A Woven History

This article was published in the June issue of The Highlander Neighborhood Monthly, where I am interning this summer. 

The Wednesday evening is humid, but Stefanie Buzan and Leslie Clements are animated as they walk through Esta, one of three cabins that comprise The Little Loomhouse, at 328 Kenwood Hill Road. Showing off the cabin’s long and storied past, the women point out highlights in the room – a coverlet pattern on the wall that was woven for Eleanor Roosevelt, a loom that dates back to the 1950s, the fireplace where the song “Happy Birthday to You” was first sung.

The Little Loomhouse is a permanent, if sometimes unrecognized, feature of the Kenwood Hill neighborhood, tucked away on a shaded incline across from a few widely spaced ranch homes. The cabins – Esta, Wisteria and Tophouse – date back to the 19th century, when a man named Beoni Figg built Esta in the late1860s. Over time the cabins would become summer homes, among several in the area. Two of the hillside inhabitants were Mildred Jane and Patty Smith Hill, schoolteachers who had climbed to relative fame with their book of children’s songs. As the story goes, one day in 1893, during a birthday party at Esta, someone suggested that the Hill sisters replace the lyrics of their song “Good Morning to All” with “Happy Birthday to You,” thus creating a song that the Guinness Book of World Records would come to call the most recognized song in the English language.

The cabins’ most famous resident, however, was Lou Tate, a textile artist who developed a smaller version of the traditional loom and became an important member of the Kenwood community. She wove patterns for people like Eleanor Roosevelt, taught classes in weaving and obtained a master’s degree in history at a time when only a tiny percentage of women attended college. 

The Little Loomhouse’s rich history was what drew Clements and Buzan to the home; both live nearby, saw a sign marking the place, and decided to get involved. Buzan is now president of the The Lou Tate Foundation and Clements is vice president. Buzan also co-wrote “A View from the Top: The Neighborhoods of Iroquois Park” with fellow board member Rosemary McCandless. 

In addition, Buzan has recruited colleagues as volunteers through her employer, Humana. “Humana is a very committed corporate citizen,” says Buzan. “It encourages its employees to volunteer, and we were able to use the VolunteerMatch website to put our info out there to recruit other employees.”

The Internet – and the digital revolution in general – has also facilitated a revival of interest in the Loomhouse over the past couple of decades. The Loomhouse first offered longterm weaving classes under Lou Tate.  Today, they offer shorter classes in spinning and weaving, regular tours, and community outreach, such as the annual Spin-a-Yarn Storytelling Festival. (See calendar, pg. 7, for details.)

The Lou Tate Foundation has used the Internet not only to find volunteers, but to build up the Loomhouse’s reputation as a destination for visitors. Buzan and Clements say that before establishing their website and Facebook page, people seemed to just stumble upon the cabins as they visited nearby Churchill Downs or the Waterfront. Now, the two describe a noticeable increase in awareness – the bus load of people who came specifically to visit the Loomhouse, or the man in the birthday hat who took a picture in Esta just so he could be in the same place as the famous song’s origin. In 2009, the city put a historical marker at the entrance of the Kenwood Hill neighborhood to commemorate the Loomhouse and its association with the Hill sisters.

But as much as the digital revolution has helped The Little Loomhouse, the passage of time has hurt it. Over the last several decades the historic cabins have faced a host of structural issues, the most serious being the lack of a decent drainage system, causing the foundations to deteriorate. A full repair, including a new retaining wall and grating that would line the property, is expected to cost $70,000, according to a bid the foundation is considering. “We’re trying to keep in mind that we’re dealing with a historic property,” says Buzan, explaining the need to fix the problems in the least intrusive way while preserving the cabins in their rustic, historic setting. 

To raise the money needed for repairs, the board will write grants and solicit donations. But Clements and Buzan say that  raising awareness of the Loomhouse is still a priority. They are hoping the expanded classes and tours, the digital expansion, the highway marker and the storytelling festival – which has the support of local businesses, Metro Council members and celebrities like WAVE TV’s Dawne Gee – will all help the Loomhouse reach its goal.  

“Our goal has always been to make money, but also to get our name out there and make people aware that we’re here,” McCandless says of the annual storytelling festival. “It’s very family friendly, and it gets the neighborhood involved.”

For more information about The Little Loomhouse, call (502) 367-4792 or visit www.littleloomhouse.org.

– See more at: http://www.thehighlanderonline.com/print-articles/features/635-a-woven-history#sthash.YxpWFET3.dpuf