What do those 'BGT' plaques on Lexington houses stand for? Workshop explains

bfortune@herald-leader.comJuly 7, 2012 

People have many misconceptions about buildings with "BGT" plaques on them, said Dick DeCamp, director emeritus of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, who originated the plaque program in the early 1970s.

A building doesn't have to date to 1900 to be eligible. The plaque doesn't protect a property from being torn down, and owners aren't eligible for special funds to fix up their houses.

DeCamp said a house need only be 50 years old and have some architectural or historic importance in its neighborhood. A Trust committee makes that decision.

DeCamp recounted the history of the plaque program and how it furthered local historic preservation efforts at a workshop Saturday morning sponsored by the Blue Grass Trust, a non-profit dedicated to preserving significant buildings in the Bluegrass. The workshop covered the history of the plaques, what they represent and how to find out which buildings are eligible.

For J.R. Zerkowski, the plaque on the front of his 1925 bungalow at 311 Ridgeway Road is about pride of ownership.

"I thought it was an excellent program organized to promote stewardship of a building," said Zerkowski, who bought his house last year. He found out about the program by seeing a BGT plaque on his neighbor's house.

In researching the history of his house, Zerkowski found that it is on a portion of the original Ashland estate owned by Henry Clay. His house is one of several on Ridgeway and Dudley roads said to have been owned by Clay's granddaughters. The house was built by one of the builders who developed Ashland Park.

Saturday's workshop was held on the lawn of Sts. Peter and Paul School, 423 West Short Street. The school, the adjoining St. Paul Catholic Church and the rectory are the most recent buildings to acquire BGT plaques.

About 900 plaques are mounted on houses, commercial buildings, schools and churches throughout Lexington. The program has been expanded to include the counties surrounding Fayette.

To receive a plaque, a property owner must complete an application available at the Trust office at 253 Market Street. The trust has sources of information to help people compile the necessary background.

A high percentage of applications are approved, said Jason Sloan, historic preservation specialist for the Trust. The property owner must pay $150 for the plaque.

When DeCamp started the plaque program for the Blue Grass Trust, historic preservation in Lexington was in its infancy.

"The plaques were really a bit of propaganda," DeCamp said. "We wanted some way to get people's attention, so when they saw a plaque, they would say, 'Oh, this area must be historic. It has houses with BGT plaques.'"

DeCamp said he got the idea from seeing similar designations in Hudson, Ohio.

The BGT plaques were designed by Skip Taylor, a graphic artist at the University of Kentucky, and cast by the UK College of Engineering.

Preservation was a hard sell at first, DeCamp said. He was the first executive director of the Blue Grass Trust and the head of the city's first Historic Commission.

"People said, 'Why preserve anything in Lexington? It's not Charleston or Williamsburg,'" he recalled, chuckling. "Charleston and Williamsburg were so perfect, people couldn't see that Lexington had buildings with historic and architectural significance worth preserving.

"It was the beginning of looking at preservation as whole areas — and as part of the city's planning process, not just individual buildings."

Next came a push to put buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. From there, Lexington created historic overlay districts that protect buildings from being razed.

"Today, downtown is surrounded by wonderful, historic neighborhoods," DeCamp said. "Downtown would look much different if these areas hadn't been preserved."

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

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