Historical Frankfort church, once threatened, is saved for a new role

June 6, 2015
Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.    Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors. Photos by Tom Eblen


FRANKFORT — When Good Shepherd Catholic Church and School moved to a new suburban campus in 2011, many people worried about what would happen to its former site, a downtown landmark since before the Civil War.

First, the old church was in the way of construction for the Franklin County Judicial Center, which took out the school gymnasium next door. In the end, the church wasn’t harmed, but the Judicial Center wrapped it on two sides.

Then there was a lack of maintenance. Water seeped through brick, damaging plaster and endangering the church’s structural integrity. Roof leaks caused sections of the heart-pine floors to rot. A tree sprouted from the bell-tower steeple.

The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation listed Good Shepherd on its 2013 “eleven at the eleventh hour” list of Central Kentucky historic buildings in danger of demolition after plans fell through to convert it into a museum.

“That building has been threatened for years, and there was a lot of concern that we were going to lose it,” said Craig Potts, executive director of the Kentucky Heritage Council and the state’s historic preservation officer.

“I was particularly concerned,” he added. “I was married in that church and live just a few doors down from it.”

Unlike some other recent preservation stories, this one seems headed toward a happy ending. Joe Dunn, an Oldham County developer who specializes in adaptive reuse of old buildings, is finishing a beautiful renovation of the circa 1850 sanctuary.

It has been leased to event venue operator Denise Jerome, who this summer will reopen it as The Lancaster at St. Clair, a place for weddings, receptions, music performances and other gatherings. A public preview is planned 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Aug. 20. Rental information: michaelisevents.com.

The remaining part of the old gymnasium’s lot at the corner of Wapping and St. Clair streets is being converted into a garden-like outdoor event space enclosed by a wrought-iron fence.

After that is finished, Dunn will renovate the school building, which opened in 1923, and lease it for office space.

Dunn and his son, John, were already familiar with downtown Frankfort, having renovated the McClure Building, a 1906 office building, and the Market Square Apartments, a former Odd Fellows lodge built in the 1850s.

When Dunn first looked at the Good Shepherd campus, he was only interested in the school building. But the real estate agent insisted that he walk inside the church.

“I thought, what would I do with a church?” he recalled. “But, being raised Catholic, I thought I should look at it, and, wow! You could just feel the reverence of the place.”

Dunn was captivated by the old sanctuary’s Gothic Revival arches, colorful stained-glass windows, bell tower and working pipe organ.

“I had the same feeling he did when I walked into the space,” said Jerome, who manages several event venues in metro Louisville.

So, in May 2014, Dunn bought the church, school and what was left of the former gymnasium lot. He expects to spend about $500,000 on the church and garden renovation.

Dunn and Jerome named the venue for Father J.M. Lancaster, who came to Frankfort in 1848 to lead a 20-year-old Catholic congregation that was suddenly swelling with immigrants escaping military conscription in Germany and famine in Ireland.

The next year, he paid $5,000 for a small Presbyterian church on Wapping Street, where the congregation worshiped as its members literally built their new church around it. When the new church was finished, the old one was dismantled. Since then, Good Shepherd has played a big role in Frankfort society.

“He has done a good job with the renovation,” Potts said of Dunn. “And I think he has a good idea for its reuse that is going to help all the revitalization efforts already underway downtown. Frankfort is kind of buzzing right now.”

While restoring Good Shepherd was a big job, Dunn said the project has gone more smoothly than many do.

“There was a lot of damage, and I did have to say a few prayers, ‘Is this what you want me to do?'” Dunn said. “But the pieces fell into place pretty easily. Sometimes you feel like there are other hands guiding you.”

Joe Dunn, who is renovating the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort for use as event space, plays a few notes on the organ, which is in good working order. The building was built about 1850.   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Joe Dunn, who is renovating the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church for use as event space, plays a few notes on the organ, which is in good working order.

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.    Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.

The tower bell in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort still works.   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The tower bell in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort still works.

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.    Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space.

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The organ is in good working order. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The organ is in good working order.

