The Bluegrass and Beyond has moved

November 17, 2015

Because the Herald-Leader’s new online publishing system provides more flexibility for adding additional photos, videos and links, I am discontinuing this blog, which archives my work from March 2008 through Nov. 16, 2015. For my current columns, go to my columnist page.


Workshop offers businesses ideas for saving green by going green

March 15, 2015

Businesses are taking more interest in environmental sustainability, and not just because it is popular with customers and good for the planet. It also can help their bottom line.

Bluegrass Greensource, a non-profit organization that works to promote sustainability in 18 Central Kentucky counties, expects a good crowd March 20 for its sixth annual awareness workshop, Go Green, Save Green.

“The workshop is designed to give you ways to save money,” said Schuyler Warren, the Lexington-based organization’s outreach specialist. “It’s not just about doing it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a smart business decision.”

BGGreenPosterThe full-day workshop, which about 100 people attended last year, features speakers on a variety of topics, such as improving energy efficiency, storm water management, recycling and waste reduction and sustainable construction and landscaping.

It will include information about grants available to help cover the cost of some sustainability efforts.

Because the workshop is sponsored by Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, the cost of attending is only $25 for adults and $5 for students, which includes a “zero waste” breakfast and lunch from Dupree Catering and a drink ticket for a social event afterward at Blue Stallion Brewery. (Day-of registration is $40.)

For registration and more information, go to:

“This workshop is a great way to get inspired,” Warren said. “You can get some ideas, and then we can work with you to implement those things.”

The focus of this year’s workshop is energy efficiency, where the costs of improvements can be recouped through lower utility bills. There also will be a presentation by people who have been working on some remarkable energy-saving projects as part of West Liberty’s reconstruction from a devastating tornado three years ago.

Other speakers will focus on less-obvious topics, such as how companies can make it easier for employees to bicycle to work. That reduces traffic, pollution and oil consumption for society, but it also can help businesses cut absenteeism and health care costs by helping employees become more physically fit.

The workshop will be at the new campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College on Newtown Pike. Included are tours of BCTC’s LEED-certified classroom building and nearby Lexmark facilities.

Last year’s workshop inspired Good Foods Co-op on Southland Drive to plan a renovation of its parking lot this summer to incorporate permeable paving, said Rob Walker, a store manager.

The new paving should help solve the parking lot’s storm water drainage issues, Walker said, as well as help protect Wolf Run Creek, which runs behind the store and has been the focus of extensive neighborhood efforts to improve water quality.

“That’s going to be a great improvement,” he said, adding that the store also is looking at money-saving strategies with energy-efficient lighting he learned about. “It’s an excellent workshop.”

Katie Pentecost, a landscape architect with Integrated Engineering, said last year’s workshop gave her new information about sustainability grants, which some of her clients have been able to get for their construction projects.

“I got way more out of it than I ever thought I would,” she said.

The workshop is part of a city-sponsored program called Live Green Lexington, which includes free year-around consulting services in Fayette County provided by Bluegrass Greensource.

But Bluegrass Greensource doesn’t just work with businesses, and it doesn’t just work in Fayette County.

For example, the organization has a series of workshops from April to June for residents of Clark, Scott, Woodford, Jessamine, Madison and Bourbon counties to help them learn how to install low-maintenance “rain gardens” to handle storm water runoff. The workshops are free, and residents of those counties may be eligible for $250 grants to purchase native plants for their rain gardens.

“The goal is to put a lot of options on your radar,” Warren said. “Things change so fast. I’m a sustainability professional, and every year there are a couple of new things for me that I didn’t know about.”

Amid slavery, some free blacks prospered in Antebellum Lexington

February 21, 2015

150220FreeBlacks0016Samuel Oldham, who bought his freedom and later that of his wife and children, build this house at 245 South Limestone in 1835. He owned barber shops and a spa. After years of neglect, the house was restored in 2007. Photos by Tom Eblen


Slaves were everywhere in Lexington before the Civil War: cooking in white people’s kitchens, cleaning their houses, washing and mending their clothes and working in their hemp fields and factories.

Slaves also were on the auction block and whipping post at Cheapside and in three downtown “jails” that became major way stations in the Southern slave trade.

But a lesser-known piece of Lexington history is that many free blacks lived side-by-side with slaves and masters. The 1850 census showed the city with 8,159 residents, including 2,309 slaves and 479 free people of color.

Many were skilled craftsmen who had been given their freedom, or found ways to earn enough money to buy it. Once free, they often worked years to buy the freedom of their wives, children and other relatives.

Some free blacks became so financially successful that they built or bought fine homes for themselves, acquired rental property and helped their church congregations grow and prosper.

“There weren’t separate enclaves then,” said Yvonne Giles, who has extensively researched black history in Lexington. “They lived among the white community.”

Michael and Hannah Clarke built 344 South Upper St., left, about 1818. He was a waiter and carpenter; she a laundress and seamstress. At right is a rental house owned by another free black, blacksmith Rolla Blue, who lived on South Limestone.

Michael and Hannah Clarke built 344 South Upper St., left, about 1818. He was a waiter and carpenter; she a laundress and seamstress. At right is a rental house owned by another free black, blacksmith Rolla Blue, who lived on South Limestone.

That wasn’t for lack of racism. White people tolerated and, to some degree, accepted these free black masons, blacksmiths, plasterers, carpenters, coopers, barbers and confectioners because they had to.

“In order for Lexington to prosper, they needed these skilled laborers,” Giles said. “If they hassled them, they would have left. They didn’t go because they felt protected.”

Giles has searched census documents, court records and old newspapers to document the lives of many free blacks in antebellum Lexington. Others who also have researched the topic include historians Marion Lucas, Alicestyne Turley and Rachel Kennedy.

Their work reveals interesting lives of accomplishment, and legacies that still endure. No photographs of them are known to exist, Giles said. But the houses built or owned by several successful free blacks in the South Hill neighborhood have been restored into valuable historic homes.

Perhaps the best known today is Samuel Oldham, who built a handsome house at 245 South Limestone in 1835. After years of neglect and the threat of demolition, it was restored in 2007.

Oldham was a barber who bought himself out of slavery in 1826, then earned enough to free his wife, Daphney, and their two sons. He operated barbershops and a spa, helped other blacks with legal issues and bought freedom for several slaves.

James Turner and his wife, Arena, lived in the 1850s at 331 South Mill, the left side of this duplex. He was a plasterer and minister who after the Civil War was active in the establishment of black schools.

James Turner and his wife, Arena, lived in the 1850s at 331 South Mill, the left side of this duplex. He was a plasterer and minister.

Daphney Oldham, a seamstress, and her house were the inspiration for playwright Ain Gordon’s 2008 one-woman play, In This Place.

Michael and Hannah Clarke built 344 South Upper Street about 1818. He was a waiter and carpenter; she a laundress and seamstress. Billy and Hannah Tucker, who owned a confectionery shop downtown, lived at 521 South Upper in the 1840s.

Blacksmith Rolla Blue and his wife, Rachel, lived in a South Limestone house that no longer exists. But they owned 346 South Upper and rented it. Upon his death in the 1840s, Blue left a considerable estate with instructions that it be used to buy freedom for enslaved relatives.

James Turner and his wife, Arena, lived in the 1850s at 331 South Mill. He was a plasterer and minister who after the Civil War was active in black education.

Many of these men were important black community leaders and church trustees, in part because their freedom allowed them to borrow money and sign legal documents. They helped establish and grow some of Lexington’s most prominent black congregations, including First African Baptist, Historic Pleasant Green Baptist and Historic St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal.

Two well-known free black ministers were London Ferrill of First African Baptist Church and his successor, Frederick Braxton, who oversaw construction of the 1856 sanctuary that still stands at Short and Deweese streets. In the 1860s, Braxton helped start two other prominent Baptist churches, Main Street and Bracktown.

Still, Giles said, life could be precarious for free blacks in antebellum Lexington. They had to carry papers proving they were free. Even with papers, they lived in fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery and of offending the wrong people.

