Richard Greissman remembers sitting in the State Theatre one Saturday in March 2008 as several hundred citizens urged developer Dudley Webb not to demolish 14 old downtown buildings for his ill-fated CentrePointe project.
"We're all sitting there going, 'How did CentrePointe happen? How do we prevent it?'" said Greissman, who was then a University of Kentucky administrator. "I'm thinking, what's my small part in this?"
He decided that if more people knew about the architectural and cultural significance of Lexington's historic buildings they would be more interested in finding ways to adapt and reuse rather than demolish them.
So Greissman, who has photographed downtown for years, emailed a picture of an elaborate stone cornice on a Main Street building to a colleague, cultural geographer Karl Raitz, and asked what he could write about it.
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"Twenty minutes later I get back a perfectly formed essay," he said. "We went out to lunch and I said, 'What do you think?' and he said, 'When do we start?'"
Seven years later, Greissman and Raitz are launching LexArch Tour, an interactive architectural tour of downtown. The free app for iPhone and Android phones is now available for download. A launch event is planned for noon Wednesday at the Fifth Third Pavilion at Cheapside Park.
The app's initial version includes photos, text and narration about the old Fayette County Courthouse and a dozen surrounding buildings, which are pin-pointed on a GPS map. The app also has hotlinks to a glossary of architectural terms.
"We see this as just a first version, what could be done practically in time for Breeders' Cup," Greissman said, adding that material is almost ready for 20 more buildings.
Greissman took the photos and Raitz wrote the text, which he narrates in small sections that can be chosen depending on the listener's level of interest in each building. They each donated their time to the project. Beyond that, they had a lot of help. The app was built by Lexington-based Apax Software, and Prosper Media Group recorded Raitz's narration.
The $40,000 project, which includes money for updates and development over the next four years, was paid for by the mayor's office and VisitLex, the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau. Another partner is the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.
The app is designed for both tourists and locals, and the creators have big plans for expanding its functionality. "I'm hoping a lot of it is developed by folks saying, 'What about doing this?'" Greissman said.
One model they have in mind is Street Museum, an app developed by the Museum of London in Great Britain. It allows users to hold their smart phone up to a location and see historic photos of that place.
The next step, they said, is to develop platforms that will let app users share their photographs and memories of downtown buildings on social media.
By next spring, they plan to have an update with many more downtown buildings, as well as historic photographs of those buildings and ones there before them. They eventually want to add video clips where appropriate.
Greissman and Raitz are talking with local game developers about how to integrate scavenger hunts and other interactive games into the app to make it more appealing to young people.
Raitz said one purpose of the app is to help people understand how cities such as Lexington are put together and evolve over time. They also want to increase architectural literacy among people who are interested in preservation but don't know much about it.
"We want to get people out looking at Lexington in a different way," Greissman said. "And then there's the public knowledge and political capital it could provide for the next time some guy comes along and says, 'Let's tear this down.'"