Tom Eblen

Courthouse renovation reveals secrets: hidden stone faces and a tunnel to the jail

The old Fayette County Courthouse renovation will again expose the building’s beautiful interior dome, which was hidden by a 1960 renovation to house HVAC systems and elevator shafts. The elevator shafts at left will be removed.
The old Fayette County Courthouse renovation will again expose the building’s beautiful interior dome, which was hidden by a 1960 renovation to house HVAC systems and elevator shafts. The elevator shafts at left will be removed.

Few people noticed them from the ground, especially after a century of soot turned all that white limestone dark gray. Even when the scaffolding is removed, they won’t be easy to find without binoculars.

Hidden within elaborate dormers on the front of the old Fayette County Courthouse roof are two whimsical faces carved into limestone column capitals. One resembles a pig, the other an ogre. The stone carver apparently practiced inside, where a similar face is cut into a stone sill hidden between the inner and outer domes.

Nobody knows the identity of that long-ago craftsman with a sense of humor. But I’m betting it was not W.L. May, who with much less skill carved his name into another hidden sill, along with the date July 4, 1899.

The faces and graffiti are among many little secrets being uncovered as contractors strip away 116 years of damage by nature and man as part of the $30 million renovation of one of downtown Lexington’s most iconic buildings.

Their work will become more obvious in a couple of weeks when much of the exterior scaffolding is removed to reveal carefully scrubbed limestone, a new slate roof, and a new copper dome and weather vane duplicated from the originals.

“It’s a labor of love,” said Holly Wiedemann, president of Lexington-based AU Associates.

Wiedemann and Barry Alberts of Louisville’s City Properties are managing the renovation for Historic Lexington Courthouse LLLP, a for-profit entity headed by city chief administrative officer Sally Hamilton that will operate the building for the city.

The courthouse was built between 1898 and 1900 in the Richardsonian Romanesque style after the previous one burned. It was replaced by two new courthouses in 2001 and became the Lexington History Museum. But in 2012, the city shuttered the building because of fears about lead and asbestos contamination.

After years of neglect, Mayor Jim Gray and the Urban County Council made the wise and gutsy decision to restore this fabulous building as civic space. So far, the project is on schedule and within budget, Wiedemann said. About $8 million of the cost comes from state and federal historic preservation tax credits.

The work didn’t begin a moment too soon. Steel beams supporting the dome were dangerously eroded at their bases. The copper cupola was in similar shape, and a strong wind storm could have been disastrous, Wiedemann said.

In addition to exterior renovation and structural reinforcement, workers have been removing materials from a 1960 renovation that Wiedemann described as a “brutal intervention.” That renovation removed the grand staircase, filled the 120-foot atrium with bathrooms and elevator shafts, and sealed off the elegant dome for heating and air equipment.

A modern interpretation of the grand staircase will be restored. Fire codes wouldn’t allow the atrium to be restored, but it will be suggested by plates of glass in the floors below the revealed and restored dome. The only 1960 addition that will be kept is a floor inserted in the third story to create more floor space.

The restored courthouse will have a visitors center, a bourbon bar, a downtown version of chef Ouita Michel’s Windy Corner restaurant, office space rented to VisitLex and the Breeders’ Cup organization, and event space below the dome and exposed steel roof beams. The work is to be finished in about a year.

Before the scaffolding was removed, I asked Wiedemann for a tour. After she took me through the building, we walked around the roof on scaffolding. We also climbed four ladders to the top of the dome and climbed out more scaffolding around the cupola for an amazing view of downtown.

In addition to the hidden faces and graffiti, workers have discovered a buried cistern from one of the three earlier courthouses on the square. They also found remnants of a long-abandoned tunnel beneath Short Street.

“I thought that was just an urban legend,” Wiedemann said. “Well, there really is a tunnel that went from the courthouse to the old jail” nearly two blocks away, where the Fayette District Courthouse now stands.

Part of the courthouse basement extends below Short Street, and an additional lane will be closed from January to April so steel piles can be driven into the ground to shore up the street. Other parts of the basement will be used for a new geothermal heating and air system.

The careful interior demolition has revealed beautiful brick support arches laid by employees of Henry Tandy and Albert Byrd, prominent black masons who bricked many Lexington buildings in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Digital video was used to create a three-dimensional computer model to help Carter Scott of K. Norman Berry Associates Architects orchestrate the renovation.

“It’s like virtual reality of the building,” Wiedemann said. “You can peel away the walls by layers so you know precisely where your chases are and everything else that needs to happen.”

Schnell Contractors, a family-owned masonry restoration firm in Louisville, remade several missing pieces of trim from Indiana limestone that is an exact match. Even the mortar was replicated, thanks to chemical analysis. The new pieces are indistinguishable from the originals. Replacement roof slates came from the same Virginia quarry as the originals, so they also are an exact match.

The new cupola holds a bell that was used in previous courthouses dating back to 1806. The original weather vane with a four-foot-long horse was replicated in copper and aluminum by Tim Steinrock and his brother Rick’s American Roofing & Metal Co.

Schnell is now replacing the limestone front steps. During the 1960 renovation, the steps were painted from beneath with tar, causing them to hold moisture and slowly crack to pieces. “Soon they’ll be good for another 200 years,” Wiedemann said.

The 1960 renovation punched holes through load-bearing walls for venting and ducts and compromised the roof support system. “What were they thinking?” Wiedemann said. “The amount of destruction was unbelievable.”

But there have been pleasant surprises, too. Large sections of original heart-pine flooring can be refinished because Environmental Demolition Group of Erlanger so skillfully removed five layers of tile and gunk laid on top of it over the years.

W.F. Norman Corp. of Missouri had original molds for some metal column capitals, and the process of restoring the dome clock’s four faces turned out to be easier than Wiedemann expected.

“The clock guy said, ‘Oh, I’ve got those 1898 hands in stock,’” she said. “In stock? Are you kidding me? That’s incredible.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen