Old courthouse's fate in community's hands

City, not museum, dropped the ball

July 30, 2012 

  • At issue | July 22 Tom Eblen column, "Icon needs meaningful makeover"

Tom Eblen's column about the old courthouse and Lexington History Museum is a welcome contribution to the community discussion about the future of the building, closed by the city July 13 because of what was thought to be dangerous levels of lead in the building.

First, the museum management has known for years that there was lead paint and asbestos in the dome, and (intuitively) lead paint in the basement, the two areas not affected by the 1961 and 1972 renovations of the courthouse built from 1898 to 1900 that, among other improvements, added five courtrooms to the original one and created the fourth floor.

Because both the build date and the renovation dates for the building preceded the federal lead guidelines developed in 1978, lead removal was not a concern at the time.

And because the renovation of the building for museum operation took place from 2001 to 2003, the 2008 federal guidelines for removal of lead paint were not then in force.

Now, let's stop and think. From 1900 until 2001, the Fayette County Courthouse had dozens of employees and thousands of visitors exposed to lead paint throughout the building. Judges now in their 80s and 90s had long, healthy careers in the building. Untold numbers of children younger than 6 (the age range most affected by lead because of neurological development) stood with their parents in interminably long lines to renew license plates. Has anyone at any time been diagnosed with symptoms of any sort related to contact with this building?

The same goes for the asbestos that remains in place as insulation in the dome.

Can anyone think of any other city-owned buildings constructed before 1978 or renovated before 2008 that might also have lead paint? Are these buildings also going to be assessed as dangerous and closed?

Second, Eblen makes an excellent point that the mid-20th century renovations "ruined its interior beauty." The dome, however, was preserved in place, providing not just examples of the architectural details, but the building's color palette as well.

One should consider, however, what could have happened to the building had it not been for those "improvements." Most likely, the building would have been torn down and our downtown streetscape graced with a 1960s-era design.

Third, Eblen implies that museum management has been asleep at the switch about the need for specific improvements to upgrade the building as a museum. In 1999, the trustees engaged architect Greg Fitzsimons to draw up plans to restore the interior of the building to its original design, including the open staircase and two-story courtroom, as well as modern upgrades of HVAC, wiring and the like.

Part of the design includes a café to be operated in the Cheapside veranda, with inside seating and a kitchenette. Over time, consideration was given to planning retail space on the ground floor in spaces now occupied by two independent museums. From the very beginning, the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau had an open invitation to relocate to the ground floor, or to operate a satellite office in the building.

Finally, Eblen makes an excellent point that in the past, the city has bonded funding to save an old building, "then scrambled to figure out a use." That has never been the case with the old courthouse. The original intent from the Jan. 22, 1997, memorandum of understanding between the city and the state called for the city to "expend a minimum of one million dollars to convert the current Fayette County Courthouse to the Lexington History Museum, with the grounds of the current courthouse to be transformed into a park."

The city spent about $800,000 to convert the building to the museum but did nothing to upgrade the HVAC, which failed in the winter of 2009. Granted, the city has spent $231,000 over the past six years on maintenance, plus utility costs that have been far lower once the HVAC went out.

But the city bonded the Lyric Theatre several million dollars for its restoration and found $800,000 in private funds to build the Cheapside Pavilion, to say nothing of the millions in federal stimulus funds to improve the sidewalks.

So, funds have been available, but they flowed elsewhere. The city has yet to meet even its $1 million obligation.

Since October 2003, the museum has provided a note worthy service to the community, narrating the city's rich heritage to 46,104 natives, new residents and visitors from every state and 50 nations. It has constantly upgraded and added exhibits.

Is the old courthouse worth saving? Does it have a purpose? Does the community — public and private — have the will? Those are the unanswered questions.

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