The small, cherub-like faces have long been hidden behind layers of dirt and grime.
Thanks to careful and specialized cleaning, those small faces etched into the stone of the windows and doors of the 1899 former Fayette County courthouse are now visible. Broken pieces of masonry -— including scrolls underneath decorative stone ledges — have now been restored.
“One of those pieces was broken,” said Holly Wiedeman of AU Associates, as she pointed to the stonework above one of the courthouse doorways last week. “But you can’t tell which one.”
Wiedemann is helping oversee the more than $33 million overhaul and renovation of Lexington’s fourth courthouse on Main Street. Restoration of the exterior of the Richardsonian Romanesque building began last spring. That exterior renovation included cleaning and repairing the masonry and rebuilding most of the courthouse steps that face Main Street and replacing the roof.
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“We began the environmental remediation last year and began partial demolition in May 2016,” Wiedemann said. “The first phase of work was completed in February of this year. It included roof replacement, exterior tuckpointing and partial demolition.”
The building was vacated in 2002 when the new circuit and district courthouses opened a few blocks away. When asbestos and other hazardous material was discovered in 2011, the former courthouse — which held several museums including the Lexington History Museum — was shuttered. When the recession hit, the city had little money to put into the building and it further deteriorated.
The city is using $22 million in bonding and used $11 million in state and federal historic tax credits to pay for the renovation and overhaul of the building. The city is banking that lease payments from tenants in the building will pay for the building operation costs. Almost all leases for those tenants have been signed.
Interior work began earlier this year. Much of a 1960s-era renovation that covered up the courthouse’s dome and shoved elevators into the center of the building has now been ripped out. The goal of the renovation is to take the building back closer to what it looked like before the 1960s-era renovation that chopped up the building.
The renovation and overhaul is being paid for in part with historic tax credits. To take full advantage of those tax credits, the interior renovation must be completed by December.
During a tour of the courthouse last week, crews were busy building new floors for the center of the courthouse. Those floors have an octagon-shaped opening that will be covered in reinforced glass. People will be able to walk over the glass opening.
“When people walk into the building, they will be able to look all the way up to the dome,” Wiedemann said.
Work has also begun on the long-covered dome that few Lexington natives have ever seen. A floor was inserted blocking the public’s views of the dome. That dome was also filled with the heating and air conditioning units. And lots and lots of bird poop.
That’s all gone now.
A non-original drop ceiling that was once on the top floor has been removed, exposing the rafters. The walls on that floor will be finished but the ceiling will remain exposed, Wiedemann said.
The top or fourth floor of the building will become an event space. LexEffect, an event management company, has already signed a multi-year lease.
That floor will allow for two different event spaces or one large one, depending on the event, said Kaelyn Query, president of LexEffect.
The space — named Limestone Hall — is already booked for several months in 2018, Query said.
“May and June is already booked,” Query said. “I think we only have one Saturday left in April and September and October, which are also popular wedding months, are filling up fast.”
VisitLex, the merged government tourism group, will have a visitor and welcome center on the ground floor facing the 21 C Museum Hotel. It also has an entire floor for its offices.
The Breeders’ Cup will also move its operations from Harrodsburg Road to the courthouse once it is completed. Although the major renovations will be completed in December, work to fit up office space for VisitLex and Breeder’s Cup could take additional months to complete. The Horse Farm tours is also eying space on the first floor.
Drew Fleming, senior vice president of Breeders’ Cup, said moving to the courthouse will allow the group to raise its profile in Lexington. It will also help raise the profile of the Thoroughbred racing industry downtown. Most major Thoroughbred businesses such as Keeneland are on the outskirts of town.
“We will be the only major Thoroughbred business with a downtown location,” Fleming said. “It’s a great way for Breeders’ Cup to tell its story but it will also be a starting gate for the broader story of the Thoroughbred business.”
Another big draw to the building will be Ouita Michel’s restaurant on the ground floor facing Cheapside Park.
“Ouita’s restaurant will make use of the existing patio and terraces on this side of the courthouse,” Wiedemann said.
Michel has previously said the restaurant will be casual and similar to her popular Windy Corner restaurant on Bryan Station Road.
Over the next six months, work on the interior will continue. A multi-tiered staircase that was once in the courthouse atrium but was destroyed during the 1960s renovation will be rebuilt. Elevators — which will be moved to a corner of the building — have to be installed.
Restoring the dome is a top priority but will take time, Wiedemann said.
“We are currently rebuilding the atrium floors with steel and concrete and the basement is being enlarged to accommodate all of the electrical equipment,” she said. “On the interior, artisans are beginning the process of of repairing the interior of the dome and the rotunda area.”