The ‘Architectural Downfall’ of Fred Joseph

How the Louisville attorney worked his passions for civil rights and building into a community-based real estate practice

Published in 2018 Ohio Super Lawyers — January 2018

When Louisville native Fred Joseph went north to Wesleyan University in the early 1960s, his course seemed charted. As the son and grandson of Louisville architects, he expected to return to Kentucky to follow in their footsteps, perhaps designing distilleries—a former specialty at Joseph & Joseph Architects.

He was dissuaded. Joseph quips that three of his professors—in art, physics and calculus—“argued that I had less talent in their respective fields than anyone that they had run into. I was neither artistic, scientific nor mathematical. And that, I think, was the cause of my architectural downfall.”

Ironically, the career path Joseph chose led him back to architectural projects. His 44 years in private practice have incorporated real estate law, lending and financing, with a focus on community redevelopment and affordable housing. 

That focus is important to Joseph. As a child, he recalls, “I saw racial discrimination in housing, public accommodations, hiring—you name it. Additionally, religious discrimination in employment, housing, et cetera was common.”

Many of his projects have involved revitalizing low-income neighborhoods, transforming them into high-quality, mixed-income developments that include social programs. “These programs are a meaningful step in assisting low-income individuals to become part of the mainstream of our society,” Joseph says.

In addition, he has handled litigation for the ACLU and served on civic boards as varied as the Kentucky Oral History Commission, the Jewish Community Federation of Louisville and the Legal Aid Society of Louisville.

Joseph’s combination of success and service has brought honors including being the first attorney to win the March of Dimes REACH (Real Estate Achievement and Community Involvement) award in 2008. Joseph says his activities have allowed him to “give back to a community which has been very kind to me.” 

It all started back at Wesleyan, when—after the “architectural downfall”—Joseph delved into politics and civil rights under the tutelage of Clement Vose, a professor and constitutional law scholar at Wesleyan. 

“Professor Vose was a student of the law and presented the legal profession as a vehicle of justice and social change,” Joseph says. “He was also interested in city planning and encouraged my once again taking planning and community development courses.”

Combined passions for land use, city planning and civil rights carried Joseph to law school at the University of Michigan. Afterward, he headed to Washington, D.C.

Lyndon Johnson was in office when Joseph arrived at the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, working in the Office of the General Counsel from 1968 to 1971. It was the time of Johnson’s War on Poverty, and Joseph spent four years working with a group of stars and future stars who included Sargent Shriver, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. 

Joseph moved next to a position as counsel to the Civil Rights Oversight Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. There, he worked on voting-rights issues with former Freedom Rider John Lewis, who now represents Georgia’s 5th Congressional District; and on Native American issues with Rep. Mo Udall. Joseph later became the Kentucky chairman for Udall’s 1976 presidential bid. Joseph says D.C. was a more collaborative working environment when he was there. 

“The principal thing that we did was to review the implementation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” he says. “The committee was basically split Republican and Democrat. We had a unanimous committee report condemning the Nixon administration for [failure to] enforce the Voting Rights Act.”

Joseph married his wife, Anne, while working in D.C.; in 1972, they sold their house on Capitol Hill and went on a six-month multicontinental camping journey, after which they moved to Louisville. “I wanted the experience of Washington, but when I raised a family,” he says, “I wanted to do it in Kentucky.”

He joined Handmaker, Weber & Meyer, where—with his interest in architecture—real estate law came easily. From Handmaker, he moved on to Middleton-Reutlinger, in 1983 switching to Stites & Harbison, where he focused on representing institutional lenders; shifting in recent years to representation of government agencies in affordable housing and creative mixed-use/residential programs. 

In the $200 million-plus Park DuValle project, the city hired him to lay the legal groundwork for a redevelopment project that, in alignment with the principles of the HOPE VI federal program, transformed low-income projects into mixed-income residential units to replace a concentration of large-scale public housing. It was followed by revitalization projects such as the $235 million-plus Liberty Green, also a HOPE VI project; and the $75 million transformation of the former Louisville Galleria to 4th Street Live. He was also lead real estate counsel to the Louisville Regional Airport Authority in the Heritage Creek Innovative Housing Program, developed for residents displaced by a new airport.

Math aside, Joseph sees parallels in the way architects and attorneys work. “Both an architect and a lawyer try to analyze a problem to lay out specific issues with which they want to deal; try to plan for those issues; approach a problem logically over a timeline; try to deal with what resources are needed in order to solve a problem,” he says. “I think you approach building a building in the same way that you would approach solving a legal issue and try to mobilize your resources in a way that most effectively does that.” 

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