Floral Hall was designed and built by John McMurtry in 1882. Photos by Tom Eblen
Floral Hall is one of Lexington’s most- photographed landmarks.During the past 130 years, the octagon-shaped building on Red Mile Road just off South Broadway has housed gardeners and gamblers, doughboys and some of America’s best trotting horses.
Many people assume Floral Hall is owned by the city, state or the adjacent Red Mile harness track. They would be wrong.
The Stable of Memories Inc., a non-profit foundation, has been the hall’s custodian since the early 1960s, struggling to keep it beautiful. The hall now houses American Standardbred horse memorabilia and an equine archives. It also is rented for events.
“It’s like any old house,” said Kit Glenn McKinley, president of the foundation and owner of R.E. Fennell Co., a 110-year-old tack and leather goods shop beside Floral Hall. “It always needs something.”
In recent years, the foundation has spent $47,000 to restore the cupola and $12,000 to recondition the three-story brass chandelier that hangs in the center of the barn. Now, the foundation is trying to raise $87,000 to replace rotting wooden support beams and make other structural improvements.
The foundation will hold an auction to raise money before the 120th Kentucky Futurity races at The Red Mile on Sunday.
“Our goal is to educate people about this building,” McKinley said. “We want everyone to know about it and enjoy it.”
John McMurtry, a noted 19th-century Lexington architect and builder, designed and constructed Floral Hall in 1880-82. It was commissioned by the Kentucky Agricultural & Mechanical Association to serve as a floral exhibition hall for what was then the local fairgrounds.
Lexington’s fairgrounds had been at Maxwell Spring on what is now the University of Kentucky campus, but it was heavily damaged by Union troops during the Civil War. After the war, the federal government paid the association $25,000 in damages. The money was used to buy new fairgrounds land where The Red Mile is now, and $5,000 went toward Floral Hall’s construction.
The building was designed so flower arrangements could be displayed in tiers along the walls. Judges could stand in the center and compare entries without having to wear out their necks.
Trotting horse races were held at the fairgrounds beginning in 1875. And because Floral Hall was then just outside Lexington’s city limits, bookmakers moved there from the downtown Phoenix Hotel when the city outlawed gambling.
The Kentucky Trotting Horse Breeders Association took over ownership of the fairgrounds in 1896, creating what is now known as The Red Mile track. The exhibit hall was converted into stables, and the distinctive cupola was added.
Horses were sheltered on the first and second floors — the high-steppers apparently had little trouble climbing a ramp — and grooms slept on the third floor. During World War I, the horses were replaced by doughboys as the barn became a military barracks.
But by 1960, Floral Hall was in sad shape. The wooden third floor and cupola were gone, as was much of the roof. A group of horse industry leaders created the foundation, which assumed control of the building and a slim three-foot buffer of real estate around it.
The third floor and cupola were rebuilt after wooden support beams in the center of the barn were replaced with steel. When Lyndhurst mansion, a McMurtry design from the 1860s west of Rose Street between High and Maxwell streets, was demolished in the mid-1960s, the three-story brass chandelier from its rotunda was hung in the center of Floral Hall.
Since then, the old barn has housed a collection of sulkies, carriages and other Standardbred horse memorabilia. Two finished rooms on the second floor contain trophies, paintings and books chronicling the breed’s history.
The barn’s dirt floor was paved two decades ago, making it a better location for receptions and other events. The Red Mile handles leasing arrangements.
“There are probably a thousand paintings of the round barn because it’s just such a gorgeous building,” said Richard Stone of Sadieville, a foundation member. “Whether you’re interested in horses or not, this is a beautiful landmark that we don’t want to be lost.”
If you go
Fund-raiser for Floral Hall
What: Before the 120th Kentucky Futurity races at The Red Mile, the foundation overseeing Floral Hall will host silent and live auctions at the site.
When: 10 a.m. Oct. 7
Where: The building is adjacent to The Red Mile, 1200 Red Mile Rd., Lexington.
Cost: Admission is free, and all proceeds go toward the building’s restoration project.
Learn more: Floral Hall is open to visitors this fall from 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays or by appointment. Call (859) 254-2814 for details.
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