Lexington's old courthouse could be fenced off because of structural issues, other problems

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comAugust 19, 2014 

Some areas around the old Fayette County Courthouse, which is now shuttered, could be fenced off soon after a recent report showed structural damage to the courthouse's balconies and other problems, city officials said Monday.

During an ongoing structural and historical assessment of the 1900 building, structural engineers discovered last week that four balconies were beginning to come away from the building. In addition, support beams for the roof of the basement that extends to Short Street show signs of deterioration.

Jeff Fugate, president of the Lexington Downtown Development Authority, said that it was likely that water and other damage to the building caused the deterioration of the steel beams in the basement and the area surrounding the balconies. The Downtown Development Authority is overseeing efforts to restore the old courthouse.

A report by BFMJ, the structural engineers hired to make the assessment, recommended that the area behind the courthouse on the Short Street side be fenced off and that the city shore up the basement until further repairs could be made.

The engineers recommended installing a net around the balconies to ensure that pieces of stone do not fall before permanent repairs can be made. The city also could fence off areas around those balconies.

The engineers' report was delivered to the Urban County Council late Monday afternoon. Fugate will discuss the contents of the report during a meeting of the Urban County Council on Tuesday.

The Urban County Government owns the building, which was shuttered in July 2012 because of asbestos, lead paint and other hazardous materials.

Three different museums were in the courthouse before it closed in 2012. It has not been used as a courthouse since 2001, when the new court buildings opened a block away.

Jamshid Baradaran, director of facilities and fleet management for the city, said the city already had set aside $300,000 to stabilize the building while it decides what to do with the four-story structure.

The structural engineers' assessment of the building was not a shock to city officials who have monitored the building for several years, Baradaran said.

"We are not surprised that there are structural issues," he said. Baradaran said that they had been aware of problems involving the basement that extends past the building and stops approximately two feet from the south curb of Short Street. The city put barriers up to keep people from driving on that area, he said.

Baradaran said that they will discuss with the council possible options to fence off or keep people away from the building.

"It's not a matter of if," Baradaran said of closing the area to pedestrians. "Obviously, public safety is first and foremost in the decision-making process. We have to identify what areas need to be fenced off or cordoned off. ... We will make sure to minimize the impact on the farmers market. But safety is going to be the number one priority. We don't want to have anyone exposed to any falling debris."

The Lexington Farmers Market is held on Saturdays next to the courthouse on Cheapside Street in Fifth Third Bank Pavilion.

Earlier this summer, the Urban County Council approved a $110,000 contract with EOP architects for an initial structural assessment and a historical inventory of the former courthouse on Main Street. That final report won't be completed until late fall. The report is designed to give Lexington a road map of what to do next with one of the few remaining municipal historic buildings.

In addition to identifying structural problems, the report will give the city options and cost estimates on what it will take to restore the courthouse. 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.

Fugate said the structural issues would be factored into the cost of restoration of the building. But Monday's report doesn't mean the building can't be saved, he said.

"Fundamentally, it's still a solid building," Fugate said. "It served us for more than 100 years. And with some investment and maintenance it could serve us for another 100 years."

The 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.

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

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