Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Rathskeller

The U.S. is filled with places that call themselves rathskellers. You can't visit a college town without finding one. But an actual rathskeller, a cellar beer hall patterned unironically after the German model? Those are harder to find.

One breathtaking survivor of this genre of drinking hole sits, relatively unused but perfectly preserved, in the basement of the old Seelbach Hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. The hotel was founded by the German Seelbach brothers in 1886. In 1907, they expanded to include the Rathskeller. Beautiful and cavernous (it could swallow up a party of 1,000 easily), it is decorated with rare, beautifully colored Rookwood Pottery from Cincinnati, which render the room a work of art in itself. The grandly arched ceiling are help up by a series of columns ringed by Rookwood pelicans. (Pelicans were a sign of good luck.) Tile designs on the Rathskeller's walls depict walled cities in the Rhenish region of Germany, where the Seelbach brothers, Otto and Louis, were born. Above the oak bar is a ceiling made of fine-tooled leather and painted in a heraldic design with the twelve signs of the zodiac.

The space had to be closed during Prohibition. It reopened in 1934 and was a USO during World War II. Legend has F. Scott Fitzgerald visiting the place. Currently, it is used for private functions and doesn't operate regularly as a bar. This, to me, seems a crying shame. I have rarely seen a bar of more unique character. It would be more than a pleasure to drink under its tiled ceilings. It would be a transporting experience.

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