Fayette County

Glow returns Fayette courthouse dome, but much work remains

Reflected in the side of The Lexington Financial Center, Lyndon Unruh and Robert Burton of the Davis H. Elliot Co. worked near the roof of the old Fayette County courthouse.  Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff
Reflected in the side of The Lexington Financial Center, Lyndon Unruh and Robert Burton of the Davis H. Elliot Co. worked near the roof of the old Fayette County courthouse. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff Herald-Leader

The dome atop the old Fayette County Courthouse went dark seven years ago, prompting Debbie Long, owner of Dudley's on Short Street, to describe the looming structure as a big black hole in the downtown sky.

Out of the darkness came light this week when the dome on the historic structure was once again illuminated.

"Turns out it was eight burned-out bulbs, but the dome is over 100 feet from ground level and the bulbs were difficult to get to," said Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority.

Kentucky Utilities worked with Davis H. Elliot Co., an electrical contractor, using a bucket truck to replace the bulbs.

Although lighting has gussied up the dome, there is more work to be done throughout the building on West Main Street.

Dangerous levels of deteriorating lead-based paint forced the city to close the building indefinitely in July. Mold and asbestos also have been found.

The city, which owns the building, received an Environmental Protection Agency Brownfields Program grant for a consultant to conduct an environmental assessment of the building. The consultant will outline the scope of work needed and provide a ballpark figure on abatement costs.

That work started three weeks ago, and a final report is expected by the first of February.

"When you get into this kind of situation, you need a really authoritative source to tell you what you have and what you need to do to correct the problems," said Sally Hamilton, commissioner of general services.

Preliminary assessments by three firms hired by the city over the summer indicated it would cost a minimum of $250,000 for lead abatement, $50,000 to $100,000 to remove mold on the first, second and third floors.

The city will contract with a structural engineering firm to inspect the building, "Not because we're worried about it falling down or being dangerous inside, but a building of this age may have places where water gets in, or have other issues that need to be addressed," Hamilton said. "We want to know what those are."

Security staffers visit the building twice a day, and electricians, plumbers, heat and air-conditioning technicians stop by a couple of times a week, "just to check on things," she said.

In recent years, the building — in the center of downtown and next to the Fifth Third Pavilion in Cheapside Park — has housed the Lexington History Museum, the Lexington Public Safety Museum and the Kentucky Renaissance Pharmacy Museum.

Jamie Millard, director of the history museum, and the museum board are looking for a space where the museum could move until the old courthouse is restored.

Looking to the building's future, Fugate said the courthouse restoration is "a very important project to Lexington. Its future is something we are committed to preserving."

Fugate is working with the Courthouse Square Foundation to explore options for financing the restoration. He said it probably would be a combination of federal historic and new market tax credits, some private investment, philanthropy and public participation.

For now, the public is likely to notice the new lights. As will Long, from her nearby restaurant. "I'm delighted about the lights," Long said. "The building is so beautiful. It reminds me of the Water Tower in Chicago."

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