The new apartments in the old Lafayette Academy building have more than granite countertops, travertine bathroom tile, classic architecture and modern appliances; they have a unique bit of history.
If those walls could talk, they would echo with the voice of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution, thanking Lexington schoolgirls for entertaining him with an afternoon of poetry and song.
After more than three years of renovation, real estate investor Allen Schubert is about to reopen the 195-year-old school building at 333 South Upper Street as five luxury apartments. Schubert is keeping for himself a sixth unit that includes the building's restored three-story, self-supporting staircase.
"On my bucket list of things to do has always been a historic renovation," said Schubert, 57, a Lexington native who spends most of his time in Louisville. "This place has some history to it."
Lafayette Academy was built between 1817 and 1820 for John P. Aldridge's Lancasterian Academy. His students included the future architect Gideon Shryock, who designed Transylvania University's Old Morrison and the Old State Capitol in Frankfort.
Aldridge's building soon became Col. Josiah Dunham's Lexington Female Academy, whose students came from 11 states and included the daughters of Lexington's most prominent families. By 1825 — the height of Lexington's fame as the "Athens of the West" — the academy had 135 pupils, nine instructors and a governing board that included statesman Henry Clay and Transylvania President Horace Holley.
That star power is probably what led the 67-year-old French general to stop by for a tribute on the afternoon of May 16, 1825. He was visiting Lexington as part of a celebrated tour across the grateful nation he helped create.
Lafayette arrived with a military escort and the governors of Kentucky and Tennessee in tow. Dunham's pupils sang patriotic songs and recited verse in both English and French. "It was here that as successful an effort was made to gratify our visitor as has been attempted in any quarter of the union," the Kentucky Gazette reported.
Lafayette was moved, according to another published account. "Well may this heart, old, but warm in its feelings, palpitate, at the sound of your patriotic and affectionate accents," he told the young ladies.
In honor of the general's visit, Dunham had renamed his school Lafayette Female Academy. Enrollment grew and the building's rear wing was added about 1830.
Luther Van Doren purchased the building in 1834 and set up "collegiate academies" for boys and girls. Over the years, the building was remodeled with Greek Revival, Italianate and Victorian touches. It was a school, a home and, after 1936, increasingly downscale apartments. On Aug. 1, 2006, a fire gutted one of nine apartments there and the building was shuttered.
Schubert bought the building three months later for $250,000. He won't say how much he has invested in renovating and enlarging it. But he noted that three masons spent nine months in the basement just repairing the foundation.
"It was falling down when I got here," said Jesse Riddell, the construction manager.
Now, as work nears completion, the building is a beautiful mix of historic fabric and contemporary improvements. The design incorporates exposed beams, interior brick walls and restored architectural gems such as the Georgian front door and a third-floor Palladian window. A rear addition houses a large, contemporary-style apartment.
Albert + Burnworth Architecture of Lexington and Andover Construction oversaw the project. "The architects did a real nice job," Schubert said. "And it has finished out very well."
Schubert, whose company also is redeveloping the dilapidated 1970s Sonnet Cove apartment complex at Richmond and New Circle roads, said he would like to sell the Lafayette Academy units as condos when the market improves.
But, for now, Schubert will spend a couple of nights a week in his unit and rent the others for between $1,300 and $2,800 per month. Andover Management Group is handling the property, which manager Susannah Sims notes is within easy walking distance of downtown and the University of Kentucky campus.
The city's Division of Historic Preservation worked closely with Schubert and is pleased with the result, although a few parking and lighting issues remain. "It's a significant building that has needed a lot of help for a long time," said Bettie Kerr, the division's director. "They've handled it nicely."