“Being a free black didn’t mean you were really free,” she said. “If they didn’t stay on the good side of white people who would support and protect them, they were lost.”

SOAR summit in Pikeville postponed because of heavy snow forecast

February 15, 2015

soarThe Shaping Our Appalachian Region strategy summit Monday in Pikeville has been postponed because of the forecast for as much as a foot of snow in much of Kentucky. Click here for more information.

While you are waiting for it to be rescheduled, check out my column last Wednesday and other recent opinion pieces in the Herald-Leader about the SOAR process.

Gray is right to focus on Town Branch Commons, old courthouse

January 20, 2015

141231Downtown0070Finding a way to renovate the old Fayette County Courthouse, which has been shuttered since 2012, is one of Mayor Jim Gray’s priorities for 2015. Photo by Tom Eblen 


Mayor Jim Gray set the right tone in the first State of the City Address of his second term. After four years of getting Lexington’s fiscal house in order, he said, it is time to make critical investments for the future.

Gray’s strength as mayor has been his ability to tackle previously ignored problems while at the same time articulating an ambitious but sensible vision for Lexington’s future.

The mayor began by ticking off accomplishments, including public safety investments and tens of millions of dollars in cost-savings from restructuring city employee health care and pensions and “value engineering” sewer improvements.

But the heart of his speech was a call to action on two downtown projects that should be high on Lexington’s priority list. He also hinted at a third project, politically sensitive but long overdue.

The first project Gray highlighted is restoring and repurposing the old Fayette County Courthouse, a 115-year-old limestone landmark in the city’s historic center.

When the courts moved to new buildings down the street a dozen years ago, the abused and neglected old courthouse became home to the Lexington History Museum. It was shuttered in 2012 because of lead paint contamination, then officials discovered structural problems.

It is an embarrassment to Lexington to have its most iconic public building uninhabitable. Demolition would be a tragedy. It needs to be restored, but for what?

“The courthouse needs to be imaginative, innovative and functional … a gravitational pull that will attract citizens and visitors,” Gray said.

The mayor wasn’t more specific, but he said an assessment report would be released soon and public meetings would be scheduled in February and March. Gray said he would include funding for the project’s first phase in the budget he submits to the Urban County Council in April.

The best idea I have heard for the old courthouse is to make it Lexington’s version of Chicago’s Water Tower or Boston’s Faneuil Hall — a gathering place for locals and the spot where tourists start their visit to Lexington.

Such a plan could bring back a smaller history museum, as well as rotating exhibits to entice people to visit attractions such as the UK Art Museum and the Headley-Whitney Museum. Distillery and horse farm tours could leave from there, bringing visitors back to the bars and restaurants around Cheapside.

The second project Gray touted — and promised initial funding for in his budget — is Town Branch Commons. It is a brilliant plan to create a linear chain of small parks downtown along the historic path of Town Branch Creek.

Since the creek was buried nearly a century ago, and the railroad tracks beside it pulled up in the 1960s, much of the spine of downtown between Main and Vine streets has been a concrete jungle of parking lots and wasted space.

Turning some of that space into small parks should make downtown more inviting and attract valuable commercial development. The plan will require private as well as public money. It would be built in phases, likely starting with the city-owned parking lot behind the Kentucky Theatre.

“We also need to make plans for the Government Center, a historic building that is costing us far too much to operate and repairs,” Gray said.

The late Foster Pettit, the first mayor of Lexington’s merged city-county government, once told me that moving city offices into the old Lafayette Hotel in the 1970s was always viewed as a temporary solution.

For at least a decade, officials have mused about selling the old hotel to a developer who could restore its beautiful first and second floors and turn the floors above them into apartments or condos.

Such a deal would create more downtown residents, as well as help pay for more cost-efficient city offices elsewhere. One possibility for those offices would be a new building atop the city-owned Transit Center garage.

The biggest misstep of Gray’s first term was his aborted renovation of Rupp Arena and Lexington Center. It failed largely because University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto had other priorities, and Gray ignored the obvious signals.

Gray didn’t mention Rupp in Tuesday’s speech, but he went out of his way to offer an olive branch to Capilouto. He sat beside him at lunch, mentioned him twice in his speech and praised UK as “our cultural, intellectual and economic anchor and engine.”

In his first term, Gray set an ambitious course for a better Lexington. The test of the next four years will be his ability to bring people together to make it happen.

Photos: Crane removes statues from Gratz Park fountain for repairs

November 25, 2014

141125statues-TE0034AA crew from Prometheus Foundry and American Industrial Contractors on Tuesday removed the children’s statues from the  fountain in Gratz Park. They will be repaired  while the fountain is rebuilt. Left to right are: Tim Moberly, Brad Connell, Amanda Matthews, Rick Deaton, Greg Fitzsimons and, in the crane, Bryan Arbogast. Photos by Tom Eblen


The statues of a playful boy and girl on the fountain in Gratz Park were removed Tuesday so they can be repaired over the winter while the fountain is rebuilt.

The fountain was built in 1933 as tribute to the city’s children from a bequest by Lexington-born author James Lane Allen. But it has been experiencing crumbling concrete and broken plumbing in recent years, and there was concern about possible deterioration inside the bronze statues by sculptor Joseph Pollia.

Brad Connell and Amanda Matthews of Prometheus Foundry in Lexington worked with a crane crew from American Industrial Contractors to carefully detach the statues from granite rocks in the fountain and lift them to the ground.

Connell and Matthews will refurbish them and repair a few cracks over the winter so they can be returned to the park when the fountain reconstruction is finished in May. They said the statues appeared to be in better shape than was feared.

The only serious problem they saw was deterioration in and around a post holding the girl in place. That may have been the result of repairs made after vandals pushed the girl’s statue into the fountain in 1969 and again in 1983.

“Otherwise it looks pretty good; I see no signs of ‘bronze disease’,” Matthews said, referring to deterioration that can be caused by poorly allowed material. “A good bronze alloy can last 10,000 years.”

However, refurbishing the statues will be complicated because the bronze alloy’s high lead content will require strict environmental and safety procedures, she said.

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Could Eastern Kentucky’s coalfields learn from Eastern Germany?

January 25, 2014


An old mine in eastern Germany is used for a film screening.  The metal construction is the retooled front end of an overburden spreader that will function as a pier once the lake in the former mining pit has filled.  Photo by Frank Doering


Coal is still mined in this region, but the industry employs only a fraction of the people it did for more than a century. Huge tracts of damaged land must be reclaimed. Leaders struggle to build a new economy, create jobs and keep young people from leaving.

Eastern Kentucky? No, eastern Germany.

Frank Doering, a German-born freelance photographer who has lived in Lexington for nearly two decades, spent three years documenting the land and people of eastern Germany’s Lausitz region.

Except for the flat topography, this area the size of Rhode Island has much in common with the coal-rich mountains of Central Appalachia. And it could offer a few ideas for Kentucky leaders grappling with the same issues, Doering said.

Coalscapes, an exhibit of Doering’s compelling photographs, opened last Thursday at Institute 193, the small, nonprofit gallery at 193 N. Limestone. The free show continues through Feb. 26.

140123FrankDoering0006Doering, 55, grew up in western Germany and earned degrees in German literature, history and philosophy. He came to this country to earn a Ph.D. at Princeton University, where he met his wife, Wallis Miller, an architectural historian.

They lived for several years in Europe, where Doering worked as a cognitive science researcher at the École Polytechnique in Paris. Miller was hired in 1994 by the University of Kentucky, where she is an associate professor of architecture.

Doering taught philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Cincinnati before quitting in 2000 to pursue photography, a hobby since his youth. He now works on personal projects between commercial commissions.

The Coalscapes project grew out of a 2004 trip to Canada, where the couple visited a huge, open-pit asbestos mine.

“It was visually overwhelming,” Doering said. “I’ve always been interested in the industrial underpinnings of society and the scale on which it happens. This was a chilling landscape because it was all manmade.”

The experience made Doering want to photograph large surface mines in Eastern Kentucky, but the mountain topography and lack of access made that difficult.

