by Danny Seim
Google "Portland Louisville Change" and you’ll find a bunch of articles focusing on the external. Yes, there’s been a lot of talk about this neighborhood lately. Yes, several powerful key players have taken a recent interest in our little bend in the river. And yes, there’s a lot that needs to be done. There will always be skeptics, but signs of positive change are blossoming all over town. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find Portland’s renaissance has sturdy internal roots.
Gary Watrous has played a major role in fostering local pride and growth since moving to Portland nearly 40 years ago. An architect by trade, Gary is a prominent member of at least a half-dozen neighborhood committees, including a demanding role as secretary of Portland Now, Incorporated. Gary also donates his expertise to more widespread initiatives such as Solar Over Louisville and the Sierra Club. Somehow, he still occasionally finds time to sail his small sailboat with his wife Judy on Deam Lake in Indiana.
I met him at his home office on West Main Street to ask him a few questions about his life.
What are some of your earliest childhood memories?
I was born in New York City, but soon after my family moved to my grandparent's farm near Oswego, New York to raise chickens. I remember my father waiting to get drafted. He’d go to the mailbox every day, but the notice never came. He guessed the draft board lost his address so he never went to war.
Where did your desire to become an architect come from?
My father was an amateur architect; he built our house and other houses in the neighborhood. My whole family is artistically inclined. Both my mother and father were landscape painters. My sister is a house museum curator. My brother retired from being a psychologist and started painting. My younger brother taught art for decades in the public school system.
Sounds like quite a well of inspiration.
Yes, it was. My father took a graphic design job at General Electric in Schenectady, New York, and for $100, he bought a share in a 250-acre farm in the hills. On this farm land, everyone built their own house. I was raised in a community of do-it-yourselfers, sort of a Tom Sawyer-like existence growing up. The first actual city I lived in was in Germany, after I got a degree in the German language from Hamilton College in New York. After that, I got a master's degree in architecture at Yale.
What brought you to Kentucky?
I passed my exams at Yale and then got a job teaching at the University of Kentucky. It was there where I met Judy Schroeder. We got married a year later. It was love at first sight.
Where did you go after Lexington?
First, we moved to Philadelphia. I got a job working for a famous architect named Louis Kahn. Judy and I were involved with neighborhood building work. Judy was trained as a community organizer and I was always interested in neighborhood culture, having grown up in a do-it-yourself community. We lived in several hippie co-ops in Philadelphia while I renovated old houses. We had two of our three children there.
What brought you to Portland?
Judy’s parents wined and dined us to come to Louisville, saying it was a much better place to raise children. Judy is a third-generation Portland resident. Her grandmother spent her entire life here, and her mother lived here until she got married. We were looking for a similar working-class neighborhood as the one we lived in, in Philadelphia. Portland seemed like the right fit for us.
So, we moved here in 1978. I got a job at The Preservation Alliance, doing an architectural survey of West Louisville, and then later as director of Portland Housing Program. We rented an old house on Northwestern Parkway, a yellow brick antebellum mansion. We had an apartment on the second floor. The owner of the house was Mr. Fertig, a bricklayer, who lived with his wife on the first floor. He told stories of looking for work during The Great Depression. He would stow away on the back of the brick trucks that passed through the neighborhood and worked wherever their destination was.
What keeps you here?
I’ve lived in a lot of different places. I’ve traveled a lot. My passport says I’ve been to about 40 different countries. Going from east coast culture to Kentucky culture sort of feels like going to a different country. Portland feels like living in another country, even though I’ve lived in Germany for two years.
I see Portland as a working class neighborhood. I like the people -- good-hearted, down-to-earth people. Real straightforward. Portland is really just a little country town, just like it was in 1835. And that’s because people move from the country of Southern Indiana and Kentucky to live here. I think it’s the most diverse neighborhood in all of Louisville. It’s very financially, ethnically and racially diverse. It’s an interesting place to live.
Got any favorite neighborhood spots?
I like the river a lot. I always gravitate to cities that have a significant geographic feature, like an ocean or a river. I’m a cancer, so I’m a water sign. I guess my favorite place, even though it’s not technically in Portland, are the fossil beds near the Falls of the Ohio. I go over there quite a bit.
I also like the McAlpine Locks. It’s one of the more interesting places on this side of the Ohio to witness human interaction with the river. They put 250 million dollars worth of improvement into it several years ago, adding a new lock and a visitor center. The workers also put two million dollars into the roof repair of the US Marine Hospital during the process.
Another place I like a lot is my backyard.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Well, let’s see.. Our three children were raised in Portland. It always worked out well for our family to live in a duplex, because I converted half of the home into my office and we lived in the other half. I always encourage younger couples to buy a duplex. You can live on one floor, rent out the upstairs and share the backyard. Your tenants can cover the mortgage and you can live rent-free.
This interview is part of an ongoing series called Our Portland Portraits.
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