Op-Ed

Historic preservation has enriched Central Kentucky

The preservation of the Gratz Park neighborhood has been an economic boost for Lexington.
The preservation of the Gratz Park neighborhood has been an economic boost for Lexington.

Herald-Leader staff writer Janet Patton's recent article recounted the amazing story of the preservation of Shakertown in Mercer County. It was the 50th anniversary of one of Kentucky's most important historic preservation projects, to which The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation contributed.

While numerous individuals and organizations can rightfully be credited for bringing about the Shakertown miracle, the article notes that BGT co-founders, Joe Graves Sr. and Juliette Brewer, and a preservation seminar hosted by the BGT, were instrumental in jump-starting the project.

Now in its 56th year (the 14th-oldest preservation advocacy organization in the United States, according to recent research), the Blue Grass Trust continues to pursue its mission of protecting, revitalizing and promoting the special historic places in our community in order to enhance the quality of life for future generations of Bluegrass inhabitants.

The BGT and historic preservationists in general are not without our critics. Some dismiss us with the pejorative terms of "hysterical preservationists" or "building huggers."

During the CentrePointe debate, through an open-records request, we discovered that the heads of the two agencies that promote development and activities in downtown Lexington had exchanged emails regarding a public meeting on the CentrePointe project. One observed that the meeting "will bring the nuts out of the woodwork," to which the other responded, "I agree on that."

Sometimes it takes a dedicated nut or two to achieve a worthwhile goal. Perhaps Graves and Brewer were the subjects of similar behind-the-scenes snickering when they announced their plans to save Shakertown. Perhaps the BGT representatives who helped save the Hunt-Morgan House, the Mary Todd Lincoln House, Henry Clay's law office, Belle Breezing's row houses and Latrobe's Pope Villa were viewed as nuts at the time. Today, however, I think most everyone would describe those folks as visionaries.

Simply put, Lexington would not be the place that it is today without the historic sites and structures identified above, or the hundreds of other historic buildings that stand today because of the foresight of those who advocated for preservation. It is a simple fact that Lexington's preserved historic fabric is a major factor in drawing businesses, residents and tourists to Lexington.

Walk through Gratz Park and marvel at the beautiful historic homes that front the park on Mill and Market streets. Then imagine the park without those homes.

It could have happened had the Hunt-Morgan House at the corner of Mill and Second fallen to the wrecking ball as had been planned in 1955. But Graves, Brewer and the other founders of the BGT rallied support for the preservation of the house and set in motion the establishment of the Gratz Park Historic District and the 13 other historic districts that have followed.

Historic preservation is not just an exercise in aesthetics. Critics of historic preservation claim that we are standing in the way of economic progress. Really? The 14 privately owned residences in Gratz Park have an aggregate assessed value of $7,336,000.

A recent study of 10 properties situated on the south side of the 100 block of East Third Street (part of the Constitution Historic District) reported that the aggregate assessed values of those 10 properties rose from $321,600 in 1991 to $3,880,000.00 in 2011, an increase of 1,206 percent, with a commensurate increase in property-tax revenues.

Those increases in value reflect millions of dollars in payments to local skilled laborers, vendors of building products and services and fees paid to local architects, engineers, landscapers, interior designers and legal professionals.

That is all money that has been invested, spent and retained in this community. That is tangible economic progress.

Successful preservation projects tend to spawn others. There is a long list of downtown Lexington establishments located in buildings that have been renovated and revived over the past several years.

Clearly, the preservation and infill efforts along the Jefferson Street corridor have energized that area. All of these renovation and adaptive reuse projects reflect these property owners' appreciation for history and community and, thankfully, they are being rewarded for their efforts.

The Blue Grass Trust takes pride in having been a part of Shakertown, just as it is proud to continue to support other preservation efforts here in Central Kentucky. We welcome anyone who shares our vision.

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