Franklin debates razing church

Verdict on historic church needed before new courthouse built

ralessi@herald-leader.comDecember 21, 2008 

  • How courthouses get off the ground

    In each county, a project development board oversees the process of building a new courthouse.

    Franklin County's board meets Monday at 4 p.m. in the third- floor conference room of the courthouse annex, 315 West Main Street, Frankfort.

    As part of new transparency measures imposed by Kentucky Chief Justice John D. Minton, the AOC created a Web site — http://courts.ky.gov/courthousegalleries/ — outlining details of the courthouse projects.

As Franklin County moves toward constructing a $30 million judicial center, the fate of a nearby 158-year-old church has touched off intense community debate.

County officials, who have been wrestling with where to place the new structure, have returned their focus to Good Shepherd Catholic Church's property behind the old county courthouse.

They are set to negotiate with church officials Monday afternoon before a formal meeting of the courthouse project development board at 4 p.m.

County Judge-Executive Ted Collins has proclaimed in public meetings that he wants to preserve the church, but some in the community are concerned that it will become the latest historic casualty of the Kentucky court system's $880 million effort to replace courthouses across the state.

"If you really want to protect that property, you need to keep it in private hands," Good Shepherd parishioner Tom Richardson said of the church. "I would rather see it stay in the hands of the church."

The church is used for Mass during the week, but Good Shepherd's Saturday and Sunday services are held at its new building on Lees-town Road, making the old structure potentially expendable.

"The die was cast when they made the decision to build the new church on the east side," said Don Stosberg, another parishioner. "The church doesn't have enough money to maintain two campuses."

The church and its adjacent Good Shepherd School sit on Wapping Street in historic downtown Frankfort, just around the corner from the county courthouse that judges and officials say they outgrew long ago. The church, with its distinctive steeple, has been a signature of Frankfort's modest skyline and a keystone building in the historic district near the Kentucky River.

The steeple is depicted in several works of 19th-century artist Paul Sawyier, who lived in Frankfort.

Collins, who also chairs the project development board, said the county "will do whatever necessary to preserve the church if we become the owner of it" — a pledge he also made to more than 80 people in a community meeting Thursday.

He told the Herald-Leader he's confident the property can accommodate a 101,200-square-foot judicial center, as the court system specs require, without destroying the church.

"Absolutely, we can build on that property without taking down the church," Collins said. "We can build around the church. We can negotiate to buy the property without the church. That's my preference."

Collins said it's unlikely any deal for the building between the church and county will be struck Monday, let alone approved by the board. He said board members, who include county and court officials as well as Frankfort residents, first must see whether the Good Shepherd property can accommodate the Administrative Office of the Courts' requirements for an expanded and upgraded courthouse.

Architect J. Richard Kremer, president of the Louisville firm Louis & Henry, is expected to present his latest sketches to the board on Monday. County officials don't expect the church building to be incorporated into the project, but want any new building to mesh aesthetically with the historic area.

"He's trying to be very respectful to the 1835 courthouse and the 1850 Catholic Church," Collins said of the architect. "We want it to fit in well and be something special."

The right site?

The new Franklin County judicial center has been in the AOC's construction queue since 2006. It's one of 70 county courthouse projects in the works or authorized since the AOC launched its construction blitz in 1998.

In a series of stories published in September, the Herald-Leader reported that historic buildings have had to make way for new courthouses across the state.

The Good Shepherd property was an early option for the new courthouse but church and county officials never agreed on a purchase price, Collins said. Eventually, the county looked elsewhere, finding a possible match with a newly razed plot near the Frankfort Convention Center once owned by Model Laundry.

This fall, new Supreme Court Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. briefly shelved the project after former Gov. Julian Carroll, a Frankfort lawyer and state senator, expressed concerns.

Carroll, who represents a group that wants to renovate the old courthouse, told the Herald-Leader in September that building a new structure might not be the best use of public funds "with the state and county governments hurting so direly for funds."

Carroll, who didn't return a call Friday from the Herald-Leader, also objected to constructing a judicial center at the Model Laundry site two blocks away from the old courthouse.

As a result, Good Shepherd leaders contacted Collins to restart negotiations. By October, Minton authorized the project board to resume so that it could consider the Good Shepherd site, said Garlan VanHook, AOC's facilities director.

Collins confirmed that negotiations for the property have been "in the ballpark" of $2 million. Of the $29.1 million project budget, $1.6 million has been allotted for buying property. Collins said that has "some flexibility to go up."

Bring in the new

Even if the church and county agree on a price, it won't be a done deal until the architects can prove they can mesh AOC's modern requirements — such as security features and stories that measure 17 feet from floor to floor — with the historic colonial style of the courthouse, church and other nearby buildings.

"There are inherent difficulties in marrying these two," VanHook said. "I find the concept interesting, but I believe there are significant limitations of the end product. That's why we're hopeful that Rick (Kremer) finds a solution."

Some Frankfort residents remain skeptical that a new courthouse could blend with its surroundings.

"Even when it's two stories, you're talking about being 35 feet high. And at three stories it starts to dwarf the historical courthouse," said Frankfort resident Scot Walters, who works for the Kentucky Heritage Council.

Walters said he hopes some organization — perhaps the county government — will take legal steps, such as prevention easements, to preserve the church.

Still, not all parishioners are automatically opposed to seeing the old church taken down.

Stosberg said he's open to demolition, considering the foundation needs repairs and it costs about $30,000 a year to keep the building up. But he'd like to see the organ, glass windows and historic steeple saved somehow.

"I consider myself a preservationist," Stosberg said. "But I don't think being a preservationist means preserving every building that's old. Sometimes I think you have to bless a building and send it on its way, like we do as people."

Staff writer Greg Kocher contributed to this report.

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