Lower Town Arts District
LowerTown is one of Paducah’s oldest and significantly historic residential neighborhoods. In 1836, the Kentucky State Legislature passed an amendatory act which annexed to Paducah an area from Jefferson Street to Clay Street from the Ohio River to 9th Street. This addition was called “LowerTown” because it was downstream from Paducah’s commercial area.
A great majority of the early architecture of the LowerTown neighborhood was destroyed during the Civil War, but a rebirth of the neighborhood was spurred by local banker and businessman, Benjamin Wisdom, who was known for his fortune made through real estate transactions. He arrived in Paducah shortly after the war and purchased much of the property in the LowerTown area and to the northeast of downtown Paducah. The prevalent architectural styles of the neighborhood are Victorian-era designs, with a great variety that includes Queen Anne, Romanesque, Italianate, Gothic and some excellent examples of folk Victorian. One outstanding surviving example of antebellum Greek Revival design is the Smedley-Yeiser home at 533 Madison. After the Civil War, local officials and businessmen began a campaign for resumption and industrial growth in Paducah. The area remained a prominent neighborhood for decades and was the home of mayors of Paducah, bank presidents, factory owners, lawyers, and physicians. As with many older neighborhoods, LowerTown began a state of decline and neglect. But in 1982, the neighborhood was recognized by the federal government for its historical and architectural significance and listed in the National Register for Historic Places and concerned citizens took action for its preservation and restoration.
In the late 1990s, a LowerTown art district existed only in the minds of the people who were responsible for Paducah’s Artist Relocation Program (ARP). They believed bringing artists to the derelict and nearly forgotten neighborhood would revive and restore the once elegant LowerTown. The artists came in numbers beyond anyone’s expectations; old homes were restored, new ones were built, and soon what had been an undesirable place to live became desirable. A community was born. The excitement and anticipation was palpable. Several artists opened galleries showing their own work, while others ran more conventional galleries exhibiting work from out of town artists.
The success of the ARP brought national attention to Paducah, and with the help of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, LowerTown became a destination for visitors from Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, and Nashville. In five years there were over a dozen galleries and shops with regular hours open to the public and participating in Second Saturday festivities, as well as gallery “openings” scattered across the calendar. Lower Town was developing a vibrant commercial art district, until 2008 when the Great Recession took its toll on Lower Town, just as it did on art galleries around the country.
Shortly after the loss of several galleries and shops, the district began to transform into an art district with the community at its core. New artist began to come to LowerTown, not as a place to sell their work, but as a place to create, live and work. The highly visible and colorful commercial art district became a quiet creative arts community. Over twenty artists live and work in Lower Town, a few have regular gallery-studio hours, or are happy to schedule private appointments.
In 2008, the Paducah Arts Alliance founded the Artist-In-Residence Program which continues to successfully bring artists from diverse backgrounds to Paducah for two to four weeks to share their work and skill. It has become an ideal way to create cultural diversity and interaction between the artists and residents.
The evolution of the district into a culturally diverse art community has continued to attract artists and residents into the neighborhood. The Artists Relocation Program has fulfilled its purpose into revitalizing this historically significant district. The development of the district began to expand into new artistic avenues in 2013, when it attracted the attention of the Paducah School of Art and Design. A full rehabilitation of Madison Hall located at 919 Madison Street was completed by the school to house its ceramics, metals, jewelry-making and 3-D design classes. Growth continued adjacent to Madison Hall with a newly constructed Sculpture Building, which houses studios for clay, wood-working, welding and metal fabrication, as well as a foundry for bronze casting. The vision of the school continued with the renovation of the historic Kitchens Building (905 Harrison Street) located directly behind the Sculpture Building. This renovated building is almost 30,000 square-feet that provides space for 2-D design, painting, photography and graphic design. It also includes a substantial gallery space. This building houses the Fine Arts and Visual Communication courses to the PSAD campus which includes of Madison Hall, the Sculpture Building and the Kitchens Building. The completed campus truly serves as the arts hub for LowerTown and Paducah.