City takes first tentative steps toward restoring old Fayette courthouse, two years after closing

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comJuly 19, 2014 

Hidden from public view for more than 50 years, the interior dome of the old Fayette County Courthouse is fading and starting to deteriorate.

The yellow paint on the walls is peeling. Pigeons have moved in.

On the ceiling of the dome are black dots — burned-out light bulbs that used to replicate stars.

The cost to restore the dome to what it looked like in 1900, when the courthouse first opened, is one of several issues that will be addressed in a new study.

This month, the Urban County Council approved a $110,000 contract with EOP architects for an initial structure assessment and a historical inventory of the four-story former courthouse on Main Street.

The building was closed in July 2012 after the discovery of lead dust, asbestos and other hazardous materials. The three museums that were housed in the building — the Lexington History Museum, a police museum and a pharmacy museum — were forced out.

"This is the first step to see what needs to be done," said Jeff Fugate, president of the Lexington Downtown Development Authority, which is overseeing the old courthouse project. "I really hope this report will be a call to action."

The report will be finished in late fall. It will serve as a road map for the next steps for one of the city's oldest municipal buildings.

"We can't move forward without knowing what we are dealing with," Fugate said.

Foster Ockerman Jr. said he hopes the EOP assessment will generate more public input and investment in the structure that sits in the heart of downtown in a bustling entertainment district.

Ockerman has pushed to have the courthouse restored since 2001, when construction began on Lexington's two newer courthouses.

"Why has it taken so long?" Ockerman asked about efforts to restore the building. "It's just a function of the community bringing its focus to the old courthouse. We have had a lot going on. We have been concerned about CentrePointe, the Lyric Theatre and then Rupp Arena."

Mayor Jim Gray temporarily suspended the Rupp Arena project in June.

Ockerman, a lawyer, said now that Rupp is off the table, he hopes the city and its citizens can focus on the courthouse.

Ockerman chairs the nonprofit Courthouse Square Foundation, which has been working with the city to find new uses for the building — Fayette County's fifth courthouse and the third on that site.

With new developments on Main Street, including the nearby 21c Museum Hotel and CentrePointe, that area of downtown has become a focal point, Ockerman said.

To have a historic building sit dark for too long can drain energy from downtown and send the wrong message to visitors and investors, Fugate said.

"We put between two to three million dollars into Cheapside Park, millions of dollars have gone into restaurants in the area, $40 million in the 21c Museum and hundreds of millions into the CentrePointe development," Fugate said. "For us to yawn and assume that the courthouse isn't important or that the courthouse is too hard, does not encourage people to invest in Lexington."

Lexington has a habit of tearing down its historic public buildings, Fugate said.

"We tore down the old post office, we tore down the old train station, we have torn down the old city hall," Fugate said. "The only major historic public building left in Lexington is the old courthouse, and it sits on Main Street."

Once EOP finishes its assessment, the city will have a better idea of what it will cost to fix some of the problems in the building.

A previous study estimated the cost at $18 million to $20 million to restore the courthouse to what it looked like before the 1960s, when it was modernized and its atrium was filled with HVAC systems, bathrooms and other mechanical structures.

Before that major renovation, the central atrium rose 111 feet from the ground level to the interior top of the dome. It had a two-story staircase and a dramatic, two-story courtroom.

Andrew Moore and Daniel Polk of EOP started their assessment last week. Moore said they are trying to determine exactly what's in the building, what's original and what was added. Polk said that even the most current architectural plans for the courthouse have rooms marked on them that are no longer there.

A complete restoration to what it looked like when it opened in 1900 might be too costly, Fugate said.

It's the cost that worries Urban County Council member Julian Beard.

"$18 million is too much," Beard said. Beard, who has been the council's most vocal skeptic about the project, said he also questions whether the courthouse could be converted into retail or cafe space.

"It only has two parking spaces," Beard said.

But how the space will be used might determine what work will be needed, Fugate said.

Ockerman said that it could still be used for museum space or possibly the Visitors and Convention Bureau, now called VisitLex.

"It's the perfect place to start any sort of historic tour in Fayette County," Ockerman said.

Other possibilities include retail, cafe and market space on the ground floor, public meeting space on the second floor and office space and storage on the third and fourth floors.

EOP is working with Philadelphia firm Preservation Design Partnership, which specializes in restoring and repurposing historic buildings. Part of the report will include possible uses for the building, said Moore, project manager for EOP.

The city has set aside a little more than $500,000 for the initial planning stages of the project.

The Lexington Downtown Development Authority is exploring a host of funding options depending on what the space will be used for. Those options could include historic and other tax credits, private investment, fundraising and public money.

"What the space will be used for will decide how we fund it," Fugate said.

Beth Musgrave: (859) 231-3205. Twitter: @HLCityhall.

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