When Miller made a research trip to Berlin, Doering discovered the Lausitz region, less than two hours away. It had been an industrial powerhouse of the former East Germany, but state-owned industries there all but collapsed after German reunification in 1990.

Only three of 17 former mines still operate there, he said, but they are vast. More than 136 villages have been obliterated by mining, and more are targeted by Germany’s decades-long mine-planning process.

The region has some of the world’s richest deposits of lignite coal, used primarily to fuel nearby electric power plants. Despite Germany’s ambitious commitments to solar and wind energy, it uses a lot of coal and will for decades.

Still, Lausitz is economically depressed. Since the Berlin Wall fell, many former miners have been employed by the government, which has spent billions to dismantle old industrial plants and reclaim former surface mines.

“Many people there feel they have gotten the short end of the stick since reunification,” Doering said, adding that the region has a stigma within Germany similar to what Appalachia has in this country. “There is a distrust of outsiders.”

But the more trips Doering made to Lausitz, where he rented an apartment, the more locals opened up to him and the better his pictures got. The project was supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation in Chicago.

Although initially attracted by the raw landscape, he said, “The project took on much more of a human side. The industrial history and the people’s life stories are unbelievably interesting.”

Doering’s photographs document efforts to restore old mine pits as lakes that will attract tourists. Former mines have even been used for concerts and film screenings, and even public art installations.

There is also a push for “industrial” tourism — with mining companies building observation platforms so visitors can watch the mining process, which Doering said is fascinating because it is done on such a super-human scale. For example, the conveyor assemblies that remove soil above the coal seams are twice as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall.

“People from different backgrounds come and look at stuff they wouldn’t normally look at,” he said. “It starts some unexpected conversations” about balancing energy needs and the environment — conversations that rarely happen in an Appalachia polarized by “war on coal” rhetoric.

One metal fabricating company, which used to make industrial buildings, now makes innovative housing for locals and vacation rentals. It reminds Doering of the UK College of Design’s efforts to retool idled houseboat factories near Somerset to make energy-efficient modular housing.

Doering said his photos have been used in Germany to both document and promote the sparsely populated region, where leaders realize they must rebuild to high standards. “It had better be cutting-edge stuff, because that’s the only way to attract outsiders who might pour some money into the area,” he said.

Doering said he doesn’t know enough about Eastern Kentucky to say what lessons its leaders might learn from Germany. But he said the keys to progress there have been locals and outsiders overcoming traditional fault lines to find creative solutions.

“They have forged some odd alliances,” he said. “They have found a way to work together and get stuff done.”


If you go

  • What: Coalscapes, a photography exhibit
  • Where: Institute 193, 193 N. Limestone.
  • When: Now until Feb. 26. The gallery is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, and by appointment. Admission is free.
  • More information:,,
Read more here:


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Berea College archive preserves the sounds of Appalachia

December 29, 2013


Renfro Valley radio show cast at the old barn stage in the early 1950s. Left to right are Ray Sosbyee, Linda Lou Martin, Claude Sweet and Glenn Pennington. Photo courtesy Berea College Special Collections and Archives.


BEREA — As soon as sound recording equipment became small enough to fit in a car trunk in the 1950s, academics began racing around the mountains, trying to preserve the music and stories of a disappearing Appalachian culture.

Now archivists at Berea College are in another race against time: to preserve those old recordings for the 21st century and beyond and make them more widely available through the Internet.

Over the past eight years, sound archivists John Bondurant and Harry Rice have digitized more than 3,000 hours of recordings. Bondurant figures they are about halfway through the archives’ current holdings.

Some of that material, as well as a more limited collection of digitized video and photos, can be seen and heard on the archives’

131120Eblen-Berea0001The collection includes an impressive array of traditional Appalachian music, oral-history interviews, ballads, folk tales, old radio programs and black and white religious music. Plus, there are recordings of events, speakers and performances at the college going back to at least the 1960s.

Many of the recordings came from a collection started by Loyal Jones, who from 1970-1993 headed the college’s Appalachia Center, which is now named for him. But, over the years, many more collections have been donated to the college, providing a rich tapestry of authentic, one-of-a-kind sound.

The Appalachian music archives includes collections of fiddle, banjo and dulcimer tunes, band performances and recordings of Berea’s annual Celebration of Traditional Music, which began in 1974. Several collections focus on religious music, from Old Regular Baptist hymns to gospel music radio performances and Sacred Harp singing in rural black churches.

The archives also include broadcasts of John Lair’s Renfro Valley Barn Dance and related radio programs, which were broadcast between the late 1930s and the late 1950s on Cincinnati’s WLW-AM, Louisville’s WHAS-AM and the CBS Network. Although less famous than the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s WSM-AM, the shows had a huge impact on the development of country music.

131120Eblen-Berea0002Much of the radio collection was donated to Berea in the 1980s, when WHAS changed ownership and moved studios after the breakup of the Bingham family’s Louisville media empire.

“They called here and offered us these, implying that if we didn’t take them they would be thrown out,” Bondurant said. That archives included 1,500 16-inch transcription disc from the 1930s through the 1950s that were meant for short-term rebroadcast or advertiser verification.

“Like most media, it was never intended to be saved,” Bondurant said, so the transcription discs have been a challenge to copy before they disintegrate. “For most of these old programs, these are the only copies that exist.”

Those discs included episodes of Circle Star Ranch, a children’s radio show from the 1940s that featured a cowboy singer and the predecessor of WHAS-TV’s famous kids’ show, T-Bar-V Ranch, which had a loyal following among Louisville baby boomers.

Bondurant works in a tiny studio with a reel-to-reel tape player and a specially a specially modified turntable with a variety of sizes of phonograph styluses. Both are hooked up to a computer with digital sound software.

“Some of these materials, you have one shot; we play it to copy it and it should never be played again,” he said. “I’m trying to get the cleanest signal so it sounds like the original document.”

Bondurant, an amateur guitar player, worked in music licensing for Broadcast Music Inc., better known as BMI, in Nashville before earning a master’s degree in library science at the University of Kentucky.

Bondurant said the digital technology he uses to copy archival recordings has improved dramatically since he joined Berea College in 2005. And, unlike other preservation methods, digital copying makes it safe and easy to share material with researchers and other interested listeners more widely.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that digital technology is changing so fast, it will be a constant challenge to keep material preserved and accessible.

“The digital life cycle is a lot shorter than the analog life cycle,” Bondurant said. “We can still play recordings that are century old easier than we can play some DAT (digital audio tape) recordings from the 1990s that have essentially erased themselves.”

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Landscape architect helped shape the face of Lexington

September 23, 2013


Retired landscape architect D. Lyle Aten.  Photo by Tom Eblen


You may not have heard of Lyle Aten, but if you live in Lexington, you see his life’s work every day.

Since moving here in 1952, the landscape architect has had a hand in creating master plans and site designs for more than 60 projects in Central Kentucky.

Aten and his firm helped design neighborhoods such as Eastland, Cardinal Valley, Lansdowne, Stonewall, Merrick Place, Hamburg, Hartland, Beaumont and Wellesley Heights.

His shopping centers include Lexington Green, Hamburg, Beaumont, Tates Creek Center, Lansdowne, Lansbrook and Palomar.

Aten helped with the realignment of Main and Vine streets downtown and the epic reconstruction of Paris Pike. He worked on the IBM campus, Commonwealth Stadium, Coldstream Research Park and the Lexington Legends’ baseball field.

He helped plan Lexington’s Jacobson and Phoenix parks, as well as several state parks, including the lodge complex at Lake Barkley.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” said Aten, 86. “I was in the right place at the right time. And, most of the time, I had clients who let me do what I thought was right.”

Aten grew up in Macomb, Ill., and didn’t know what a landscape architect was until a career counselor gave him an aptitude test and pointed him toward the profession and the University of Illinois.

“Fortunately, I was on the GI Bill or I couldn’t have done it,” he said.