The event venue in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, will be named in honore of Father J.M. Lancaster, the first priest there, who was memorialized in a stained-glass window.   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The event venue in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, will be named in honore of Father J.M. Lancaster, the first priest there, who was memorialized in a stained-glass window.

The former Good Shepherd Catholic Church, built in 1850 at the corner of St. Clair and Wapping streets, had suffered water damage from a leaking roof and deteriorating brick walls. The building was surrounded when the Franklin County Justice Center was built.   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The former Good Shepherd Catholic Church, built in 1850 at the corner of St. Clair and Wapping streets, had suffered water damage from a leaking roof and deteriorating brick walls. The building was surrounded when the Franklin County Justice Center was built.

Developer Joe Dunn, who is renovating the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, also bought the nearby parish school building, circa 1920. He plans to renovate it and lease it as office space.   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Developer Joe Dunn also bought the nearby parish school building, circa 1923. He plans to renovate it and lease it as office space.

National Avenue business district has new name: Warehouse Block

May 28, 2015
Greg Walker of Walker Properties announces the renaming of his family's redevelopment district along National Avenue as Warehouse Block. Behind him is his father, Randy Walker, left, and Mayor Jim Gray. Photo by Tom Eblen

Greg Walker announces the renaming of the district along National Avenue as Warehouse Block. Behind him are his father, Randy Walker, left, and Mayor Jim Gray. Photo by Tom Eblen


The mixed-use business district Walker Properties has been developing in a former industrial area along National Avenue has a new name: Warehouse Block.

The family-owned company announced the name, which was voted on by tenants, at a news conference Thursday. The name and a new logo will be used in signage and other branding for the district.

Warehouse Block has a diverse mix of tenants in its renovated buildings. The New York Times featured the development in a story earlier this year as an outstanding example of adaptive reuse and urban redevelopment.

“It’s not every day that Lexington gets in the New York Times,” Mayor Jim Gray said. “What the Walkers have done is a perfect example of creative place-making.”

Randy Walker, an electrical contractor, said he started buying and renovating buildings along National Avenue three decades ago, “at a time when the neighborhood was barely nice enough to be sketchy. Coming from the construction industry, I couldn’t stand letting these buildings go un-maintained and unused.”

Walker Properties worked with city planners to revise zoning codes to allow a return to the way cities used to before the mid-20th century trend of strict segregation of land uses. The company is now run by his sons, Greg and Chad.

Greg Walker said the Warehouse Block has been about much more than renovating old buildings. “We and our clients and tenants are building a community,” he said.

Walker said the company will sponsor the first Warehouse Block party Aug. 21. National Avenue will be closed off for live music and food vendors.

Old courthouse needs renovation, new purpose and a business plan

July 21, 2012

The old Fayette County Courthouse is a Lexington icon — a Richardsonian Romanesque temple that since 1898 has dominated the center of downtown.

It was designed to be Lexington’s pride and joy back when public buildings reflected a community’s aspirations. For more than a century, it was a center of local government. For the past decade, it housed several small history museums.

For the past week, it has been a massive limestone box officially unfit for human occupancy.

City officials closed the building indefinitely July 13 after environmental testing found dangerous levels of lead-paint dust. It also has asbestos, and maybe mold. Officials are assessing the problems and repair costs.

But the old courthouse deserves more than hazard remediation. It needs to be completely renovated — and re-imagined. We shouldn’t put it off any longer.

This once-magnificent building needs a bigger purpose, one that will serve the present and future as well as memorialize the past. It also needs a business plan to help pay for its restoration and provide for a sustainable future.

If you have been inside the old courthouse in recent decades, you probably were not impressed. That’s because renovations in 1961 and 1972 made it more functional as a courthouse but ruined its interior beauty.

Ceilings were lowered to be more energy-efficient and to make room for more courtrooms and offices. The central rotunda was filled in with elevators and restrooms. Originally, the rotunda held a grand staircase and rose more than 100 feet to a blue, lighted dome decorated with paintings and carvings.

After new courthouses were built in 2001, there were dreams of converting the old building into a $22 million art and history museum, complete with underground galleries with skylights. That effort fell apart after the 9/11 terrorists attacks and the economic slump that followed.

