The plan unveiled Tuesday for renovation of the old Fayette County Courthouse is brilliant in many ways: It preserves one of Lexington’s most iconic buildings, it gives it new life and purpose, and it seems to be financially sound.
The project shows what can happen when Lexington leaders look for ambitious and creative — rather than cheap and expedient — solutions to a problem, and then hire top-notch professionals to get it done.
Holly Wiedemann, whose Lexington-based AU Associates has repurposed nearly 30 historical buildings for commercially viable uses over the past 25 years, is managing the project along with Barry Alberts of CITY Properties Group, which has done the same thing in Louisville, including the Glassworks district and Louisville Slugger Museum.
The courthouse’s new interior is the work of architects K. Norman Berry Associates of Louisville, which did the stunning new Speed Art Museum addition, and Deborah Berke & Partners of New York, whose work includes 21C Museum Hotel projects in Lexington and Louisville.
The circa 1900 courthouse, which was shuttered in 2012 because lead paint contamination made it an unsafe home for the Lexington History Museum, is one of this city’s most abused and neglected buildings. But by spring 2018, the $30 million renovation plan should make it a beautiful landmark and a hub of activity once again.
Lexington chef Ouita Michel, founder and owner of five popular restaurants, will be the ground floor’s largest tenant. Her sixth restaurant will be similar to the casual Windy Corner north of the city, which emphasizes local food at moderate prices.
Michel’s restaurant will use original outdoor terraces around the courthouse for dining space, as will a bourbon bar in the courthouse’s east front corner. Also on the ground floor will be a visitors center, with a tour bus loading zone on Upper Street.
The first floor will house VisitLex offices, while the second floor will become Breeders’ Cup headquarters, which are now in a suburban office park. The city will lease the top floor as event space that exposes the courthouse’s historic dome and gabled roof 56 feet above the floor. A private company will operate it.
All of this commercial space will be leased at market rates, proving revenue to make the building’s renovation and continued operation viable. About $8 million of the renovation is coming from state and federal historic preservation tax credits.
The renovation is expensive, because much work on the Richardsonian Romanesque-style building will require artisan labor. Other up-front costs include energy-saving technology, such as insulated windows and geothermal heating and cooling, which will reduce long-term operating costs.
This plan follows the same philosophy of Berke’s beautiful renovation of 21C Museum Hotel next door in the old First National Bank building: It preserves what historic fabric remains, while giving other spaces a clean, compatible new look.
There wasn’t much historical material left inside the courthouse, beyond some wood paneling in a courtroom that will be reused in the bourbon bar. The rest was stripped out and destroyed as part of a hideous modernization in 1960.
One major architectural element that was lost was a Y-shaped staircase of marble, iron and wood. A contemporary version of it will be re-created with details echoing the original, such as a wooden handrail and simulated pickets in glass side panels.
Luckily, the 1960 modernization didn’t destroy the historic dome. It was sealed up as a place to house HVAC equipment. This renovation will restore the dome and the electric twinkle lights in and around it, which were some of the first electric lights installed in Lexington.
The equestrian weather vane that stood atop the dome for decades until it was damaged in a 1981 storm will be restored or re-created.
Fire codes wouldn’t allow re-creating the original 105-foot atrium, which went from the ground floor to the dome. But that transparency will be simulated with glass floor panels in the first- and second-floor ceilings below the dome.
The restored dome and exposed gabled roof should make for some stunning event space, which will hold as many as 300 people and be open to all caterers.
“There is no space in Lexington like this,” Wiedemann said. “It is just going to be magnificent.”
The old courthouse square was a center of Lexington life from 1788 until a dozen years ago, when the courts moved to bigger quarters down the street. After that, neglect turned this block into a black hole.
Great cities are known by their great buildings. This is one of Lexington’s great buildings, and I am thrilled to see it coming back.