His timing was perfect: one of his instructors was Hideo Sasaki, who would go on to become one of America’s most influential landscape architects and the longtime head of Harvard University’s landscape architecture program.

After graduation, Aten joined the Peoria, Ill., firm Scruggs & Hammond, which sent him to Lexington to work on a couple of projects. Kentucky had only a half-dozen landscape architects at the time, he said.

“That was good and bad,” Aten said. “People didn’t know what a landscape architect was. It wasn’t about putting bushes around a house.”

As Lexington began an era of rapid growth, the Scruggs & Hammond office Aten headed found plenty of work and grew to 30 employees. In addition to design work, Aten taught as a longtime adjunct at the University of Kentucky, wrote several local environmental ordinances and, after retirement in 2000, served eight years on the city planning commission.

All of that made me think Aten would be a good person to talk with about development in Lexington — the successes, the mistakes and lessons for the future.

Lexington has a better history of planning and managing growth than most places. That has included protecting rural land and fertile soils with the nation’s first Urban Services Boundary and the Purchase of Development Rights program.

“Very few places in the United States have gone through this process, where we give value to our environment,” he said.

But a lot of mistakes were made, too.

“The first thing you have to do is to find out what nature is doing and respond to nature’s systems,” Aten said. “When you start to conflict with those systems, you get into some expensive problems.”

Among Lexington’s mistakes: trying to bury or reroute streams, which contributed to flooding and water-quality problems. The best example of that was the decision a century ago to bury Town Branch Creek beneath downtown.

“Now we’re going back and rediscovering the quality of that drainage way there and making it an asset rather than something you turn your back on,” he said.

Aten has been impressed with the master planning processes being used for the Rupp District and Town Branch projects downtown, he said.

“I think it can work out real well,” he said. “I really appreciate the approach that the mayor is taking to these things.”

The key to good planning and design decisions, Aten said, is a process that includes sound research, a collaboration of talented professionals and public involvement.

Metro Lexington must find better ways to increase density, do more mixed-use development and limit sprawl, especially in low-tax counties surrounding Fayette where tax revenues never manage to pay for sprawl.

“We have to learn to live closer together in more quality ways,” Aten said. “But you fit the city to the land. You don’t alter the land to fit the other pattern.”

Comedian Colbert comes to Kentucky to expose the ‘gay agenda’

August 16, 2013

This “People Who Are Destroying America” segment from Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report is getting a lot of buzz online.  It features the Perry County town of Vicco and its openly gay mayor, Johnny Cummings. And it is being called one of comedian Stephen Colbert’s best satirical pieces ever.

The segment skillfully uses Appalachian stereotypes to knock down those stereotypes. (It reminds me of old Beverly Hillbillies episodes, in which Jed, Granny and family usually managed by the end of the show to make those California city slickers look foolish.)  It also exposes what the “gay agenda” is really all about.

The Colbert Report
Get More: Colbert Report Full Episodes,Video Archive

Doctor has seen a lot, from World War II to 1,000 newborns

July 31, 2013

FRANKFORT — When we recall history, we often think of famous leaders, pioneers and heroes. But history is mostly shaped by ordinary men and women just trying to do their best under the circumstances.

I was reminded of that recently when a friend introduced me to Dr. James T. Ramsey of Frankfort. Ramsey, 91, was a child of the Great Depression who grew up in a small, northeast Ohio town.

“We had a general store, a blacksmith shop, a cider mill and that was about it,” he said.

“We were Methodists, and my mother was bent on me being a Methodist minister,” he said. “She somehow located Asbury College in Wilmore. Spent all of her inheritance on the first year’s tuition. After that, I was on my own.”

ramseyBut Ramsey preferred chemistry and physics to theology. He wanted to become a doctor. “I guess it was my admiration for the old country doctor who delivered me in the home,” he said.

Ramsey’s senior year ended early when Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Like virtually all of his classmates, he joined the military.

“But I didn’t want to die in the trenches,” he said. “I always felt it was a cowardly decision that I wanted to fly.”

He was hardly a coward. Ramsey joined the Army Air Corps and proved to be a talented pilot. By May 1944, he was in Italy piloting a B-24 Liberator. He and his crew flew 50 bombing missions all over occupied Europe. Then he returned stateside to train other bomber pilots.

What did Ramsey learn from World War II?

“Do the best you can with what assignment you get,” he said.

After he had completed cadet training, but before he went to war, Ramsey made a quick trip back to Central Kentucky. Kathleen Horn of Lexington was assigned to meet him at the train station. After that meeting, they began a correspondence.

“She was instructed by her friends that she ought to write to service people,” he said. “I happened to be the service person she wrote to. I came back through Lexington and we spent some time together on furloughs.”

After the war, they married and he enrolled in medical school at the University of Louisville. Like most of his classmates, the government paid for his education. Otherwise, he said, he could never have afforded to become a doctor.

“I think the GI Bill was great,” Ramsey said. “I’m sure the cost has been repaid in taxes many times over.”

After a residency in Cincinnati, Ramsey began a medical practice in Owen County, where there was then no hospital, x-ray machine or laboratory. He did his own lab work, with help from a local veterinarian.

Two years later, Ramsey completed a mini-residency in anesthesiology and moved to Frankfort. Over the next three decades, he practiced anesthesiology, general medicine and obstetrics, delivering more than 1,000 babies.

“A baby’s birth is a miracle, and I felt that way with every one,” Ramsey said, adding that many of them have kept in contact with him over the years.

Ramsey served on the school board, helped start Frankfort’s first nursing home and admitted the first black patient to King’s Daughters Hospital in 1959 after a federal loan for an expansion required that the hospital be desegregated.

“Prior to that, the only hospitalization we had available to black people was a dwelling house, and not a very good one,” he said, referring to a frame house that in 1915 had become Winnie A. Scott Memorial Hospital.

“It was two-story and we had rigged an operating and delivery room on the second floor, so we had to carry people up the stairs,” he said. “I thought that was disgraceful for the whole community.”

Ramsey and his wife had seven children — five boys and two girls — all of whom went on to successful careers. He retired from medical practice in 1993, but continued doing consulting work until a year ago. His wife died in May 2010.

When we sat down in his living room to talk recently, Ramsey said he didn’t see anything remarkable about his life. Yet, he fought a war, raised a family and took care of a community. Like many of his generation, Jim Ramsey helped make America what it is today.


News Literacy Project teaches kids to sort media fact from fiction

July 28, 2013

Before he retired and moved back to Lexington, John Carroll spent five years as the top editor of the Los Angeles Times, leading a newsroom staff that won 13 Pulitzer prizes.

Websites, blogs, niche cable TV networks and talk radio shows were beginning to become significant players on the media landscape then, and Carroll noticed a phenomenon he hadn’t seen before in his long journalism career.

“We would get 1,000 emails, ‘Why didn’t you cover this? You’re covering up!'” he said. “I was just shocked at the misinformation that people were calling us with and emailing us with, and it was obviously coming out in mass form, because you would get 20 or 50 or 10,000 queries about certain things that were not true.”

The proliferation of new digital media and the changing nature of traditional media have resulted in many more sources for news, information and commentary. But some of what is masquerading as journalism is really propaganda, marketing, entertainment or simply nonsense.

How do you know what to trust? It is hard enough for adults; what about kids? One of Carroll’s Pulitzer-winning reporters decided to take on that issue.

Alan Miller, who had been an investigative reporter in the Times’ Washington bureau, left the newspaper in 2008 and started the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit educational organization. Carroll now serves as chairman of the organization’s board of directors.

nlpThe project developed a media literacy curriculum now used by teachers in middle and high schools in the New York, Washington and Chicago areas.

“We’re teaching critical thinking skills, so if you find out something online … it gives you critical tools for deciding whether this is a good source of information and whether something is true or not true,” Carroll said. “The way we teach it is fun. It has a lot of practical exercises.”

The News Literacy Project also has enlisted dozens of journalist volunteers — including big names such as Gwen Ifill of PBS, James Grimaldi of the Wall Street Journal and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times — to speak in schools.

