Tom Eblen

Courthouse plan shows value of appreciating our local landmarks

Architect's rendering of plans for renovation of the old Fayette County Courthouse. This shows how the renovated Courthouse will look outside, with the original terraces used for dining space. The Fifth Third Pavilion at Cheapside is at left.
Architect's rendering of plans for renovation of the old Fayette County Courthouse. This shows how the renovated Courthouse will look outside, with the original terraces used for dining space. The Fifth Third Pavilion at Cheapside is at left. K Norman Berry Associates / Deborah Berke Partners

There are a couple of ways to think about the plans unveiled Tuesday for renovation of the old Fayette County Courthouse.

The project will save an old building. But, more importantly, it will recycle a Lexington landmark into a unique urban centerpiece. As a visitors center, restaurant, bourbon bar, events venue and offices, it will once again become a useful hub of activity.

The old courthouse is an irreplaceable piece of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture. But this isn’t really about architecture.

Historic buildings matter because they are touchstones to our culture. You cannot fully understand Lexington’s present without knowing something about its past, and few places inform us about it better than this one.

The old courthouse was finished in 1900, but it was the fourth courthouse to occupy the city’s public square since 1788.

For more than two centuries, justice was dispensed here, people were married here, black people were sold and whipped here. The Confederacy’s “lost cause” mythology was enshrined here. In 1920, National Guardsmen killed six members of a mob trying to lynch a man while he was on trial here.

And before all of that, this was the site of a log school where Lexington’s first teacher, John McKinney, was attacked by a wildcat one morning in 1783. Wildcat. Sounds like a good name for a school mascot.

I have always appreciated places more when I knew something about their history. I had a good lesson in that recently when I researched my neighborhood for a Kentucky Historical Society marker that was installed last Sunday.

The marker tells how pioneer James Masterson first settled my neighborhood in 1790. And it recognizes a French immigrant couple that operated a school where Abraham Lincoln’s future wife would find both an education and a surrogate mother.

But what I found especially interesting in my research was how Mentelle Park was developed in 1906 as one of Lexington’s first “modern” suburban subdivisions. It was a time when Lexington was growing, people wanted to buy new homes and lumber yards were becoming vertically integrated construction companies.

The marketing techniques used to sell my neighborhood foreshadowed today’s homebuilding and real estate industries. Lexington history isn’t just about pioneers and Civil War generals. It is also about how farms became subdivisions.

Another early subdivision — Elsmere Park, off North Broadway — is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year with a ceremony at 4 p.m. June 5 and a picnic for former residents on Sept. 4.

Lexington is fortunate to have many old neighborhoods, where generations of families have made memories that can be rekindled by the sight of a Colonial Revival porch or a Romanesque stone arch.

One of these days, we will celebrate the legacies of subdivisions like Lansdowne and Stonewall, and the historical significance of Fayette Mall and Hamburg Pavilion. If, that is, we don’t erase them from the landscape.

My wife and I recently took a trip to Europe, where we visited cities that were patchworks of architecture and memory that included Roman ruins, glass skyscrapers and everything in between.

In Dürnstein, Austria, we hiked up a hill to the ruins of a 12th century castle where England’s King Richard the Lionheart was held captive during the Crusades. As we walked, I was fascinated by how remnants of the castle’s lower walls and towers had been incorporated into shops, offices, homes and apartments.

For too long in Lexington, we thought any building older than about 75 years should be knocked down and replaced with something new — or restored to its original appearance and turned into a museum. But attitudes have changed.

Property values are soaring in historic neighborhoods. Nightlife has gravitated to once-neglected streets such as Jefferson, Short, Manchester and Limestone. The luxury 21C Museum Hotel was developed in a century-old office tower. Why? Because these buildings reflect an authentic sense of place rather than some developer’s mass-produced idea for making money.

I can’t wait to sit out on the old courthouse terrace and sip a bourbon or enjoy a Windy Corner sandwich. Because, when I do, I will be able to reflect on Lexington’s historic public square and its evolution.

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