Tom Eblen

A gem restored. A tragedy averted. Why we should celebrate Lexington’s courthouse.

Mayor reveals restored historic courthouse dome, part of $32 million renovation

Mayor Jim Gray revealed the historic courthouse dome at a news conference on Monday. The restoration of the dome is part of a $32 million public-private project restoring the Historic Courthouse on West Main Street.
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Mayor Jim Gray revealed the historic courthouse dome at a news conference on Monday. The restoration of the dome is part of a $32 million public-private project restoring the Historic Courthouse on West Main Street.

I have never visited a city where people said, “I’m so glad they tore down that beautiful old building rather than restoring it.” But I have been many places where residents lamented the loss of civic treasures foolishly demolished.

Lexington has earned its own share of regret over the years. But Monday marked a major victory: The restored dome was revealed in the old Fayette County Courthouse.

Over the next few months, the circa 1899 courthouse that sat vacant and crumbling in the center of the city for too many years, will reopen as a visitors center, rental event space and offices after a spectacular $32 million renovation.

This wasn’t an easy project, technically, financially or politically. But it was worth it.

It is a testament to the vision of Mayor Jim Gray, the wisdom and political courage of the Urban County Council and the skill and hard work of many people, most notably Sally Hamilton, the city’s chief administrative officer, and Holly Wiedemann, a Lexington developer and expert at figuring out financially viable ways to bring great old buildings back to life.

More than 100 people on Monday filled the rotunda below the restored dome, which spent nearly 60 years sealed off as an HVAC mechanical closet after a destructive 1960 renovation to “modernize” the building and add more office space. Few had ever seen the graceful, column-supported dome that was decorated with some of Lexington’s first electric lights.

In his remarks at the ceremony, Gray noted that the courthouse is now “a place that welcomes everyone.”

He meant that this square where slaves were once whipped and sold no longer contains statues of two Confederate generals, John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan. They were erected at taxpayer expense in 1887 and 1911 as part of a Confederate memorial movement that sought to romanticize white supremacy. The statues were placed in storage last fall and await relocation to the Lexington Cemetery, where both men are buried.

One group that felt welcome at Monday’s ceremony were the men of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. They were there to honor Henry Tandy, a black man whose masonry firm built the courthouse’s brick superstructure. Tandy’s son, Vertner, became a founder of the fraternity at Cornell University and the first black registered architect in New York.

This fifth Fayette County courthouse was begun in 1898 after the third one burned. It served its original purpose until 2002, when new courthouses were built two blocks away. The Lexington History Museum was here for nearly a decade afterward, but the city allowed the building to deteriorate. It was shuttered in 2012 because of asbestos and lead paint.

It would have been a tragedy if this building had been demolished, as some people suggested in recent years. It is from an age when Americans saw government buildings as symbols of civic pride and works of art.

When Lexington officials tallied up the cost of the courthouse and its furnishings in 1900, the total was $255,168.69. You probably couldn’t replicate it today for $255 million. Many of the materials and skills its craftsmen used no longer exist.

My favorite example is Fred B. Miles’ carvings all over the newly cleaned limestone exterior. Before moving to Lexington for the job, Miles was the chief stone carver at the Biltmore Estate in Ashville, N.C., America’s biggest and fanciest house. After the courthouse’s completion, Miles moved to Atlanta to take on two big commissions: the Candler Building and the Carnegie Library.

The Candler Building, an office tower built by Coca-Cola magnate Asa Candler, is richly decorated with Miles’ carvings in Georgia marble. It is now undergoing renovation to become a luxury Curio Hotel by Hilton.

The Carnegie Library wasn’t so lucky. It was demolished in 1977. As of a few years ago, much of Miles’ carved stone from the library’s façade was scattered around an overgrown suburban junkyard. Can you imagine?

Building a great American city isn’t just about building; it is about taking care of treasures you already have. Instead of regret, Lexington now has a beautiful public building good for at least another century. Be thankful and enjoy it.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen