Mayor reveals restored historic courthouse dome, part of $32 million renovation
The city of Lexington unveiled the restored dome of the former Fayette County courthouse on Monday as part of a sneak peek of the ongoing $32 million renovation and restoration of the courthouse.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said the two-year renovation of the courthouse — discussed for more than a decade — will make the long-shuttered former center of Lexington government the new epicenter of the city’s restaurant, tourism and bar scene.
“The dome tops off a courthouse that once again will be the centerpiece of downtown,” Gray said at a press conference inside the courthouse Monday. “A place that welcomes everyone with a restaurant, a bar, offices a visitor center and fantastic space for all kinds of celebrations — the dome.”
The dome and the upper floors of the courthouse are now open. LexEffect, an event management company, has the lease for the space called Limestone Hall and can host weddings and other receptions. It’s first event will be later this month.
A Ouita Michel restaurant, which faces the Cheapside side of the courthouse, will open this summer. Michel will also have a bourbon bar on the first floor that faces Short Street. Michel, who owns Holly Hill Inn, Windy Corner Market, Wallace Station, Honeywood and Smithtown Seafood, has previously said it’s likely the courthouse restaurant will be similar to Windy Corner on Bryan Station Road.
The second and third floors will include office space for the Breeder’s Cup and VisitLex, the county’s tourism bureau. That office space is expected to be completed in late spring. VisitLex will also operate the visitor’s center on the first floor. The plans call for horse farm and bourbon tours to start from the courthouse.
Visitors marveled Monday at the glass floor in the center of the new fourth floor of the courthouse. That glass floor — also on the second and third floors — will allow visitors on the first floor to look all the way up to the dome.
During a 1960 renovation of Lexington’s fourth courthouse, an elevator shaft was placed in the center of the courthouse. A floor was added and the courthouse’s heating and air conditioning equipment was placed on top of that floor, obscuring the dome. Over the next 60 years, the dome area deteriorated and became home to pigeons and other birds. Only courthouse and maintenance staff — and the occasional reporter — saw the dome.
Foster Ockerman Jr., a lawyer and leader of the Lexington History Museum, marveled Monday at the transformation of the building he once practiced in as a lawyer. The Lexington History Museum was also housed in the building until 2011, when the building was shuttered after asbestos and other hazardous materials were found inside.
“It is phenomenal,” Ockerman said. “It is a gift to the community. I told my wife I want to lie in state under the dome.”
The fourth Fayette County courthouse is one of the few remaining historic government buildings in downtown Lexington. Many other buildings from that same era have been torn down.
Holly Wiedemann, who helped oversee the construction and renovation, said the dome was deteriorating when work began. Many of the original architectural details were gone. Plasters had to be taken of what was still there and reproduced. The entire renovation of the dome took about a year, she said.
When the building opened 119 years ago, it was one of the first fully electrified buildings in the area. The use of lights in the dome was considered groundbreaking at the time.
“It was something you saw in Paris, France and in Lexington, the Athens of the West,” Wiedemann said.
“The copper casings were still there,” Wiedemann said. “All we had to do was replace the bulbs.”
The nearly $33 million project was financed using federal and state historic tax credits — a type of incentive used to renovate historic structures. In addition to nearly $11 million in tax credits, the city also used $22 million in bonds, or borrowed money, for the overhaul.
Work began in 2016 on the 1899 building. It was vacated by the Fayette County courts in 2002, after two new courthouses opened a block away.
Gray said taxpayers won’t foot the bill for the space once the building is open.
“Leases will cover the costs,” Gray said.
City officials said the entire courthouse will be open to the public later this spring. Work still continues on the bottom three floors.
Two historic statues that were once part of the courthouse are now gone. Last fall, the city removed two Confederate-era statues. The statues of John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge will be moved to the Lexington Cemetery.