By: Kevin Murphy Wilson
Photographer: Kathryn Harrington
Ever since he was a young boy, Dr. Galen Weiss has been intrigued by the iconic house that occupies the 4515 River Road plot. He isn’t quite sure what exactly he was drawn to back then, but he told the VOICE-TRIBUNE that “there was definitely something special about the property and that particular view of the Ohio River” that was calling his name. He recalled gazing in that direction often as his family lived very close to that spot and passed by nearly every day.
Weiss said that upon moving back to the area, after spending a significant amount of time away, he decided to look into acquiring a site to live in that was right on the water.
“There really weren’t any good options popping up. So, at a certain point I started asking about this one, not knowing what I was getting into. It wasn’t exactly on the market, and there were all these rumors about it. But the location was perfect. Even though the place was known to have fallen into disrepair, and I had never been inside, I wanted it even if I was going to have to build something new here,” Weiss explained.
However, once Weiss saw the hidden grandeur of the interior spaces and learned that the home had been designed and erected under the direction of — nationally-known, but locally-based — 20th century architect James J. Gaffney, there was no longer any chance of that potential new construction happening.
Although he was part of numerous high-profile projects, Gaffney is perhaps best known now for having designed St. James Catholic Church in Louisville’s Highlands district and the Waverly Hills Tuberculosis Sanitorium. He had a reputation for taking a somewhat eccentric approach to architectural design. That is to say that Gaffney frequently borrowed and recombined elements of multiple extraneous styles that he would then infuse into the primary form in which he was working at any given moment.
The Gaffney House is a perfect example of how the man worked in his prime with Mesoamerican, Mannerist, and Arts and Crafts influences apparent throughout the structure and an abundance of ornate touches to set it apart.
Here’s the best part about the story though: not only did Gaffney design the historically significant River Road home that had piqued Weiss’ interest at such an early age, he actually lived there himself for many years, which is why this waterfront landmark now bears his name.
Sensing this opportunity was too good to pass over; Weiss continued to badger the owners and was finally allowed to purchase the Gaffney House in 2020. He immediately started researching Gaffney’s life and professional trajectory as well as the lineage of the home’s owners and occupants.
“The most insightful document I came across was Lisa Grace Carpenter’s 1996 master’s thesis titled, ‘James J. Gaffney: A Study of the Man and his Architecture.’ I also unearthed a bunch of interesting archival photographs,” Weiss said.
These items helped Weiss build a rather compelling story around his looming reconstruction.
Then, partnering with WorK Architecture + Design and Wilkinson Builders Inc.,Weiss dutifully began the long hands-on overhaul that was necessary to transform the run-down Gaffney homeplace into the gorgeous short-term rental property — for weddings, meetings, corporate retreats, private events and overnight stays — that it is today.
Currently there are several large bedrooms (with quirky Kentucky-themed names), multiple dining areas and various sitting rooms scattered about the multi-level house. Each floor also boasts a stunning deck view of the Ohio River. Outside, guests can enjoy use of the boat dock and an expansive patio that is perfect for parties of all sizes. Importantly, there are plenty of parking spaces including within the Gaffney House’s double garage.
It has been a long journey, but Weiss couldn’t be happier with the results. And he is not alone in that assessment.
As one marker of success, Weiss points to the Filson Historical Society team who recently hosted a special tour of the Gaffney House and a reception at Poplar Terrace, which is another important Louisville property that is positioned to perfectly overlook it. “At that gathering the president of the Filson [Dick Clay] asked if he could give me a big hug. To me that meant he must have appreciated us trying to restore the home to its former glory and that he was also pleased with the way it turned out.”
To learn more about James J. Gaffney or renting the Gaffney House at 4515 River Road for your private event, visit www.thegaffneyhouse.com.