Historical designation delays plans for HealthFirst clinic

mmehan1@herald-leader.comMay 24, 2013 

With demolition scheduled to begin next month, construction on the $11.7 million, federally funded public health clinic on Southland Drive is being pushed back because the 1950s-era buildings on the site might be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

A historic review of the site has revealed that the buildings at 496 Rosemill and 496 Southland Drive are culturally valuable because they are among the last true vestiges of the suburban retail boom centered in 1950s Lexington along Southland Drive.

The National Historic Preservation Act does not allow tax dollars to be spent on construction until the historical value of a property has been evaluated and preserved.

HealthFirst Bluegrass, the tax-funded nonprofit trying to open the clinic, published a construction schedule May 14 that had demolition slated for June 24. The impact of the historic evaluation on the construction schedule is unclear. Project manager Ted J. Mims declined to comment to the Herald-Leader.

The historical value of the two properties came to light after a complaint was filed with Health Resources Service Administration, which oversees the grant. The complaint stated that an environmental and historical study of the property had not been completed. In January, HealthFirst officials made the complaint public and executive director William North said the historical review would take about two months.

But with the two buildings on the property being designated as eligible for listing on the National Register, the process continues.

Lexington-based Cultural Resources Analysts was hired by HealthFirst and has completed a historical review of the site. Now, HealthFirst officials, and representatives from the State Office of Historic Preservation, the Blue Grass Trust and Lexington Fayette County Urban Government, are meeting to come up with a plan to deal with the historical structures. That plan must then be approved by Health Services Resources Administration, which is overseeing the grant.

Of the 19 Southland-area properties examined by Cultural Resource Analysts, only the buildings on HealthFirst's clinic site were deemed to eligible for the National Register.

The buildings are more than 50 years old, and that's one of the requirements for inclusion on the National Register, but the report said they have other notable attributes.

The two-story mustard-colored office building and a one-story retail strip might not soon grace the pages of an architectural magazine, but Bill Johnston, a member of the board of directors of BlueGrass Trust, said "their presence is part of the rich history and fabric of that neighborhood."

Something "doesn't have to be beautiful to be architecturally significant," he said.

The two-story building was built in 1957 and represents an International style of office building that was true to the time but rare in Lexington, said Jason Sloan, historic preservation specialist with the trust. The one-story building was built in 1959, and the curved front and original fixtures are rare, the report said. Nothing has been built near the one-story building, allowing it to maintain its original 1950s orientation.

Many similar buildings have been torn down by private owners, who didn't have to meet the strict federal preservation requirements that come with spending tax dollars, Sloan said.

There are widely varying options to preserve the sites' historical integrity that are being discussed, Johnston said. One extreme would be "document and destroy": The existing buildings would be carefully photographed and catalogued, then would be taken down. On the other extreme, he said, the existing buildings could be incorporated into the design of the new clinic.

Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: BluegrassMoms.com.

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