The cover of Lost Lexington explains why Peter Brackney's new book is so timely: It shows a mothballed old courthouse in desperate need of renovation beside the gigantic crater that has replaced the city's oldest business district.
Brackney, a lawyer and writer of the local history blog Kaintuckeean.com, said the plight of the old Fayette County Courthouse and the CentrePointe boondoggle were big motivations for writing his book.
So was the University of Kentucky's controversial demolition this summer of several significant mid-century modern buildings on his alma mater's campus to make way for new construction.
"Everywhere you see a parking lot, something once stood," Brackney said in an interview. "I think the more you learn about some of these historic structures, the more you appreciate what we have left."
Brackney focuses on what is gone, and it is an impressive collection of special buildings and places once central to community life. They include elegant mansions, a racetrack, an amusement park, a football stadium, railroad stations and a private garden that early settlers referred to as "paradise."
Lost Lexington (The History Press, $19.95) includes a forward by Mayor Jim Gray and many photographs. But what makes it most interesting is Brackney's thorough research into these places and the remarkable people associated with them. I know a lot about Lexington history, but I learned some things.
Brackney begins with Lexington's best-known preservation story: the 1955 demolition of the 1798 Hart-Bradford House for a parking lot. That act, and fears that the 1814 Hunt-Morgan House across the street would be next, led to creation of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation and the city's first preservation laws.
"If you looked at the Hart-Bradford House and didn't know a thing about who lived there, you would think there was nothing special about it, just a nice two-story brick house," Brackney said.
But, as the book explains, that house was built by Henry Clay's father-in-law, Thomas Hart, a Revolutionary War veteran and influential land speculator. The next resident was John Bradford, Kentucky's first newspaper publisher and a major civic leader. Clay was married in that house, and Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan may have been, too.
Few people now remember another longtime resident of the house: Laura Clay, an early champion of women's rights. She learned about the subject the hard way: watching her father, emancipationist Cassius Clay, cheat her mother out of property after their divorce.
Among the several fabulous, long-gone estates featured in the book is Chaumiere des Prairies, where three U.S. presidents were entertained and the traitor Aaron Burr was held under arrest.
Col. David Meade's estate was famous for its beautifully landscaped gardens. When he died in 1832, a farmer who bought the property destroyed them with grazing livestock, prompting neighbors to post signs about "paradise lost."
Brackney tells the stories of such 20th century landmarks as the Phoenix Hotel, Union Station, the Southern Railway depot and Joyland Park. Joyland Park was famous for its amusement rides and the huge dance pavilion where Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw and other big band leaders performed.
One interesting story was about how, for 23 years, the afternoon Lexington Leader gave every white kid in town free swimming lessons at Joyland's public pool. In those segregation days, the newspaper provided free swimming lessons for black children at Douglass Park.
The book tells about two sporting venues that no longer exist: the Kentucky Association racetrack and Stoll Field/McLean Stadium, the home of UK football games and other community events before Commonwealth Stadium replaced it in 1972.
UK's recent demolitions and the CentrePointe project, which destroyed more than a dozen downtown buildings and 51/2 years later is nothing more than a hole in the ground, were a wakeup call for historic preservation in Lexington.
But Brackney, who lives in Jessamine County, laments that many other communities still haven't gotten the message. Nicholasville's oldest Main Street commercial building, built in the early 1800s, was recently demolished.
"While we do have to balance preservation and progress, we have to make sure there's an understanding that people lived and worked in each of these places; they're not just bricks and mortar," he said.
"Drive down Nicholasville Road, drive down Richmond Road, and there's nothing that separates them from Glendale, Ariz., or any new city," Brackney added. "There's nothing that makes them unique. And it's Lexington's history and uniqueness that helps make it a great city."