Since then, the building has housed the Lexington History Museum, the smaller Lexington Public Safety Museum and the Kentucky Renaissance Pharmacy Museum. They display eclectic collections of artifacts and sustain themselves largely through the efforts of passionate volunteers. The Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum of local African-American history moved out last summer after the building’s heating and air-conditioning systems quit working.

The good news is that modern heating, air-conditioning and elevator technology would allow the building’s interior to be restored to its former glory. The largely intact dome could be uncovered and restored.

The bad news is that a complete renovation would cost about $15 million.

In the past, Lexington has “saved” popular old buildings through city bond financing, then scrambled to figure out a use for them. Some, such as the Lyric and Kentucky theaters, are arts and entertainment venues. Others, such as the Carnegie Center, Loudon House and Morton House, are used by worthwhile non-profit organizations.

But building upkeep is expensive, and city funds are scarce. The result is often less-than-adequate maintenance. (The city has spent more than $231,000 maintaining the old courthouse since July 2006, plus utility costs that recently have run between $20,000 and $45,000 a year.)

A new business model is needed, and the old courthouse provides an excellent opportunity to develop it. What could that building become? Mayor Jim Gray should ask the public for ideas.

Here are a few to get the discussion started:

I see the old courthouse as Lexington’s visitors center — and more. It should be the first place tourists stop. They could see a smaller, more-focused Lexington History Museum and small exhibits from other local museums. A centrally located “museum of museums” would encourage visits to out-of-the-way gems such as the Headley-Whitney Museum and The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky.

Now that Cheapside is one of Lexington’s hottest restaurant districts, a portion of the old courthouse’s first floor could be rented out as a restaurant, with outdoor dining on the surrounding terrace. Upstairs space could be rented as offices.

Converting some of the building to commercial space could make the building eligible for new market tax credits. Combined with historic preservation tax credits, this could go a long way toward offsetting renovation costs. Rent payments could go toward utilities and maintenance. A non-profit organization or limited-liability corporation could be created to manage the city-owned building.

The old courthouse is an architectural treasure that needs saving. But unless Lexington finds a meaningful use for it and a business model to support that use, it will just need “saving” again and again.

Built by slaves, sanctuary could have new future

February 29, 2012


One of Lexington’s most significant black-history landmarks would become a concert hall, a cultural center and a museum if a new non-profit foundation can raise several million dollars to buy, restore and operate it.

The First African Foundation has reached a tentative agreement with Central Christian Church to buy the former First African Baptist Church building at the corner of Short and Deweese streets. A final agreement must be approved by Central Christian’s leaders and congregation, said James Hodge, a church trustee. He declined to disclose the purchase price or terms.

William Thomas, a Lexington native who moved back in 2008 after retiring as music department chair at the prestigious Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts, said he was inspired to organize the effort after reading about the building’s amazing history two years ago.

The Italianate-style sanctuary, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is a handsome building. What makes it amazing is that most of the people who built and paid for it in the 1850s were slaves.

First African Baptist Church and Historic Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church trace their roots to Peter Durrett, a slave who in 1790 started the first black church west of the Allegheny Mountains. Durrett died in 1823 and was succeeded by London Ferrill, a slave who gained his freedom and was widely respected by blacks and whites alike.

In 1833, Ferrill became a local hero when he risked his life to minister to victims of a cholera epidemic that killed 500 of Lexington’s 7,000 residents. That same year, he moved his congregation to the corner of Short and Deweese. Construction of the present building began about 1850. Ferrill died in 1854, and his funeral procession attracted 5,000 mourners. The sanctuary was completed in 1856.

Ferrill was a powerful preacher who baptized thousands. Because slave families were often split up by sale, many walked miles each Sunday to attend services at First African Church — and have their only opportunity to see each other.

First African Baptist Church added a Tudor-style addition and a columned portico on the sanctuary in 1926. The congregation moved to Price Road in 1987 and sold its historic building to Central Christian. A child-care center now in the building would be relocated if the sale is approved, Hodge said.

Architect Gregory Fitzsimons, who developed a renovation plan for the foundation, said the building is in good condition. Still, it would take about $4 million buy, renovate and enlarge the building for the foundation’s proposed uses. Thomas also wants to raise several million more dollars to operate and endow the building and programs.

