Tom Eblen: Redesign of Helix Garage marks a huge improvement downtown

teblen@herald-leader.comAugust 19, 2014 

Lexington tore down one of its most elegant public buildings in 1960 and replaced it with two of the ugliest — a parking garage and the office building now occupied by the Fayette County clerk.

So the new facade and colorful light display on Helix Garage on East Main Street at Martin Luther King Boulevard is a big improvement.

That corner was previously the site of Union Station, which opened in 1907. The imposing brick railroad terminal had a big center lobby and an arched stained-glass window over the front doors.

The last passenger train pulled out of Union Station on May 9, 1957. Three years later, the station was demolished and replaced by the garage — a powerful statement about changes in the way Americans travel.

The garage, originally built for the nearby Stewart's department store, was never a thing of beauty. But it was literally falling apart when the Lexington and Fayette County Parking Authority (LexPark) put $3.1 million into a structural renovation last year.

LexPark realized the 389-space garage, with its low ceilings and dark interior, also needed a marketing makeover to attract customers and support downtown revitalization.

The name was changed from Annex Garage to Helix Garage, after the shape of the exit ramp that has terrorized generations of teenagers who had to drive down it with a state trooper in their passenger's seat to earn their driver's license. (I've always wondered how many people flunk their driving test before they even reach the street.)

LexPark spent $40,000 to improve interior lighting. But Gary Means, the authority's executive director, said more was needed "to cover up what's a really ugly parking garage in a prominent spot on Main Street."

Vincent Lighting Systems of Erlanger installed $100,000 worth of colorful, energy-efficient LED lighting on the helix ramp. To improve the façade along Main Street, LexPark chose a design by Pohl Rosa Pohl architects, which worked with Vincent Lighting, Green Giant Lighting of Lexington, Randy Walker Electric of Lexington and ProClad metal of Noblesville, Ind.

That facade, finished last month, is stunning, especially during the nightly light show. (It cost $180,000. Like the other garage improvements, it was paid for with parking revenues, not taxpayer money.)

"The existing building was a concrete frame and little more," said architect Graham Pohl, who worked on the project with colleague Adam Wiseman. They designed a skin using a steel frame and corrugated plates of various shapes, which house the LED lights.

Means said lighting designers are about finished with computer programming that will allow the garage façade to do a lot more than we have seen so far. He envisions elaborate light displays to the beat of music during the annual Thriller parade and other special effects for downtown festivals.

"At the end of the day, it's marketing," said Means, noting that many garage spaces go unused at night by downtown bar and restaurant patrons. "When people start talking about 'that cool garage with the lights,' they'll start using it more."

Woodland Triangle finds

The just-completed redesign of that funky intersection at East High, Kentucky and East Maxwell streets has sparked recollections of the Woodland Triangle's history.

Pearson & Peters Architects now occupies the wedge-shaped building in the intersection. But Maureen Peters recalled that in 2006 a woman walked in and showed her staff photos of the building nearly a century earlier, when it housed the R.L. Jones Grocery.

The building dates from 1909 or 1910. The 1911 city directory lists Jones' grocery, although by the next year there was a different tenant. Except for the awnings, the building's exterior looks about the same. Peters and her business partner, Jeff Pearson, have done a handsome, modern renovation of the interior.

The street project prompted Peter Bourne, a map-maker for city government, to make sure the work hadn't removed a city "mile marker" from the 1870s. It had not. The limestone block still stands nearby in Woodland Park.

Bourne recounted on his Lexington Streetsweeper blog how officials decided in 1871 to mark the old city limits — a one-mile radius from the Court House — with a ring of stones, 500 feet apart. If all were installed, there should have been about 66 of them. Bourne can only find the one at Woodland Park and another along West Main Street between Lexington and Calvary cemeteries. Does anyone know of others still in place?

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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