Tom Eblen

After truck crashed into one of downtown’s oldest buildings, an architectural discovery

Lexington firefighters shored up damage to Harvey's Bar at the intersection of West Main and South Upper Streets on Nov. 30 after a wreck between a car and a pickup truck.
Lexington firefighters shored up damage to Harvey's Bar at the intersection of West Main and South Upper Streets on Nov. 30 after a wreck between a car and a pickup truck.

Part of the oldest commercial building on Main Street is getting some restoration, and it all began with a car wreck.

A pickup truck and hatchback crashed Nov. 30 at the corner of West Main and South Upper streets. The truck careened into the front door of Harvey’s Bar and damaged a support column of Melodeon Hall, also known as the McAdams & Morford Building because of the drugstore that occupied Harvey’s space for 96 years.

Harvey’s was closed for 21 days while the door and column were repaired. Regular customers were shifted to Hugo’s Ultralounge on the other side of the building, said Avena Kiely, who owns both businesses.

While repairing the column, workers discovered something special behind exterior wood facing: elaborate arches that are part of the Venetian Renaissance cast-iron façade added to the building in the 1850s.

“It was disappointing having the car crash,” Kiely said. “But the silver lining was exposing those beautiful arches.”

Rather than cover them up again, the corner arches were restored. And that prompted Kiely to partner on a larger restoration with Joe Rosenberg, who owns the south one-third of the building housing Harvey’s and two vacant floors upstairs.

Adams General Contracting of Paris is now removing the building’s upstairs arched windows so they can be restored. Kiely, who has a long-term lease, is hoping to renovate the upper two floors as commercial or event space once the windows are finished. The top floor might even become an apartment.

The second floor of that part of the building has been storage space for years. The third floor was empty, except for antique chemical bottles left over from McAdams & Morford, which closed in 1994.

The building, which was completed in 1849, is one of the few buildings in Lexington with a cast-iron façade. Another, across the street in the next block, was recently restored as part of 21C Museum Hotel.

Melodeon Hall’s second floor originally housed one of Lexington’s first large theaters. Singer Jenny Lind and Charles Sherwood Stratton, whose stage name was General Tom Thumb, performed in the 300-seat theater, according to research compiled when the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

The Rev. Robert J. Breckinridge gave a speech in the theater on Jan. 4, 1861, that was credited with helping keep Kentucky in the Union as the Civil War was about to begin, according to the register nomination.

Another noted Civil War figure, Union Col. Frank Wolford, nemesis of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan, gave a speech at the Melodeon on March 11, 1864, denouncing President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. (Even though Kentucky remained in the Union, it was a slave state.)

The building has housed dozens of businesses in the past 168 years. McAdams & Morford opened in 1898, although earlier drugstores had been in that building and on that site since 1824. Lowenthal’s, a longtime Lexington furrier, began there with a small second-floor shop in 1899.

In the 1880s, Melodeon Hall housed the Commercial College of Kentucky University, a forerunner of the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics.

The building was almost lost in the 1970s to that tragically misnamed federal policy Urban Renewal. William Lucas, who owned the building and McAdams & Morford for many years, fought condemnation all the way up to President Richard Nixon — and won. Melodeon Hall also survived damage done in the 1980s when the Lexington Financial Center’s state-subsidized parking garage was built next door.

Rosenberg bought that portion of the building from Lucas in 1994 and won an award from the Downtown Lexington Corp. the next year for his restoration work. Architect James Ross has owned the other two-thirds of the building since 1979. Its upper floors have housed the offices of several businesses in recent years.

Kiely, who is from Waterford, Ireland, opened Harvey’s 11 years ago with her brother, Ray Kiely. Their other brother, Peter, owns McCarthy’s Irish Bar around the corner, in an 1860s building on South Upper.

“I have always been in love with the building,” she said, adding that with 21C’s opening, the renovation of the old courthouse and renewed progress on the CentrePointe project, “it’s just a great corner to be at now. Every time I look around downtown something good is going on.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen