I picked The Brown Hotel Louisville for my one night stay in the city. The Kentucky landmark serves up plenty of gilded age opulence, along with a Louisville original, the Hot Brown. My stay was marred, though, by the typical cost cutting masquerading as hygiene theater prevalent in late 2021. I booked a standard Deluxe room for $135 cash at the AAA rate.
Note: this installment is part of my larger trip report to Louisville and New Orleans in December, 2021. Click here for the trip report summary and introductory post.
The Brown Hotel, Louisville, Kentucky
- 335 West Broadway, Louisville, KY 40202
- Website: https://www.brownhotel.com/
- Features: two restaurants, lobby bar, fitness center, meeting rooms, free airport shuttle
Date of stay: Sunday, December 12, 2021
History of The Brown Hotel
The hotel’s website proudly proclaims that The Brown has been a Louisville landmark since 1923. However, that’s only partially true. The hotel indeed opened in 1923 by owner James Graham Brown. Brown conceived of the hotel as a competitor to the Seelbach Hotel just up 4th Street. Initially, the hotel survived Prohibition, the Great Depression and the Ohio River Flood of 1937. Arguably, the hotel’s heyday occurred from after World War II to the early 1960s, coincident with Louisville’s industrial boom. However, as the city declined in the 1960s and 1970s, the hotel hit hard times it couldn’t escape. The hotel closed in 1971, shortly after J. Graham Brown’s death in 1969. For the next 12 years, the hotel building operated as the headquarters of Louisville Public Schools.
A downtown revitalization project led to the repurchase of the hotel from the school system in 1983. Following an extensive renovation, the Brown operated as a Hilton until 1993, when it once again went independent. Today, a series of renovations have brought the hotel back to a replica of its original Gilded Age splendor.
Over the years, the hotel hosted numerous celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor, Gene Autry, and Muhammad Ali. Perhaps the hotel’s biggest claim to fame, though, is the Hot Brown sandwich, invented at the hotel in 1926.
Check-In and Common Areas
The experience began with a shuttle pick-up from the airport. Though The Brown offers a complimentary airport shuttle, it doesn’t operate on a regular schedule. Rather, it’s on-demand, so when you arrive, you call and they send it for you. The airport’s a straight shot down I-65, and it usually takes 10 minutes or less to arrive.
Upon reaching the hotel, I was the lone guest checking in past 10 pm on a Sunday night. The clerk first explained the convoluted reduced dining options in place. (Getting an answer as to what was open and what wasn’t was a frustrating exercise. Different answers appeared on the website, the confirmation e-mail, and the check in reminder a few days before arrival.) Within a couple of minutes, I headed up to my room, with quite a surprise in store.
The common areas of the hotel are quite opulent, reminiscent of other early 20th-century hotels like The Adolphus in Dallas or the Brown Palace in Denver. On the first floor (street level), Christmas decorations abounded with the holiday only a couple of weeks away. To the left is J. Graham’s Cafe (named after hotel founder J. Graham Brown).
J. Graham’s Cafe was unfortunately closed during my visit, but below is a stock photo from the hotel.
The staircase up to the second floor lobby was similarly outfitted for the Christmas season.
At the top of the stairs, an impressive lobby awaits, spreading out to the left. A grand piano marks the entrance to the Lobby Bar & Grill, with another Christmas tree as well.
Right behind is you is a rather oddly placed sitting area. I suppose it’s available as bar overflow seating.
Next to the piano is the Lobby Bar, also closed during my visit. The narrow dining area extends all the way down past the check-in desk, with a few extra single tables along the opposite wall. The high, vaulted ceilings in the lobby make it feel especially airy and cavernous. Though when the hotel is deserted like on my visit, it made it feel especially empty.
The restaurant area leads to another extension of the bar, this one across from the reception desk.
And yet another Christmas tree, this one directly across from reception (the fourth one by my count).
Continuing past the lobby, you’ll find yet another sitting area, this one leading to the ballroom. And some really, really big a** vases at the lobby exit.
You perhaps noticed the mezzanine one floor over the lobby. Standing up here provides quite the view of the lobby below. And also demonstrates the ornate design of the common areas.
The Brown Hotel, Louisville – Guest Rooms
The guest room corridors aren’t much to write home about. Unlike the ornate lobby in period Gilded Age design, even the Club Lounge floor looks pretty plain. The carpeting in particular seemed pretty well worn.
The room itself, though? Boy, did I receive quite the surprise. When I checked in, the clerk told me I received an upgrade to a Club Floor room. Cool, I thought, figuring that meant the same room, just on the club floor. Instead, I ended up getting an upgrade all the way up to a Luxury Suite. Why, I’m not exactly sure. As you probably guessed from the pictures, the hotel was pretty much deserted. But I wasn’t going to complain for an upgrade to a normally $500/night room.
Luxury Suites features a bedroom, separate living room, and two bathrooms, and come with two entrances. The first opens up directly into the bedroom. Immediately to the left is the first bathroom.
Across the way, meanwhile, is a small storage closet with an iron and ironing board. (Closet space is lacking, but the rest of the room provides plenty of space.)
Continue forward to the bedroom. To the left is a small sofa, with the bed and TV to the right. There’s also a small table with two chairs in the corner. If you like watching TV from the bed, the angle does make it a bit awkward. The storage area on top of the wardrobe includes a coffee maker.
All beds, regardless of room type, come with Kentucky Derby-themed throws.
Continue through the door into the spacious living room. At the entrance is a 6-seat dining table, with a loveseat and large chair on the other end. Fittingly, there’s a Thoroughbred-themed knick knack on the table.
Meanwhile, past the sitting area is a wet bar and mini-fridge. The wet bar includes a second coffee maker as well.
The living room also includes a second bathroom. It’s identical to the one in the bedroom, except the toilet is on the other wise of the sink. Just like the bathroom next to the bedroom, it seems disproportionately small to the size of the room as a whole.
One thing I found a little peculiar about the room – it’s not very practical for working. There’s no desk in either the living room or bedroom, and there’s a distinct lack of convenient plugs. Clearly, these suites are meant for entertaining more than working. Also, the shower-only configuration in the bathroom seems out of place in an otherwise period (1920s) furnished room. I almost expected to see a claw-foot tub in the master bath.
WiFi is fast and free in all guest rooms.
The Brown Hotel Louisville – Food/Beverage/Service
As with pretty much every other hotel imaginable at the time, yes, The Brown engaged in cost cutting masquerading as hygiene theater. In The Brown’s case, though, some of this continues even three years later. Considering how deserted the hotel felt, it makes me wonder about the hotel’s long-term financial condition.
First off, the Club Lounge was closed during my stay, and in fact, remains closed as of May 2023. So that upgrade to a club room provides no benefits, unless you get one of the big suites. To The Brown’s credit, at least they don’t try to sell Club Floor rooms at extra cost. Rather, the hotel sells all rooms at standard room rates, with Club Floor rooms assigned at check-in.
Second, one of The Brown’s three restaurants, The English Grill, also remains closed even as we head to summer 2023. The hotel’s website says it plans to reopen “late fall 2022”, but it doesn’t look like that’s happened yet.
During my stay, dining options rotated between room service, J. Graham’s Cafe, and the Lobby Bar & Grill depending on day and time. Actual options contradicted both the website and the e-mail I received about a week ahead of time, though. While that was a bit annoying, room service was offered for Sunday dinner and Monday breakfast/lunch. Most importantly, this included the Hot Brown.
Lunch officially only begins at 11:30, so with a 1:45 flight scheduled, I wondered if the Hot Brown might happen or not. However, when I called about 10:30, the waiter told me no problem. About 20 minutes later, the monstrous turkey sandwich arrived with a Derby pie.
I ate as much of the Hot Brown as I could handle without exploding Monty Python style. The Derby pie went with me to snack on at the lounge in Charleston. I thought TSA might hassle me about it, but they let it through without issue. (The agent jokingly asked if he could have some.) Anyway, the sandwich itself is quite the ridiculous monstrosity, an open-faced turkey sandwich on toast, with bacon and tomatoes, smothered in Mornay sauce and topped with Romano cheese. Delicious, mind you, but ridiculous all the same.
For bourbon aficionados, the Kentucky Urban Bourbon Trail includes the Lobby Bar & Grill on its list. To make the list, an establishment must offer at least 60 bourbons on the menu.
The Brown sits at the corner of West Broadway and South Fourth Street on the south side of downtown Louisville. The huge red brick edifice makes it easily identifiable on foot. What I find a little interesting, though – aside from the arched windows, it’s a relatively un-fancy building compared to the inside. Certainly different from the Gothic architecture often found in luxury hotels built in the 1910s and 1920s.
Meanwhile, a classic clock marks the corner of 4th and Broadway.
With some extra time Monday morning, I took a walk a few blocks up Fourth to check out the area. The Brown Hotel also marks the unofficial center of Louisville’s performing arts district, with three theaters within a block. Immediately adjacent to the hotel is the Brown Theater, built in 1925 (not built by J. Graham Brown but named for him). Just up Fourth Street is the marquee of the defunct Ohio Theater. Built in 1941 as a movie theater, it closed in 1965, but the facade and marquee still stand.
Unlike the Ohio, the Palace Theater remains in operation as a live music venue. The Baroque-style theater opened in 1928, and seats 2,800 guests.
Fourth Street, as downtown’s commercial hub at the time, was also ground zero for anti-Jim Crow protests during the Civil Rights era. Several historical markers commemorate demonstration sites, and provide a history of civil rights protests in Louisville. The street’s business and theaters, in particular, became venues for the “sit-in” demonstrations common across the South during the time.
Another block or so north brings you to The Brown’s arch rival of the period, the Seelbach Hotel. The Seelbach was Louisville’s first luxury hotel, opening in 1905 just prior to the Kentucky Derby. Over the years, the hotel changed ownership numerous times, and has operated as The Seelbach Hilton since 1998. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald frequented the hotel; legend has it he used it as the basis for the “Mulbach Hotel” in The Great Gatsby. (His fondness of the hotel remained despite his allegedly getting kicked out for drunk and disorderly conduct in 1918.) Al Capone also frequented the hotel for illicit poker games during Prohibition.
Finally, my walk brought me to Fourth Street Live, a section of the street transformed into a pedestrian mall. Several shops and restaurants are in this area, with live entertainment offered periodically.
One thing that definitely felt noticeable – compared to Dallas, which seemed largely back to normal by December 2021, Louisville still felt very much deserted. Even at 9 am on a Monday morning, I saw but a small handful of people out on the streets.
The Brown is a beautiful hotel, and remains one of Louisville’s premier destinations for those looking for luxury hotels. And of course, if you’re passing through, you have to stop here and try a Hot Brown. Just beware that service reductions begun during the pandemic remain as of May, 2023. It won’t affect your ability to try a Hot Brown or some bourbon, but it’s still not fully up to pre-2020 levels.