The curriculum was designed with help from trained educators to be compatible with the new Common Core standards, said Miller, the project’s president and CEO. Independent assessments have measured student learning and helped refine the program’s effectiveness.

So far, nearly 10,000 students have taken the courses in those three metropolitan areas. The long-term goal is to reach every student in every American school, and a digital version of the curriculum is being developed and tested.

Miller said some videos and other resources, such as a “teachable moments” blog reacting to current events, will be made available free to schools everywhere in October on a redesigned version of the project’s website,

Plans call for a full, free digital curriculum to be offered online beginning in the fall of 2014. Teachers can use the lessons as a separate social studies unit, or integrate them into their other curricula.

So far, the project has been funded mostly with grants from media companies and major foundations. Plans call for additional revenue to come from supplementary services to schools in major metropolitan markets, Miller said.

The curriculum teaches students to think critically and question the sources, accuracy, fairness and truthfulness of information they encounter in all forms of media. They also are encouraged to get their news from a variety of sources.

Miller and Carroll said the courses have been popular with both teachers and students, and assessments show they have increased students’ interests in news and public affairs. The project has received little criticism from partisan or ideological groups, which frequently claim media bias left and right.

“We are rigorously nonpartisan,” Miller said.

Even more than that, Carroll said, “We encourage (students) to pay attention to media they disagree with, because another characteristic of the modern era of media is that people have created gated communities for themselves; they listen to only the things they want to hear. Sometimes the people they don’t want to hear have something significant to say.”

The project’s goal is to create not just more savvy media consumers, but more well-informed and engaged Americans.

“It’s important for this next generation to know how to make good use of the media and not to be used by the media,” Carroll said. “Our fondest hope is to reach every young person in America, and that as a result of that they will become more sophisticated citizens and voters and discourse about public issues will be improved.”

Black History Month: St. Martin’s Village was a first for Lexington

February 26, 2013


Darryl and Linda Bond live in the house in St. Martin’s Village where he grew up. His father and uncle did much of the concrete work  for the neighborhood. Photo by Tom Eblen


It looks like many Lexington subdivisions built in the 1950s and ’60s — rows of modest brick and stone houses with well-tended yards.

But St. Martin’s Village took the American dream to a whole new level in Lexington: It was the first large subdivision where black people could buy a home.

“They were the crème de la crème for African-Americans in the 1950s,” said Porter G. Peeples, longtime president of the Urban League. “You were somebody if you got a place in St. Martin’s.”

It had always been hard for black people to find good housing in segregated Lexington. Few banks would lend in traditionally black parts of town. White neighborhoods were off-limits, by strict social custom, if not legal covenant.

For example, a 1907 marketing booklet for the new Mentelle Park development off Richmond Road promised: “No Negroes can ever own property or live in the park. No adjacent or near-by Negro settlements.”

When rumors circulated in 1925 that black-owned land off North Limestone would be developed into a subdivision for blacks, more than 200 white citizens gathered in a nearby church and organized a successful effort to block it.

But after World War II, Lexington’s business leaders realized their little college and farming town needed to attract industry if it was to have a strong economy and viable middle class. Factories hired a diverse work force. Things had to change.

Ovan Haskins, an insurance executive who helped start the Lexington Hustlers semi-pro baseball team, realized a long-held dream in 1948 when he bought land off Newtown Pike and began building 26 homes for sale to blacks on what is now Haskins Street.

But the big break came in 1955, when Joe Fister teamed with Chuck Seeberger and Joe Tuttle to build a 200-lot subdivision for blacks on 40 acres of farmland Fister owned on Price Road off Georgetown Road.

St. Martin’s Village was named for St. Martin de Porres (1579-1639), a mixed-race monk in Peru who is the patron saint for those seeking interracial harmony. The main street was called De Porres Avenue.

“This will be as good as any subdivision in Lexington,” Seeberger said in a 1955 Lexington Herald article that carried the headline, “First Negro Subdivision Planned on Fister Tract.”

SMV3Seeberger, president of the development company, was a Kansas native who had lived in Los Angeles before moving to Lexington, where his father-in-law owned an insurance business. He wanted to become a developer, building homes for people who had never been able to afford one, and he recognized an unmet need.

“People from the white community said, ‘You don’t need to be doing this — the status quo is just fine’,” said his son, Kirk Seeberger. “It upset him, but he expected it.”

Seeberger recalled his father, who died in 2003, describing how some St. Martin’s Village homeowners would weep at their closings.

“They said they never thought they would ever own a nice house in Lexington, Kentucky,” he said.

Many of those black homeowners were professional people — and, eventually, city leaders. The late Harry Sykes, who became city manager and mayor pro-tem, lived in St. Martin’s Village, as does former Councilman Robert Jefferson.

Two brothers, Alvin and Bennie Bond, did much of the concrete work on houses in the subdivision. That included “sweat equity” to help them buy their own homes across the street from each other on De Porres Avenue.

“I was born and raised in this house,” said Darryl Bond, 48, one of Alvin’s children. He and his wife, Linda, raised three children there and now operate a licensed child care center in the house. Like his father, Darryl Bond also does concrete work.

Bond’s lifelong tenure in St. Martin’s Village isn’t unusual: he guesses that 80 percent of the homes are occupied by original owners or their descendants.

“It’s a nice neighborhood,” Bond said. “Everybody knows everybody. Everybody pretty much looks out for everybody else. If kids are misbehaving, somebody will correct them.”

Michelle Davis, 55, who also lives in the De Porres Avenue house where she grew up, agreed.

“It’s a family-oriented neighborhood; almost like a big extended family,” she said. “We all grew up together. We were always in each other’s houses. We even got to know each other’s relatives from out of town when they would visit. It’s home.”


Joseph Fister breaks ground for St. Martin’s Village in April 1955. Watching, left to right, are J.J. Tuttle, Tom Robinson, Chuck Seeberger, Don Saylor and G.W. Gard. Herald-Leader file photo.

Tempur-Pedic headquarters taps inspiration from local artists

February 11, 2013

Don Ament’s photo of a dogwood tree in his front yard was enlarged to 42 feet wide by 11 feet tall to cover a folding wall that separates an employee cafe from a meeting room at TempurPedic’s new corporate headquarters building in Lexington.   Photo by Don Ament


Many artists dream of landing a big commission. For photographer Don Ament, it came from Tempur-Pedic, the Lexington-based mattress company.

Representatives from Tempur-Pedic met Ament last March at Kentucky Crafted: The Market. Then they saw an image on his website of dogwood blossoms in sunlight. The website has images Ament made all over the world, but this one was shot in his yard in Lexington.

The company was furnishing its new headquarters building near Coldstream Park, and executives thought Ament’s photo would be perfect for a folding wall that separates the employee café from a meeting room.

This commission was challenging because it literally was big. The image, taken on a 2.25-inch square piece of film, needed to be enlarged and printed 11 feet tall by 42 feet wide.

Ament scanned the film to create a high-resolution digital file, then, with help from friend and fellow photographer Frank Döring, manipulated the image to sharpen edges and preserve color vibrancy. A company in Maine printed the photo in sections, and last week it was installed like wallpaper. The result is stunning.

“They could go anywhere for art,” Ament said of Tempur-Pedic. “But they seem really dedicated to local.”

Indeed, as Tempur-Pedic settles into its new 128,000-square-foot space, much more local art will be purchased, said Patrice Varni, a senior vice president.

The only other pieces now are two Italian glass and stone mosaics designed by Guy Kemper, a Woodford County glass artist who has done installations all over the world, some as big as airport terminal walls.

Kemper’s mosaics for Tempur-Pedic are abstract evocations, roughly 10 feet square, for the fourth-floor executive area.

One is called After the Storm. “It recalls the feeling of a Kentucky forest after a summer storm, when a steamy sun comes out and everything is dripping wet,” Kemper said.

The other mosaic, called Daybreak, is “a shot of color to energize the work environment and promote creativity,” he said. “A reference that you’ve had a good night’s sleep.” (On a Tempur-Pedic mattress, no doubt.)

