UnCommonwealth: 50 things that define Lexington

From typewriters to pie, city has a varied cultural identity

ctruman@herald-leader.comOctober 14, 2012 

  • 'Hey, you left out ..."

    Can't find something you hold dear on this list? Please e-mail Cheryl Truman at ctruman@herald-leader.com with items we may have omitted.

A little more than a month ago, UnCommonwealth asked readers to help pick 50 objects that define Lexington. The idea was not original to us but the brainchild of several other media outlets.

Where the New York Times received suggestions from its readers for keys and inventions, we got a whole bunch of horses — statues and a skeleton and the real thing. We also got some unusually thoughtful submissions — such as the limestone on which so much of our region's good fortune rests.

Apparently our readers were also hungry. We got a cornucopia of ideas about Lexington food. Apparently food is our bliss, be it a doughnut or the faint whiff of roasting peanuts, which, for someone sitting on Winchester Road after a rough day, can lift spirits. And, finally, some wise soul threw in the twin towers of coal and tobacco, and our list was made.

Hence we have filled 50 slots with objects that define Lexington — some of them glorious, some tacky, some ephemeral, some just plain intriguing.

They are presented in no particular order of importance. This is a list, not a ranking.

1. Painted horses from the Horse Mania project. Artists decorated fiberglass horses that later appeared around town at two different times — in 2000 and 2010. Others mimicked the idea — a house on Bryan Station Road near the entrance to Deep Springs has erected two painted horses in its yard.

2. A pie from Missy's. Some swear by the black-bottom pie, but it's the peanut butter pie that will make you want to slap your mama. A few years back, a visiting Canadian author asked a reporter what to eat in Kentucky. After an order of a hot Brown at Ramsey's Diner and a slice of Missy's peanut butter pie, the possibility existed that he might pop. Other food items included: A doughnut from Spalding's. "Heaven in a fat pill," writes reader Michelle Harr of the tasty pastries. And a breadstick from Joe Bologna's: The savory counterpart of the Spalding's doughnut, the Joe B's breadstick arrives immersed in a trough of garlic butter, which sticks with your taste buds for hours.

And, finally, a sancho from Taco Tico, to remind us of the days when Lexington was so much less culturally diverse that you couldn't get authentic Mexican food and baked foods, much less the plastic-stucco offerings of Taco Bell. Readers also suggested: fried banana peppers, beer cheese and a hot Brown sandwich.

3. University of Kentucky basketball. The 2012 NCAA trophy and the new banner at Rupp Arena are already iconic for UK fans. Many Kentuckians who have never seen a UK men's basketball game nonetheless live and breathe the Cats, which are a fixture in print, online and on a string of radio and TV shows.

4. The stained-glass windows at Central Christian Church on Short Street. Stained-glass windows were "rescued" from the church's original Barr Street entrance and were later highlighted in the new entry. The windows, which date to 1895, had not been seen since a 1930s makeover covered them.

5. Jif peanut butter. You know it's a good day when you drive past the Smuckers plant and smell the peanuts roasting. Writes reader Harr: "Anyone who spent time on the north end back in the day remembers the great smells that came from the Jif factory on Winchester Road and the Rainbo factory on West Sixth. If you were really lucky, you could get both smells at once."

6. A plank from Calumet's fence. For plane travelers, the elating moment when the fences of Calumet on Versailles Road appear are either a display of regional beauty or a welcome back home.

7. A signed/framed menu from Malone's/Sal's. Lexington loves food and it loves a meet-and-greet, and one of the signs is the line in front of any new-ish eatery with buzz the first few months it is open. Some of the restaurants go on to become Lexington institutions, among them Malone's/Sal's.

Lexingtonians also like their dive restaurants. Alfalfa is in a nicer Main Street building now, but is fondly remembered for its old location in a low-ceilinged, rustic building across from the main entrance of the University of Kentucky. And don't forget the wonderful restaurants of yesteryear, among them The Saratoga, High on Rose and Brookings, which made the chili that Adolph Rupp loved.

8. Nikky Finney's National Book Award-winning poetry collection Head Off and Split. Lexington is a regional hotbed of literary culture. Several of the Affrilachian poets live and work here, including Finney, the Guy Davenport Endowed Professor in the Department of English at UK.

9. A paddleboat in Jacobson Park. Lexington is a town with a good public parks system, even if its pool offerings have contracted in recent years. Offerings at the 216-acre Jacobson Park include a dog park, fishing and a children's playground.

10. The Parkette Drive-In sign and the Burger Shake sign, both on New Circle Road. That carhop has been leaning forward for six decades.

11. Tolly-Ho. It might be sleek now that it has moved to South Broadway, but the original site along South Limestone was the very definition of dive-a-licious for generations of college students.

12. A New Circle Road sign. If you remember when the ring road was called the "belt line," count yourself an old-time Lexingtonian. If you participated in the idea of making the north part of it "limited access," hang your head.

