Old courthouse an historic jewel

A drawing of the interior of the old Fayette County Courthouse.
A drawing of the interior of the old Fayette County Courthouse.

In the early 1970s, when plans for construction of the Civic Center and Rupp Arena were firming up, a remarkable decision was made to couple that project with restoration of Lexington's magnificent Opera House. It became the crowning jewel of the entire project.

Now, some 40 years later, Lexington has another opportunity, ironically attached to the discussions regarding renovating Lexington Center, Rupp Arena and the neighboring areas.

The Lexington History Museum, located in the former Fayette County Courthouse, is one of the most under-reported assets of our community. The recent announcement of the opening of the Lexington Center Museum and Gallery calls us to remind our citizens and visitors of the many excellent and varying exhibits at the museum, housed in our historic old courthouse.

The History Museum, a public charity supported by grants and individual and corporate donations, is the official archives of the Urban County Government, the IBM historic typewriter collection, the U.S. Postal Service in Fayette County and the former Good Samaritan Hospital.

Since it opened in October 2003, more than 65,000 people have enjoyed the museum. Permanent exhibits include Athens of the West; Lincoln and His Wife's Hometown, a narrative of the four times Abraham Lincoln visited Mary Todd's Lexington and the dramatic events which occurred to shape his character; and In Black & White, a photographic perspective of the African-American community up through civil rights.

Rotating exhibits have included "The Keeneland Legacy: A Thoroughbred Tradition, Black Horsemen of the Bluegrass," and "Lost Lexington."

On Dec. 7, the museum will open A Salute to Lexington's Greatest Generation to commemorate the 70th anniversary of America's entry into World War II.

The museum also maintains the historic 1900 courtroom, scene of many dramatic trials from 1900 until 2001. The courtroom is used for lectures and meetings and is available to rent for everything from mock trials to weddings. Clay-Davis Hall overlooking historic Cheapside Park is available for receptions.

The most dramatic artifact in the museum collection, however, is the old courthouse itself.

When constructed in 1900, it featured an open atrium rising 111 feet to the ceiling of the dome, encircled by walkways served by a classic, Y-shaped steamboat staircase. The rotunda was studded with an array of lights, giving it the appearance of a starry sky. Its interior decor was based on designs from a 14th century Tibetan palace.

In 1961, a plan for "adaptive reuse" filled-in the atrium with elevators, bathrooms and mechanical closets to support the addition of five courtrooms in a building designed for just one.

Had this reuse not been pursued, the building most likely would have been torn down and replaced by some unremarkable 1960s structure.

Fortunately, the courthouse clocks still work and chime the hour with the same bell that rang when Henry Clay, Aaron Burr, Abraham and Mary Lincoln, John C. Breckinridge and Jefferson Davis walked the streets of Lexington.

Restoration of the 1900 courthouse has been a long-term goal of the museum's board of trustees — and a vision of our founder, the late historian Thomas D. Clark. Indeed, restoration should be the goal of the community and considered by the Arena, Arts and Entertainment Task Force for inclusion in its recommendations.

Forty years ago, Lexington displayed uncommon foresight in coupling a major construction project with the restoration of an iconic 19th century public building.

Once again, we have the same opportunity: restoration of the Old Courthouse. Who says history does not repeat itself?