Kemper said Tempur-Pedic executives and their interior designer, Gary Volz of Champlin Architecture in Cincinnati, approached him after seeing two mosaics he did for elevator lobbies at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled with the pieces by Don and Guy,” Varni said. “I’ve really been struck by the positive response from employees.

“There was a steady stream of people stopping by to watch the installations.”

Tempur-Pedic built its new headquarters, which has large windows and expansive views of the Bluegrass landscape, to replace a former warehouse that had evolved into offices and become overcrowded as the company grew.

“This building was designed with a particular focus on collaboration and integrating the various work groups, and engendering creativity and innovative thinking,” Varni said. “Art is a big part of that, that is meant to showcase and inspire creativity and innovation.”

Varni said the company has budgeted purchases of more art during the next few years, as its 360 employees settle into the building, figure out what would complement the space and learn more about the work of local artists.

“We feel very much a part of the community, because the company was founded here,” Varni said. “In our support for the arts, we felt first and foremost we should support local artists.”

Varni said the Kentucky Arts Council has suggested several local artists whose work might be a good fit.

“Art is such a subjective, personal taste kind of thing,” she said. “We like things that have some sense of nature and that run the range from more literal to more abstract. And we’re interested in a different range of mediums.”

As part of its mission to help Kentucky artists be able to earn a living from their art, the council sponsors Kentucky Crafted: The Market, which returns to Lexington Center from March 1 through 3.

Kemper and Ament hope more Kentucky companies will follow Tempur-Pedic’s example because the arts flourishes only in places where artists find good patrons. Plus, when that investment is made in the community, it help’s Kentucky’s economy.

“You don’t have to run to New York or Chicago to look for something great,” Ament said. “There’s more good work being done here all the time.”

Click on each image to enlarge and read caption:

On Father’s Day, soon to be a grandfather

June 17, 2012

When I was little and we visited my grandparents in rural Fulton County, Granddaddy Kearby would take me out to the henhouse each morning to collect eggs. For a city boy, this little treasure hunt was big fun.

At some point, though, I noticed that the chickens who had been there on my first few visits had disappeared. It took a while for me to figure out that Granddaddy was now going out each morning before me, hiding store-bought eggs for me to find.

Grandfathers have been on my mind lately, because, in another month or so, I will become one. My older daughter and her husband are having a boy in late July, and I could not be happier.

I will have one advantage that my grandfathers, and my daughters’ grandfathers, did not have. Rather than living a day’s drive from my grandson, I will be a five-minute walk around the block. I want to make the most of the opportunity.

As Father’s Day approached, I was thinking about the role of grandfathers and the relationships that I had with mine.

Researchers point to all kinds of health and emotional benefits derived from strong relationships between grandparents and grandchildren. Grandparents can have more relaxed relationships with children than parents can. That is because they are not the primary caregivers and disciplinarians, with all the stress that comes with those roles.

A grandparent can be a less-intimidating teacher, mentor and sounding board for a child. They often have less energy than parents, but a little more free time. They can pass along wisdom and experience and provide a personal connection with the past.

My grandfathers were kind-hearted men with very different personalities. They had adapted in their own ways to their long marriages to strong-willed women.

Granddaddy Kearby was outgoing and curious. A retired railway postal worker, he was a New Deal Democrat who loved to meet new people, talk politics, tell jokes and read newspapers. He enjoyed playing with his grandchildren because he was basically a kid at heart.

He had grown up along the Mississippi River. His father, as Fulton County judge, built the old courthouse that is still the most impressive building in Hickman. He told us about swimming across the wide river as a boy, and of seeing Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.

My grandfather Eblen, whom we all called “Pa,” didn’t talk as much, but when he did, you listened. After working more than four decades for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad in Eastern Kentucky and Lexington, he moved back to the Henderson County farm where he had grown up.

Pa loved to fish, and he built a big pond to indulge his passion and pass it along to his grandchildren. He and my father were crack shots, and they taught my brothers and me how to shoot and respect firearms. I learned a lot about patience by being around Pa, whether it was fishing or enjoying a blazing fire on a winter evening.

When I could get him to tell stories, he had some great ones, especially about working on an Army railroad during World War I, shuttling men and munitions to the front lines in France.

People learn a lot from role models. I think that a big reason my wife and I have been good parents is that we had good parents. We will be good grandparents because we had good grandparents. Still, I know I must temper my expectations.

Granddaddy Kearby and I had another egg-hunting game when I was little. When he came to visit one Easter, I convinced him to hide my plastic eggs in the back yard so I could hunt for them — over and over and over and over.

Finally, as he sat in a lawn chair reading his newspaper, I searched my back yard for a long time without finding a single egg. Eventually, I discovered that my weary grandfather had hidden my eggs below the fake grass in the basket I was carrying.

The moral to that story? Grandfathers don’t need to have unlimited patience, but a good sense of humor is mandatory.

Checking in on West Liberty’s tornado recovery

May 19, 2012

Donna Pelfrey, the Morgan County Circuit Court clerk, moved her office to a room in a Morehead State University extension campus building outside West Liberty. She expects to be there for at least two years. Photos by Tom Eblen


WEST LIBERTY — I first met Donna Pelfrey, the Morgan County Circuit Court clerk, on March 6. She was standing in a debris-strewn street outside her demolished office, having just gotten a hug from Kentucky Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr.

A tornado had blown through town four evenings earlier, killing six people and demolishing everything in its path.

Pelfrey and state Administrative Office of the Courts employees had made their way into town the day after the storm to secure records in the office vault. When I met them, they were moving them to a temporary courthouse just outside town.

Pelfrey has been clerk for a dozen years and was deputy clerk for 24 years before that. Now, faced with the biggest disaster to ever strike her hometown, she was scrambling to help restore order. It was a family affair: her husband, Rick Pelfrey, outside plant manager for Mountain Telephone, was working night and day to restore cell-phone and land-line service to the county.

I returned last week, 75 days after the tornado, to see how recovery efforts were going. I figured Donna Pelfrey would be a good person to ask.

I found her in the temporary courthouse, a Morehead State University extension campus classroom building. It is in the nearby community of Index, which has become the new nerve center of a Morgan County on the mend.

The building’s auditorium is both a makeshift courtroom and church, depending on the day of the week. Various agencies and businesses are upstairs and in the Regional Enterprise Center next door. West Liberty Elementary School is in a former industrial building at the top of the hill.

Pelphrey and her six assistants work in a big, windowless room of the MSU building, where they expect to be for at least two years. A new judicial center was being built next to the century-old courthouse where they worked when the tornado hit. Work is stalled while structural engineers assess the damage.

Much of the past 75 days has been a blur, Pelfrey said. She considers herself lucky: Her immediate family was unhurt, and her home was only slightly damaged. Still, the tornado killed a cousin and a woman she had worked with for 25 years. Her sister’s home was demolished. “That kind of stuff has been hard to deal with,” she said.

Pelfrey hears a lot from people who come into the clerk’s office every day. “What I hear more than anything is people having insurance trouble,” she said. “They’re fussing about their insurance, and adjusters, and they can’t get what they need.”

Some still seem traumatized. “They have a lot of stories to tell,” she said.

They talk of having impulsively taken shelter in a certain corner of their home — the only corner left standing when their house collapsed. Then there was the woman who, seeing the tornado coming, tried to take shelter in the Family Dollar store. The door was locked, so she clutched the rails of the shopping cart corral as hard as she could to keep from being blown away.

Only once in our conversation did Pelfrey come close to tears. That was when she recalled all of the strangers who have poured into West Liberty since May 2 to help clean up, or who have sent clothing and supplies for her neighbors in need.

“When you saw church buses and truckloads of people volunteering their time, that was the most surprising thing,” she said. A roofing company from another town went from house to house, putting tarps on damaged roofs for free.

Pelfrey said she hasn’t heard any reports of scam artist repairmen who often show up in towns after disasters. She said she knows of only two or three people who were charged with looting.

