Much more at stake than another old building

The old First African Baptist Church building at the corner of Short and Deweese streets is much more than a Lexington landmark with an uncertain future.

It is an impressive structure with an amazing story. It is an opportunity for many people to figure out how to do the right thing. And it is one more example of why Lexington needs better ways to preserve its heritage.

The Italianate-style church was built in 1856 by the oldest congregation of slaves and free blacks west of the Allegheny Mountains.

It was, in many ways, a monument to the Rev. London Ferrill, who built First African Baptist into Kentucky’s largest church. He became a hero in 1833 when a cholera epidemic killed 500 of Lexington’s 7,000 residents. Ferrill was one of three ministers who stayed in town to bury the dead and minister to survivors of both races.

First African Baptist moved to a new facility on Price Road in 1987, took its stained-glass windows and sold the historic building to nearby Central Christian Church, which has used it for a subsidized child-care center.

Central Christian, needing money for other things, recently agreed to sell the building to jeweler Joe Rosenberg, although the deal still must be approved by a congregational vote.

Rosenberg says he has no intention of tearing down the building. He wants it renovated to house a non-profit organization or for some other use.

The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation is trying to convince Rosenberg and Central Christian to legally protect the building with a preservation easement. That would not restrict the building’s use; only prohibit demolition. So far, neither Rosenberg nor the church have agreed, and that worries preservationists.

After all, Rosenberg partnered with developer Dudley Webb in the ill-conceived CentrePointe project, which destroyed an entire block of downtown buildings in 2008 and left behind an empty pasture. Several of those buildings had historic or architectural significance.

Rosenberg has done a lot of good work in Lexington over the years, and he has a reputation for being a man of his word. I believe him when he says he has no intention of demolishing this building.

But Rosenberg also had no intention of demolishing the old Woolworth building he owned on Main Street. He worked for 14 years to find ways to restore and reuse it. But things didn’t work out for a variety of reasons, many of which were beyond Rosenberg’s control. The art deco gem was demolished in 2004.

This situation presents some important opportunities for Lexington. It is an opportunity to preserve one of the most significant structures built here by African Americans before the Civil War. And it is an opportunity to learn from CentrePointe and other preservation failures.

Lexington’s civic, business, preservation and African American communities must help Joe Rosenberg keep his word. A project like this will require more than one man’s energy, creativity and expertise. And it is more than one man’s responsibility.

The only way to really save the old First African Baptist building is to find a new use for it. While historic tax credits can help pay renovation costs, long-term preservation will depend on the building having a purpose that makes economic sense.

But even if that can be done, it will not solve Lexington’s larger problem. Historic preservation cannot remain an endless series of building-by-building battles.

Adaptive reuse of fine, old buildings is as much about creating a vibrant economy for the future as it is about preserving history and memories. Lexington needs a broader, more flexible set of preservation tools than the current system of historic neighborhood overlays. That could include local landmark designations and laws that make it harder to demolish any historic building without a compelling reason.

Lexington has lost so much of its bricks-and-mortar heritage over the past few decades. If we want to build on our cultural identity to create a more prosperous future, we simply cannot afford to lose much more.

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