Foster Ockerman Jr. : Restoring old courthouse a worthy downtown project

June 25, 2014 

Lexington's historic courthouse, which last housed three museums, has been closed for two years.

By Foster Ockerman, Jr.

Now that the renovation of Rupp Arena and construction of a new convention center have been put on indefinite hold, it is time to turn our collective attention back to a civic project we can actually wrap our hands around — restoration of our historic Old Courthouse.

Rupp and the convention center are still functional and operating to the benefit of Lexington, which owns the property.

The Old Courthouse, however, also owned by Lexington, has been empty and unusable since the discovery of lead dust forced the building to be closed in July 2012. The three museums housed there were forced to leave. It has sat empty since.

The building as originally constructed in 1899 was imposing both inside and out. The central atrium rose 111 feet from ground level to the interior top of the dome.

One of the first electrified buildings in town, at night the dome appeared a star-like sky with dozens of lights.

Inside this monumental space was a two story, brass railed "steamboat style" staircase and encircling galleries connecting the various county and court offices and the dramatic, two-story courtroom.

In the 1960s, the Old Courthouse was "modernized." The beautiful atrium was filled with a core of bathrooms, utilities, new elevators and ductwork. The HVAC units and the elevator penthouse were stuck up into the dome, which was closed off to the public.

This work destroyed a beautiful space; but it probably saved the structure itself from demolition.

Now is the time to focus on restoring the Old Courthouse to its original beauty.

Over the last three years, the Urban County Division of Facilities has worked diligently to stabilize the Old Courthouse, repairing leaks, draining pipes and otherwise putting it into mothball status. That much, at least, has been done.

In addition, for the last 18 months, the Courthouse Square Foundation, Inc., and others have been studying how to return the building to use.

The process is complicated by the fact that there is no general consensus on who or what should occupy a restored courthouse. Also, until recently, the Rupp project appeared to rule out a competing campaign because it was anticipated that every available dollar would go into it.

The Lexington History Museum reports that, when it was in the Old Courthouse, about 2,000 visitors a year came into the building from the three downtown hotels — without knowing what was there but with the expectation that such a major building would have something of interest.

Two more hotels are under development right across the street from the Old Courthouse, giving even more guests to our community the opportunity to look out their windows at what is now a dark, empty and shuttered building.

The Old Courthouse is a public building sitting on ground set aside for public use on the first plat of Lexington.

Whether it is government offices, quasi-government offices, like the Convention and Visitors Bureau, museums, or other nonprofits, the building needs to be restored and used to benefit Lexington.

Now that the Rupp elephant has left the room, let's have a community discussion and commitment to make this happen.

Foster Ockerman Jr. is a Lexington historian and attorney.

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