Cleanup and reconstruction have put a lot of people back to work, but the future remains uncertain. Pelfrey says she thinks it will be at least two years before West Liberty returns to anything approaching normal.

The restoration of Salyer Cemetery, where monuments were flattened, has boosted people’s spirits, she said. The pizza restaurant is supposed to reopen this week, and there is a sign on Main Street saying the Chinese restaurant will return soon.

There’s no word yet on the fate of Freezer Fresh Dairy, which for years was West Liberty’s most popular hangout. There are doubts about whether some downtown businesses, which were struggling before the storm, will ever come back.

After weeks of waiting for insurance settlements, demolition and reconstruction work is now under way along Main Street, which makes Pelfrey’s daily commute through town a little more encouraging.

“Every time you see something come back, it lifts your spirits,” she said.

Kentucky Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. comforts Morgan Circuit Court Clerk Donna Pelfrey on March 6 in tornado-damaged  West Liberty. Behind Minton is Justice Will T. Scott. Both the unfinished new justice center at left and the county courthouse where Pelfrey’s office was located were heavily damaged.

Like most buildings on West Liberty’s Main Street, this one is “closed for renovation” as residents work to recover from a March 2 tornado that devastated the Morgan County seat.

A makeshift flag pole decorates remains of the new Morgan County Judicial Center, which was under construction in downtown West Liberty when a March 2 tornado swept through.

Several downtown buildings in West Liberty are being demolished two months after a March 2 tornado devasted the town. Here, a bulldozer works behind some Main Street buildings.

A former attorney’s office across from the old Morgan County Courthouse suffered extensive damage in the March 2 tornado. The rear of the building has been demolished since then.

The century-old Morgan County Courthouse suffered extensive damage in the March 2 tornado, but County Clerk Donna Pelphry said officials hope to renovate the structure for another use.  The building is shown here May 16.

Morgan County’s historic plaque, knocked off its post by the March 2 tornado that devastated West Liberty, sits propped up on the remains of a World War I monument. The county’s old courthouse is to the left. The new judicial center, which was under construction when the tornado hit, is to the right. Both buildings were heavily damaged.

Workmen begin extensive repairs to the second story of a commercial building on Main Street in West Liberty on May 16.



CentrePointe approved: See final design drawings

March 28, 2012

Rendering of CentrePointe along Main Street, where four local architects designed pieces of the building to give it more variety and help it blend in with historic buildings across the street. Rendering by EOP Architects

After four years of public debate and continuous improvement to the design, Lexington’s Courthouse Area Design Review Board today approved developer Dudley Webb’s plan for the CentrePointe mixed-use development. Board approval was unanimous. Nobody from the public spoke against it.

That was because the design is dramatically better than what the Webb Companies unveiled in March 2008 for the block in the center of downtown Lexington bounded by Main, Upper, Vine and Limestone streets.

EOP Architects of Lexington completed the design, with local architects Graham Pohl, David Biagi and Richard Levine contributing signature designs to the Main Street facade to help the development blend in with historic buildings across Main Street.

Approval by the review board was needed because much of the CentrePointe project lies within the boundaries of the old Fayette County Courthouse historic overlay district.

EOP used the basic site plan developed by Studio Gang Architects of Chicago, but made the tower larger to accommodate a Marriott hotel and created a signature building at the corner of Vine and Limestone streets that Webb says will house a Jeff Ruby restaurant and an Urban Active gym.

EOP’s lead architect, Rick Ekhoff, and the other architects made small but significant improvements to their designs in response to feedback from the review board at an informal meeting Feb. 15. The public also got to have a say March 1 at a public meeting at ArtsPlace attended by more than 250 people.

Those improvements included:

  • Adding more windows and design elements to the Upper Street side of CentrePointe, where the service entrance will be.
  • Enlarging a gallery through the middle of the development connecting Main and Vine Streets. It will now be 25 feet wide and 45 feet tall, with a sky-lit roof and retail on each side, Ekhoff said. The gym and reception space outside the hotel ballroom will overlook the gallery, which Ekhoff said will be a good place to display public art.
  • Making improvements in the architects’ facade treatments along Main Street.

Ekhoff said the design took into account the possibility that streets surrounding CentrePointe would be changed from one-way to two-way. And he added that all of the design input from the review board and public had “enriched” the result.

By the end of what has been a long and contentious process, the only change the review board insisted on was removal of a pedway over Upper Street, which Webb agreed to do. With that, the vote was taken and review board chairman Mike Meuser said, “Good luck with this very important project.”

Now that the design has been approved, Webb said it can be used more effectively to market the project to potential lenders and tenants. “It could happen very quickly,” Webb said, adding that three lenders have expressed interest in financing CentrePointe.

The process worked, and the CentrePointe project and downtown Lexington will be much better off for everyone’s effort.

The design of CentrePointe along Upper Street was improved to avoid it looking like a service entrance. Also, the proposed pedway was withdrawn. Rendering by EOP Architects


Move to an old house teaches many lessons

February 5, 2012

My new house when it really was new, 1907. Photo by Thomas A. Knight

By the time you read this, Becky and I have either moved to our renovated, century-old house near downtown or died trying.

Our move this weekend completed an exciting and exhausting five-month odyssey that began when we offered to buy this house from a nice lady who had lived there for nearly 40 years.

I was curious about the house’s history, and the Lexington Public Library’s Kentucky Room turned out to be a valuable resource. My best find was a promotional booklet for the then-new neighborhood, published in 1907 by Thomas A. Knight, a well-known photographer.

The booklet included several photographs of the street, including a portrait of our then-new house. The picture cleared up several mysteries: a missing front chimney, a strange door that used to be a window and a low spot in the front yard that was then a giant tree stump.

Old city directories in the Kentucky Room showed that the house had been owned by a road contractor, a cabinet maker, a traveling salesman, a physician and an insurance executive. But we were only the third owners since 1928, when a Louisville & Nashville Railroad engineer bought the house. He died in 1952, but his widow lived there until about 1970.

The house spent a couple of years as rental apartments before she sold it to the lady we bought it from and her husband, who died last spring. She remembers the neighbors thanking them for rescuing the house from hippies, who were growing marijuana in the dining room. The house was such a wreck, she said, that the first time her sister saw it, she cried.

Over the next few years, the lady’s late husband and his contractors did major restoration. They jacked up the downstairs floor and installed a new roof, wiring, plumbing, heating and air conditioning.

Still, there was much work to be done after we bought the house. For more than two months, I choreographed a parade of contractors. They refinished old wood floors and installed new ones. They removed acres of wallpaper, repaired plaster, painted, plumbed, wired and tiled.

We hired professionals for jobs that I didn’t have the skills for — or would never have finished in my lifetime. I did a lot of small stuff: light carpentry, some painting and a lot of caulking and fix-it chores.

Moving is hell, but some of the renovation work was fun. And I am pleased with the results. Like any major experience, it was educational. Here are some of the things I learned:

• Home renovation always takes longer and costs more than you think it will.

• My house’s former owners were newspaper subscribers. An electrician found a 1938 Courier-Journal in the crawl space. I know that the living room’s pocket doors were last opened on or about Dec. 6, 1979, because that day’s Lexington Herald was used to seal them shut.

• Old wallpaper can hide a multitude of sins. So can new caulk and paint.

• Old carpet can hide beautiful heart-pine floors. Or a big mess. You never know until you pull it up.

• A leaky valve beneath a kitchen sink will fail at the worst possible time, such as early on Thanksgiving morning, after you have had $700 worth of unfinished hardwood flooring installed.

• I could buy a new BMW for what it would cost to line and cap my three unlined masonry chimneys. I can’t afford either.

• I now know most of the clerks at Ace Hardware, Home Depot and Lowe’s by sight, if not by name.

• I don’t need a gym to get a good workout. The most challenging moves of my stretching regimen involved straddling a clawfoot bathtub — one foot on a window sill, the other on a step ladder — screwing a shower curtain rack into a 10-foot ceiling.

• Be good to good contractors and they will be good to you.

• Caulk, paint and Advil are my friends.

