Anthony Eardley, a retired University of Kentucky architecture dean, had a lot of free time last fall while recovering from a back injury. He started thinking about city halls, because Lexington is in the market for a new one.
Eardley said he became concerned last year when the developers trying to take over Dudley Webb’s stalled CentrePointe project wanted to incorporate a new city hall as part of their business plan. Then he looked online at the architecture of Bridgeton Holdings’ previous projects.
“I was horrified,” he said. “This is even more mediocre than Dudley’s.”
So Eardley began writing a report to Mayor Jim Gray and Urban County Council members to explain that a good city hall should be much more than just a Council chamber and a lot of office space.
He started researching good and bad city halls around the world. When he got up to several thousand words and several hundred illustrations, his son, web designer Dominic Eardly, took the material and turned it into a fascinating website: Eardleydesign.com/halls/.
“City Halls are very special things,” Eardley said, noting that the best are beautiful buildings that welcome citizens, provide outdoor space for them to gather and reflect their city’s culture and aspirations. “It's not fair actually to ask a developer to do these things, because a developer has no idea what the city needs,” he said.
The website is easy to explore, and Eardley hopes city officials and interested citizens find it helpful. Many people may not understand the possibilities, he said, because Lexington hasn’t had a “purpose-built, truly operational” city hall in ages.
Lexington’s city hall has been in the 1920s Lafayette Hotel building at Main Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard since 1984. That was supposed to be a temporary location, because the building has always been a poor fit. It now needs major renovations and is costly to operate. Almost everyone agrees it should be sold to a developer who could remodel it back into a hotel or apartments.
Before that, city hall was a 1920s neo-classical building two blocks north on Martin Luther King Boulevard that got an ugly front addition in the 1960s. The building was demolished a decade ago when Central Christian Church expanded.
I think it needs members of Council and the mayor to really start inquiring of themselves: What is it we want to do for the city?
Anthony Eardley, retired UK architecture dean
Eardley’s web page explores 22 city halls around the world, beginning with the classic. Sienna, Italy’s city hall, built more than 700 years ago, was the architectural inspiration for many American city halls and other public buildings in the 1800s.
Eardley included only two 19th century city halls, mainly because they were nearby. Louisville’s 1875 city hall works better than Cincinnati’s 1893 model, but both have shortcomings. He focused on 20th century city halls that meet modern needs.
Like many architects, Eardley has strong opinions. His website groups the 22 city halls by those he considers outstanding (six), successful (six) and unsuccessful (10), and he explains why. All three categories reflect a variety of architectural styles.
In addition to Sienna, outstanding ones include a modest 1936 building in Como, Italy, and the amazing but expensive one San Jose, Calif., built in 2005. But good, functional design is more important than dramatic architecture, Eardley said.
Some of the unsuccessful city halls Eardley looked at were done by profit-oriented developers. He thinks CentrePointe is a great location, but probably too small for a well-designed city hall to share with a lot of commercial development. “If city hall is going to share it with someone, they want to be the arbiters of who that someone will be and exactly what the ground rules for their participation will be,” he said.
Eardley said one of his goals for the website is to show people that good architecture is the result of good functional analysis, problem-solving and scholarship. “Architects are not just decorative structural engineers,” he said.
He thinks city hall should be downtown, with outdoor gathering space larger than Cheapside Park and better designed than Courthouse Plaza, which he said is filled with “decorative nonsense” that impedes its usefulness.
“What does Lexington need for a city hall? I’m not entirely sure,” Eardley said. “But I think it needs members of Council and the mayor to really start inquiring of themselves: What is it we want to do for the city?
“What we've tried to say on the website is a good city hall welcomes and embraces the citizen,” he said. “And that can obviously take any number of forms.”