Bank building that will become 21c Museum Hotel stands tall historically

Famed firm designed city's 1st skyscraper

bfortune@herald-leader.comApril 15, 2012 

The historic First National Bank building has been architecturally and historically significant since it opened in 1914 as the home of Fayette National Bank.

Known as Lexington's first skyscraper, the 15-story landmark at 167 West Main Street regained prominence last week with the announcement of plans to convert it to a 21c Museum Hotel.

"For many years it was one of the tallest buildings in this part of the United States," said Clyde Carpenter, professor of architecture and historic preservation in the University of Kentucky College of Design. "It was an amazing building when it was built because of its height."

The structure was designed by McKim, Mead & White, a leading architectural firm of the day, noted for mansions it designed for the rich and famous in Newport, R.I., Carpenter said. The firm's design credits also include a long list of major public buildings such as Madison Square Garden and Pennsylvania Station in New York and the Boston Public Library.

"To have a building in Lexington designed by them was amazing," Carpenter said.

Architecturally, the First National Building was considered a classic skyscraper of the period, he said. "It has a very defined base, a central shaft, and then the top is an elaborate piece with three-story arched windows. It's a beautifully proportioned building."

McKim, Mead & White was commissioned by Fayette National Bank. The bank, founded in 1870, prospered in the years leading up to World War I, becoming a leading financial institution in Central Kentucky, according to research from the city's Division of Historic Preservation.

Bank directors, including president J. Edward Bassett, wanted a new building to reflect this prominence.

Bassett's grandson James E. "Ted" Bassett III, long-time president of Keeneland Race Course, said recently that his grandfather hired McKim, Mead & White to create a "new architectural gem in downtown Lexington."

The elder Bassett thought the building "would serve as a catalyst for other commercial activities to renew their faith and confidence in Lexington's economic future," Ted Bassett said in an interview for a video about the building that was shown at a news conference Tuesday when the 21c Museum Hotel was announced by Mayor Jim Gray.

"It was a very prestigious place to have an office," Carpenter said.

The building is not expansive. Over the years, Carpenter said, it became less desirable for offices because it did not have the space that large firms want today. "But for a hotel or apartments, it is ideal."

At Tuesday's news conference, Urban County Council member Julian Beard talked about his first summer job in college, working in the building for First National Bank.

One day the building engineer needed to go to the top of the building to lubricate elevator cables and asked Beard if he wanted to go along. They got up there by climbing on top of one of the elevators and standing there, holding on, while the elevator operator sped up to the 15th floor.

"You could look to the top of the elevator shaft. I was sure we would be squished against the top," Beard said.

"After the inspection, the engineer told the elevator operator to take us to the basement 'as fast as you can,'" Beard said. "As we were going down, another elevator was going up, also really, really fast. When we passed, the cumulative speed was like 600 miles per hour. I thought we were going to sucked right off. I was holding on for dear life."

In 1970, H. Foster Pettit, president of Pettit Inc., bought the First National Building from First Security National Bank and Trust Co., soon after First Security had been created by the merger of First National Bank and Security Trust Co.

First Security built headquarters at 201 East Main and was later acquired by Banc One Corp, which in turn became part of Chase Bank.

Pettit sold the First National Building in 1999 for $2.9 million to a partnership formed by Lexington insurance executives Biff Buckley and his father, Ben. The Buckleys are still the owners, and have the building under contract to sell to 21c Museum Hotels.

McKim, Mead & White designed at least one other Lexington project — Union Station, which was on East Main Street from 1907 to 1960 in the area where police headquarters is now.

Stanford White, one of McKim, Mead & White's principals, was shot to death in 1906 in Madison Square Garden by Harry Kendall Thaw, the jealous millionaire husband of chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit, with whom White had had an affair that started in 1901 when he was 47 and she was 16.

The murder led to two of the most sensational trials of the early 20th century. The jury deadlocked at the first trial. Thaw pleaded temporary insanity and was acquitted at the second.

Beverly Fortune: (859) 231-3251. Twitter: @BFortune2010.

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