Fayette County

‘Nothing short of a miracle.’ Former courthouse goes from run-down to re-dedicated.

It took $32 million and nearly four years of construction.

On Tuesday, Mayor Jim Gray and dozens of dignitaries cut the ribbon on the renovated and re-imagined former courthouse on Main Street.

“It’s nothing short of miracle,” said Gray of the preservation and adapted re-use of the building now called Courthouse Square. “Today’s re-dedication represents our city’s Renaissance, a Renaissance of both spirit and place.”

The fate of the Richardson Romanesque former courthouse was up in the air six years ago after lead-based paint and other hazardous material was discovered, prompting the city to force the then-tenants to move out in 2012.

It sat empty for the next several years as the city —strapped for cash during the recession — debated what to do with one of the last remaining historic municipal buildings left in downtown. Turn it into an art or other history museum? Put city government offices there?

“Or just give up and tear it down,” Gray said. “Believe me there were those that wanted to do just that.”

Instead, the city came up with a plan — to renovate the space and lease it as a combination restaurant, bar, event and office space.

The city tapped existing state and federal historic tax credits and $22 million in city money to fund the overhaul and renovation.

Construction on the courthouse started in 1898. It was one of the first electrified buildings in Fayette County. It held the courts for more than 100 years. But a renovation to the building in 1961 hid or destroyed its unique architectural details - including its dome with twinkle lights in its ceiling.

Former Supreme Court Justice Mary Noble, who is also a former Fayette Circuit Court judge, was more blunt during remarks at Tuesday’s re-dedication ceremony.

“It just was awful,” Noble said. “It was effective because it provided the space we needed but it was not terribly aesthetic.”

The courts grew as Fayette County’s population grew. In 2002, the courts moved to two new buildings a block away. From 2002 to 2012, it housed various museums. For the legal community, the building represents not just Lexington’s history but its legal history, Noble said.

Removing much of the 1961 renovation and remodeling the interior took nearly four years.

The reconstructed dome was unveiled in February. The top floor, an event space called Limestone Hall, was the first floor to open in February. The Breeders’ Cup and VisitLex, the city’s tourism bureau, moved into its office space later in the spring. The new Lexington Visitor’s Center, which is on the ground floor at the corner of Upper and Main street opened in June.

Ouita Michel’s restaurant Zim’s opened Monday. The Thirsty Fox, Michel’s bourbon bar, opened Tuesday at 11 a.m.

Chief Administrative Officer Sally Hamilton said the entire project came in a little under the $32 million budget. The money generated from the leases will pay for upkeep and ongoing expenses such as utility and other bills.

“The city will not put money into the building going forward,” Hamilton said.

But the renovation of the building has not been without controversy.

A proposal to move two Confederate-era statues of John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan from its lawn in August 2017 prompted push back from some and generated national headlines. The two statues are now in the Lexington Cemetery.

Gray made reference to the controversy briefly in his remarks during the re-dedication of the building Tuesday.

“It welcomes everyone,” Gray said of the re-imagined space. “A place that in the past often held difficult and troubling memories is now a place where all people -- all people -- can go to create memories.”

The public is invited to an open house Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.