Boone Creek plan offers opportunity, challenge

December 17, 2011

Thousands of travelers cross the Clays Ferry bridge of Interstate 75 into Fayette County every day, never knowing what lies over the hill below them. Most Lexingtonians don’t know what is there, either.

Behind an Old Richmond Road building that used to be the Jolly Roger truck stop, there is a steep cliff. At the bottom of that cliff is the Boone Creek Gorge, one of the most ruggedly beautiful and inaccessible landscapes in Central Kentucky.

Before Boone Creek flows into the Kentucky River, it passes tall limestone palisades, an ancient waterfall, giant trees and rare wildflowers. The gorge is home to trout, wild turkey, deer, mink, otter and real Kentucky wildcats. It also holds the remains of a pioneer cabin, an 1803 grist mill and a cave where, legend has it, Daniel Boone hid from Indians.

“People don’t know this is here, because almost nobody ever gets to see it,” said Lexington businessman Burgess Carey, who took me on a hike through the gorge. He hopes to change that.

Carey bought more than 20 acres of the gorge in 1994 and cleaned up a mess from the former truck stop’s leaking fuel tanks. In 2000, he opened a small private fishing club to help pay for the property’s upkeep.

Now, Carey has bought and leased additional land between the fishing club and where Boone Creek empties into the river. He hopes to create Boone Creek Outdoors, a 167-acre recreation facility that would offer kayaking, limited camping and trails for bird-watching, hiking and mountain biking. The main attraction would be guided, small-group “canopy tours” above the gorge using zip lines and suspension bridges.

To do that, Carey must overcome opposition from some neighbors and local organizations that think his plans violate zoning laws and could hurt the sensitive environment. After a four-hour hearing Friday, which attracted a large crowd of both supporters and opponents of the project, Lexington’s Board of Adjustment continued the hearing until Jan. 27.

Carey, a lifelong Lexingtonian and outdoor enthusiast, thinks Boone Creek Outdoors could attract as many as 20,000 visitors a year and seasonally employ between eight and 30 workers.

The canopy tour would be an educational experience, not just a thrill ride, said Carey, who is working with some of the industry’s best course designers.

The tour would showcase the gorge’s beauty from above and explain the history of this section of the Kentucky River valley, site of some of the state’s first pioneer settlements. “It has the potential to grow into a national-class attraction,” he said.

Carey’s plans call for about $2 million in capital investment. He said that money would come from private financing and a $250,000 state tourism loan. The canopy tours would be key to making Boone Creek Outdoors a financially viable business.

Carey said tour revenues also would enable him to better protect and manage the gorge, as well as to restore land damaged by grazing cattle. The biggest threat to the environment isn’t visitors, he said, but invasive plant species, many introduced in the 1960s during I-75’s construction.

“We’ll manage it much like a ski resort: if you don’t behave yourself, you can’t come back,” Carey said. “Are we going to have an issue with popularity? I hope so. But we can control it.”

The city planning staff has recommended approval of Carey’s request for a conditional use permit. Other supporters include most of the adjacent property owners, the city’s environmental commission and the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau. Tim McQueary, the city’s forester, told the Board of Adjustment that the canopy tour course wouldn’t damage trees.

The decision is up to the board of citizen volunteers. At Friday’s meeting, several citizens and groups spoke against Carey’s request, including the Old Richmond Road and Boone Creek neighborhood associations, the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation and the Fayette Alliance.

Opponents had concerns about environmental impact, traffic and emergency access. But perhaps the biggest concern was whether the project would set a legal precedent that could threaten the integrity of zoning throughout Fayette County. Much of that issue depends on whether Boone Creek Outdoors is legally considered an amusement park, which city law prohibits in the agricultural zone.

“I really like the idea that Burgess has,” said Gloria Martin, a neighbor and former Urban County Council member. But she argued that his project is an amusement park, and therefore needs a special zoning amendment for proper regulation. Her view was shared by Knox Van Nagell, executive director of The Fayette Alliance.

“Eco-tourism could be a great thing, but it must be done carefully,” Van Nagell said. She urged Carey to withdraw his application until legal issues could be resolved to ensure both responsible operation of Boone Creek Outdoors and protection for rural zoning countywide.

City officials, Carey, his supporters and opponents face an important challenge. Long-term protection of the Boone Creek Gorge will require money and thoughtful management. Without something like Boone Creek Outdoors, where will that money and management come from?

The challenge here is to figure out how to both protect and allow more people to enjoy this spectacular natural resource — and to influence future generations to protect and enjoy it, too.

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New Shaker Village chief faces financial challenge

November 27, 2011

SHAKERTOWN — The Shakers were known for their crafts, architecture, music and dancing — not to mention their celibacy, which helps explain why they are history.

But Maynard Crossland hopes to employ some of the Shakers’ other famous traits — ingenuity and entrepreneurship — to improve the fortunes of Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.

“We have a great story to tell, a great resource that needs to be protected,” said Crossland, who recently took over as president of the non-profit corporation that owns and manages the 19th-century Shaker Village in Mercer County and nearly 3,000 acres surrounding it.

Maynard Crossland. Photo by Charles Bertram

Like most historic sites, Shaker Village is suffering from changes in tourism and the economy. The organization has trimmed staff and programming, and dipped into its $9 million endowment to fund expenses, which include maintaining 33 historic buildings and 22 miles of dry-stone fences.

“We need to embrace some change here,” said Crossland, 56, former director of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, where he managed about 60 state historic sites and oversaw creation of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

“It’s obvious to me that the profits we make at the restaurant, the inn, the craft store or even ticket sales to the museum are not going to be enough,” he said.

Shaker Village needs to more aggressively seek donations and grants, he said. But it also must innovate to raise more cash, as the Shakers did more than a century ago with their farming and seed business.

“People don’t realize how inventive the Shakers were and how diligent they were at their entrepreneurship,” Crossland said. “Those parts of the story are as relevant today as they were then. It’s just being able to figure out the best way to tell that story and to market it to a wider audience.”

Visitors now take self- guided walking tours among the Shakers’ buildings, picking up pieces of their history from written materials while watching costumed men and women make Shaker crafts. The story needs to be more cohesive, compelling and interactive, Crossland said.

“For people my age, (the current way) may work, but for 10-year-olds, it’s not the way they learn,” he said. “They’ve really got to be able to touch it, feel it, smell it — not just see and hear it.”

More than just a history lesson, Shaker Village should be an “experience” that meets modern visitors’ needs for education and recreation, Crossland said.

On his to-do list: More healthy menu choices at the restaurant, in addition to the classic Kentucky staples. More variety of merchandise in the craft shop, including more lower-priced items and children’s souvenirs. More flexible admission charges to attract more visitors.

Crossland wants more people to use the property’s natural areas. There are trails for hiking and horseback riding, plus a boat tour on the Kentucky River. He also would like to have concessions where visitors could rent a horse, bike, kayak or canoe. He hopes to bring in more bird watchers and bird hunters (the property’s first quail hunts were this fall).

He wants to use the property’s gardens and farmland more to promote sustainable agriculture and local food. And he plans to look at an idea that has been discussed for years: building a conference center outside the historic village to attract groups and supplement accommodations at the inn.

Crossland hopes to create more regional partnerships, such as those it now has with the Woodford Hounds, a fox-hunting group, and the Dry Stone Conservancy, a masonry preservation group. For example, he said, historic preservation students could learn restoration techniques by working on Shaker Village’s buildings.

“We really need to open this site up and have it embraced by people in the Lexington, Danville and Harrodsburg communities as a resource,” he said. “They are our best ambassadors.”

Shaker Village is planning special Christmas activities to attract locals and improve staff teamwork. On Dec. 3, Shaker Village Illuminated will include candlelight tours, children’s crafts and storytelling for special carload admission prices.

“Our challenge here is to figure out ‘what is the experience’ and then present that in the most efficient, customer-friendly way we possibly can,” Crossland said. “This staff has the brain power to figure it out. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s going to happen.”

Click here to read Janet Patton’s story about Shaker Village’s restoration.