Historic home threatened by unneeded parking lot

LONDON — This is one of those stories that drives preservationists crazy: an historic home is about to be demolished for a parking lot. But it also is a story that should drive every taxpayer crazy, especially those angry about wasteful government spending.

It is a story about a project that would spend nearly $1 million in state money — and perhaps millions more in federal money — to provide more parking space in a downtown that already seems to have plenty of it.

The story has its roots in the massive courthouse construction program that since 2000 has built 65 new judicial centers around Kentucky at a cost of more than $880 million.

The Herald-Leader published a series of stories in 2008 questioning the high cost and management of that program. Kentucky lawmakers and John D. Minton Jr., who inherited the program when he became the state’s chief justice last year, have vowed to look for savings and improve oversight.

Laurel County’s new $23 million Judicial Center opened this summer. In a special meeting Sept. 21, the Laurel County Fiscal Court approved the Judicial Center Project Development Board’s request to spend $930,000 in “leftover” money from the courthouse bond issue to buy a residential block across Broad Street for parking.

The sale would require the current property owners to remove four houses and all trees on the block so it could become a gravel lot. Eventually, county officials hope to get federal money to build a parking structure for the Judicial Center and the nearby federal courthouse.

This deal outraged some Laurel County citizens, because one of the four houses to be demolished is one of the few 19th century houses left downtown. The Pennington House is thought to have been built in 1875, but possibly as early as 1847. It is a handsome Victorian building once owned by Dr. Henry Pennington, who founded what is now Marymount Hospital.

The Pennington House would be demolished for parking for the new Laurel County Judicial Center unless plans change. Photo by Tom Eblen

The Pennington House is owned by Tom Weatherly, who uses it for his law office. He has taken good care of the house, but he has been trying to sell it for years. The county would pay him $397,750 for the property, but he must clear the land.

On Friday, more than a dozen people attended a Fiscal Court meeting to ask for time to figure out how to save the Pennington House, either by finding another site for a Judicial Center parking lot or moving the house.

“Any community can have a gravel parking lot, but only London can have the Pennington House,” Chris Robinson told Fiscal Court members. He spoke on behalf of the booster group London Downtown and the Cumberland Valley Board of Realtors.

“It may need lots of work and rehabilitation, but once it is gone the history inside is gone forever and cannot be replaced,” Robinson said. “Every avenue should be explored before the wrecking ball is taken to any structure.”

Robinson said the house could be moved to another site and restored, and the Realtors’ board is willing to help. He asked for more time to explore possibilities and perhaps raise money for a costly move.

But Donna Horn-Taylor, a local architectural designer, said there are many alternative parking sites. Indeed, there is plenty of vacant or under-utilized land around the Judicial Center, and the county already owns much of it.

“The best thing is to leave the house where it is,” Horn-Taylor said. Then money could be raised to buy it from Weatherly and adapt it to enhance the downtown, which has made progress toward revitalization.

Laurel County Judge-Executive Lawrence Kuhl, who also is on the Judicial Center Project Development Board, promised to meet with citizens this week to discuss alternatives. He also acknowledged at the meeting that downtown has plenty of parking space, although it would require lawyers, jurors and Judicial Center employees to make a short walk.

In fact, three short blocks away, there is a fancy brick-and-concrete parking structure built four years ago with $5 million in public funds. There were only a few other cars when I parked there Friday, and several London residents told me it is rarely more than half-full.

It would be a tragedy to see the Pennington House demolished. It is the kind of historic building that towns across America are restoring for new uses that boost civic pride and the local economy.

As state government faces painful budget cuts, and the federal government grapples with massive debt, it also would be a tragedy to waste millions of public dollars on parking space that isn’t needed.

If state lawmakers and court officials are serious about reining in Kentucky’s costly courthouse building spree — and citizens really want to cut wasteful government spending — an unnecessary parking lot in downtown London would be a good place to start.