Tom Eblen: Let's save the old Fayette County Courthouse

teblen@herald-leader.com,Tom EblenJuly 20, 2012 

The old Fayette County Courthouse is a Lexington icon — a Richardsonian Romanesque temple that since 1898 has dominated the center of downtown.

It was designed to be Lexington's pride and joy back when public buildings reflected a community's aspirations. For more than a century, it was a center of local government. For the past decade, it housed several small history museums.

For the past week, it has been a massive limestone box officially unfit for human occupancy.

City officials closed the building indefinitely July 13 after environmental testing found dangerous levels of lead-paint dust. It also has asbestos, and maybe mold. Officials are assessing the problems and repair costs.

But the old courthouse deserves more than hazard remediation. It needs to be completely renovated — and re-imagined. We shouldn't put it off any longer.

This once-magnificent building needs a bigger purpose, one that will serve the present and future as well as memorialize the past. It also needs a business plan to help pay for its restoration and provide for a sustainable future.

If you have been inside the old courthouse in recent decades, you probably were not impressed. That's because renovations in 1961 and 1972 made it more functional as a courthouse but ruined its interior beauty.

Ceilings were lowered to be more energy-efficient and to make room for more courtrooms and offices. The central rotunda was filled in with elevators and restrooms. Originally, the rotunda held a grand staircase and rose more than 100 feet to a blue, lighted dome decorated with paintings and carvings.

After new courthouses were built in 2001, there were dreams of converting the old building into a $22 million art and history museum, complete with underground galleries with skylights. That effort fell apart after the 9/11 terrorists attacks and the economic slump that followed.

Since then, the building has housed the Lexington History Museum, the smaller Lexington Public Safety Museum and the Kentucky Renaissance Pharmacy Museum. They display eclectic collections of artifacts and sustain themselves largely through the efforts of passionate volunteers. The Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum of local African-American history moved out last summer after the building's heating and air-conditioning systems quit working.

The good news is that modern heating, air-conditioning and elevator technology would allow the building's interior to be restored to its former glory. The largely intact dome could be uncovered and restored.

The bad news is that a complete renovation would cost about $15 million.

In the past, Lexington has "saved" popular old buildings through city bond financing, then scrambled to figure out a use for them. Some, such as the Lyric and Kentucky theaters, are arts and entertainment venues. Others, such as the Carnegie Center, Loudon House and Morton House, are used by worthwhile non-profit organizations.

But building upkeep is expensive, and city funds are scarce. The result is often less-than-adequate maintenance. (The city has spent more than $231,000 maintaining the old courthouse since July 2006, plus utility costs that recently have run between $20,000 and $45,000 a year.)

A new business model is needed, and the old courthouse provides an excellent opportunity to develop it. What could that building become? Mayor Jim Gray should ask the public for ideas.

Here are a few to get the discussion started.

I see the old courthouse as Lexington's visitors center — and more. It should be the first place tourists stop. They could see a smaller, more-focused Lexington History Museum and small exhibits from other local museums. A centrally located "museum of museums" would encourage visits to out-of-the-way gems such as the Headley-Whitney Museum and the art museum at the University of Kentucky.

Now that Cheapside is one of Lexington's hottest restaurant districts, a portion of the old courthouse's first floor could be rented out as a restaurant, with outdoor dining on the surrounding terrace. Upstairs space could be rented as offices.

Converting some of the building to commercial space could make the building eligible for new market tax credits. Combined with historic preservation tax credits, this could go a long way toward offsetting renovation costs. Rent payments could go toward utilities and maintenance. A non-profit organization or limited-liability corporation could be created to manage the city-owned building.

The old courthouse is an architectural treasure that needs saving. But unless Lexington finds a meaningful use for it and a business model to support that use, it will just need "saving" again and again.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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