13. Old Lafayette Hotel. If you want a quick lesson on how small people used to be, try taking the steps at what is now the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Center. The high-rise hotel closed in 1960 and was a private office building for 20 years before it was bought to become the government center.

14. Rupp Arena. Lexingtonians go to Rupp for the big shows, including concerts, basketball and high school graduations. The legendary UK men's basketball coach's son, Adolph Rupp Jr., said in 1996, "A lot of people associate Rupp Arena with Lexington. If you say Lexington, people say, 'That's where Rupp Arena is.'"

15. Old Morrison at Transylvania University — or just one of its columns. The signature building at the oldest college west of the Alleghenies has been in the front seat for much of Lexington's history.

16. Kentucky Theatre. Ah, to have been young and dressed up as Magenta for The Rocky Horror Picture Show the night the motorcycle came roaring down the aisle. This downtown historic theatre just celebrated its 90th birthday.

17. Lexington Financial Center. Resolutely dubbed the Big Blue Trash Can by many because of its sheared top, Lexington's tallest building is a great orientation point for those with direction dyslexia. One look and you know that downtown is thataway.

18. Wolf Wile building now occupied by Gray Construction on Main Street. Wolf Wile used to be a go-to downtown shopping destination, remembered by generations of Girl Scouts as the only place to get your uniform back when it came with a required pair of white gloves.

19. Thoroughbred Park. Tourists come to Lexington looking for a track and find themselves instead photographing the eternal horse race at Main and Midland. The bronze statues were designed by local artist Gwen Reardon.

20. Triangle Park. An '80s development allowed to flourish after a vigorous debate about making it a triangle parking lot. The park features lighted fountains, and in winter, an ice skating rink and the city Christmas tree.

21. Lexington Cemetery, in particular Henry Clay's tomb. Lexington Cemetery is not one of those places where landscape maintenance can be accomplished with a single zero-turn-radius lawn mower, and Lexington is the better for it.

22. Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. Henry Clay's peripheral connection to it notwithstanding, the house anchors the entrance to downtown Lexington with a meadow-like beauty.

23. The skeleton of the 19th-century racehorse Lexington at the Kentucky Horse Park's International Museum of the Horse. The skeleton is on permanent loan from the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

24. Flight 5191 memorial. The 2006 plane crash affected everyone in Lexington. The memorial to the tragedy, alluding to the flight of the souls lost, gives continuing dignity to their memory. It's near the rose garden at the Arboretum.

25. The Arboretum. Who will you meet on your walk around the Arboretum, the Kentucky state botanical garden, which opened in Lexington in 1991?

26. Real horses. The joy of living in Lexington is that you can see horses every day — not just on farms, but often off your own back deck. There is little so thrilling as a rush of horses right outside.

27. Keeneland: What about Keeneland, Lexington's Thoroughbred racetrack, do you like best?

Bruce Simpson: "The Rolex free-standing clock at Keeneland near the paddocks has been there for years. It is a place where young people are 'frozen in time' because every meet, the young college kids gather there to mingle. They are always 20-something. They have always been the same age at every meet since I first went to a Keeneland in the 1970s. There is no question that semiannual visits to Keeneland are special and something that most Lexingtonians look forward to attending. Many of us began our annual treks to Keeneland by congregating with other young people around that Rolex clock."

Jayne Moore Waldrop: "I'd like to nominate a Keeneland pin as an object that contributes to Lexington's identity. The pin symbolizes the racetrack's value as a social and sporting destination for the community and its role as the hub of the Horse Capital of the World."

28. First National Bank Building, soon to be a 21c Museum Hotel. The Main Street tower was the tallest structure west of the Allegheny Mountains in 1915. In April, it was announced that the building and adjacent parcels will be converted into a 21c Museum Hotel — a combination boutique hotel and art museum.

29. Patterson Office Tower, University of Kentucky. It's Big Concrete, not Big Blue. The elevators seem to be as heavily traveled as Rose Street at class change, and it served as a hulking reminder that education is one of Lexington's biggest industries.

30. Memorial Coliseum, University of Kentucky. Sometimes the architectural mishmash that is the University of Kentucky yields a winner: the blond brick facade of the 8,000-seat Memorial Coliseum, simple yet intricate with its brick flares, hosted the men's basketball team until Rupp Arena took over in 1976.

31. Castlewood Park/Loudoun House. Castlewood Park is where generations of North Lexingtonians learned to swim and play baseball. The park's beauty is accented by Loudoun House, home of the Lexington Art League. The house, with its towers and turrets, is considered an example of Gothic revival architecture.

32. Raven Run. It's delightful to hike down to the limestone cliffs on the Kentucky River. Somewhat less delightful is the trudge back up.

33. The bourbon industry. It is hard to pick out just one stop on Kentucky's bourbon trail tour of distilleries. And 2012 has so far been a banner year for such tours.

34. A handprint in freshly-turned garden soil. This reader suggestion made the cut because of Lexington's agricultural heritage and its recently renewed interest in locally grown food, the "slow food" movement and gardening.

