost every large tree in Seneca Gardens, even without devastating storms.
This is why Seneca Gardens continues to subsidize tree planting long after the 1987 storm. There is a saying in the tree business which states that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. We started planting almost 20 years ago and we are still planting now.
Seneca Gardens Arborist