35. The statue of the nomad on the camel in front of the Lexington Public Library on Main Street. The statue was meant to mark the center of Lexington as an early way-finding device, enabling travelers to say that a destination was a certain number of miles from Lexington (as designated by the camel). But it has been moved several times. There is also the Smiley Pete plaque at Main and Limestone.

Writes Jock Gum: "A town dog is pretty much a thing of the past, but in June of 1957, there were Lexington community members who cared enough for Pete that a handsome plaque was created to preserve his memory."

36. An IBM Selectric typeball. IBM changed the face of Lexington in the late 1950s. The typeball drove the Selectric.

37. A limestone rock. From Jeanne Woodberry: "The Bluegrass Area is atop Ordovician limestone — 450 million years old, formed in warm, shallow waters near the equator, layers of the shells of marine invertebrates. Through many complex geological events, this land mass moved to this area of the globe and is now that over which we walk, build our houses, amass our shopping centers. This is why the Bluegrass area is one of 100 of the world's most endangered sites. The fertility of the soil from the erosion of this particular limestone is all but unmatched on the surface of the earth. Its phosphatic content makes it outstandingly adapted for livestock production. We pave over gold."

38. McConnell Springs. A reader suggested that one of our objects be an acorn from one of the bur oaks at McConnell Springs, where Lexington was founded, because those trees were alive then.

39. John Hunt Morgan memorial. Morgan is seated on a horse on the old Courthouse Plaza on Main Street. Although Kentucky did not secede, Morgan joined the Confederacy. His horse is anatomically correct, and that has prompted many pranks.

40. A bourbon barrel. With Lexington launching its own Town Branch distillery, and the resounding success of marketing distillery visits along the Bourbon Trail, it's always time to raise a cup — a julep cup, perhaps — to Kentucky's contribution to the world bar lineup. (Bourbon barrels also make great planters.)

41. Paris Pike. Described as "the nexus of the new and the old," the drive on Paris Pike north of the Joyland neighborhood is a showcase of what can happen when history is preserved and the modern is showcased. It's a gorgeous drive that shows in a nutshell what Central Kentucky is all about.

42. Collins Bowling Center-Southland. There's also an Eastland location. It's clear that Lexingtonians don't love just basketball. If you've spent time watching amateur and youth sports, you know how hotly contested even the most innocent T-ball game can be.

42. Lyric Theatre. "The Lyric represents the best of community," architect Susan Stokes Hill said when the theater reopened as a cultural center in 2010. The theater, at Elm Tree Lane and East Third Street, served black residents of Lexington when other theaters were segregated.

43, 44. Tobacco, coal. "I grew up on a small tobacco farm in Appalachia," writes J. Steven Gardner. "By a twist of fate, I ended up working in coal mining in Eastern Kentucky, which eventually led me to consulting engineering here in Lexington. Our (engineering) offices at 340 South Broadway are formerly offices of the Kentucky Coal Association. There are 2 large lumps of Kentucky coal outside of our building. In honor of my father and his pride in being a tobacco farmer, I set a couple of tobacco plants each year beside the coal."

45. The old city/county division in Fayette County. Many Lexingtonians do not remember that when voters endorsed a merger in 1972, it was after years of hard-fought debate that caused long-lasting bitterness. Sharon Hill does: "A wall map I saw in the public safety museum in the old courthouse a few years ago showed the jurisdiction boundaries for the Lexington and Fayette county police forces at the time of the merger. What a confused mess! It'd be a great representation of our odd merged city-county government, and the good reasons we went this direction."

46. Bluegrass 10,000. The July 4 footrace is an annual reminder, along with fireworks and other holiday festivities, that we can all indeed get along for at least a day.

47. Farmers markets. The downtown market on Saturday morning is the classic for people-watching and showing others your devotion to home-grown tomatoes, but those on other days and other locations also have their devotees. Other locales and markets have sprouted up over the years, too.

48. Fayette Mall, Turfland Mall. That the mall is still thriving and packed to the gills with people who will pay $4 for a Slurpee is testament to the buoyancy of the Lexington economy in the face of a long, deep recession.

Turfland Mall was Lexington's first mall back when "mall" was a cool new retail concept and Love Story was a trendy movie, but the parcel has struggled in recent years. In June, a Western Kentucky bank began trying to foreclose on the property.

The Richmond Road site of Lexington Mall, the smaller east Lexington shopping center that thrived for many years, particularly when it was anchored by a McAlpin's clothing store at one end and a McAlpin's home store at the other, will soon house a Southland Christian Church satellite.

49. Clays Ferry I-75 bridge leading to Madison County. Any bridge over the Kentucky River is a grand view, especially if it allows you to see the limestone cliffs, but the Clays Ferry bridge reminds Lexingtonians that we're not entirely landlocked.

50. The Hamburg development. Say what you like about the former horse farm property's development into a clutch of retail parcels, office space, commercial use and housing. Either it was the apocalypse for Lexington's wide open spaces or the best idea ever. So far, it has been resoundingly successful.

Cheryl Truman: (859)231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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