The old sanctuary, now used as a gymnasium, would become a 400-seat concert hall. Thomas would like the proposed concert hall to host local musicians and visiting ensembles that highlight African-American music. One such group is the American Spiritual Ensemble, a Lexington-based international touring company founded by Everett McCorvey, director of the University of Kentucky’s Opera Theatre program.

“It’s something we would certainly consider,” McCorvey said. “I was very impressed with the potential of what that facility could become. The church has a wonderful history. It’s certainly worth preserving.”

Thomas, who taught at Phillips Andover for 36 years, spent three years as artistic director of Project STEP, a classical music academy for gifted minority students in Boston run by the Boston Symphony and the New England Conservatory of Music. Thomas would like to start a similar program here.

Yvonne Giles, who started the Isaac Scott Hathaway museum of Kentucky black history, is on the foundation’s board. The building could eventually house that collection and host a variety of cultural programs, Thomas said.

The 10-member board includes Dan Rowland, a UK history professor; Lisa Higgins-Hord, UK’s vice president of community engagement; Urban County Councilman Chris Ford and architect Van Meter Pettit.

First African Baptist Church leaders support the project, and several were among about 50 people who attended a fund-raising reception Saturday at a home near Nicholasville. The event included a string quartet that played classical music by black composer William Grant Still.

“Fiscally, we’re in tough shoes, but this building is a national treasure,” Thomas said of the foundation’s ambitious fund-raising goal. “To know that folks in bondage committed their resources, which were so limited, to build such a remarkable structure inspires us to do great things with it.”

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

Will Lexington leaders act on Greenville’s lessons?

June 19, 2011
Knox White, left, the mayor of Greenville, S.C., leads a group of people from the Commerce Lexington across the Falls Bridge, a suspension pedestrian bridge that replaced an ugly highway bridge over a waterfall that has become a city park. Photo by Tom Eblen

Greenville Mayor Knox White, left, leads a group from Commerce Lexington across Falls Bridge, a suspension pedestrian bridge that replaced a highway bridge over a waterfall that has become a city park. Photo by Tom Eblen

One of the most valuable things about Commerce Lexington’s annual “leadership visit” is that it brings together nearly 200 people who spend three days looking at Lexington’s strengths and weaknesses through the lens of another city.

Last week’s trip to Greenville, S.C., was my fourth, and I found it the most useful. Perhaps that was because Greenville’s relative size, assets and challenges are more similar to Lexington’s than are those in Pittsburgh, Madison or Austin.

In many respects, Lexington is better than all of those cities. It was easy to sense some of Greenville’s shortcomings, despite city leaders’ positive spin. But the point of the trip was to learn from what they do better than we do.

The primary lesson was that beautiful, high-quality urban development can improve both quality of life and economic vitality. Since the 1970s, Greenville has transformed an ugly, car-choked downtown into a garden spot where people want to live, work and play. Economic prosperity has followed.

Greenville is more politically and socially conservative than Lexington, and much of what city leaders did was controversial. But they did it, and it worked.

The city transformed a Main Street the size of Lexington’s from a sun-baked, four-lane highway into a pleasant two-lane, two-way gathering place. It is shaded by big trees and filled with shops, restaurants, sidewalk dining and plenty of parking in diagonal street spaces and artfully disguised garages. A neglected riverfront and waterfall became a gorgeous public park surrounded by new development.

Downtown is now beautiful, inviting, unique to Greenville — and twice as big as it was. Old buildings have been restored and adapted to new uses. Contemporary mixed-use developments have been built and are successful. There are a variety of performance halls, sports venues and museums. The renaissance is growing in all directions, and nearby towns are emulating it.

What can Lexington learn from Greenville? Here were my takeaways:

Articulate a simple vision that almost everyone can embrace. That is different from launching a task force or commissioning a detailed study that will gather dust on a shelf. Simply agree on a vision such as this: Lexington’s urban and suburban spaces should be worthy of the beautifully unique countryside that surrounds them.

Leaders must lead. As the Lexingtonians saw in Greenville, that means taking risks, working together and figuring out creative ways to accomplish goals. It means entrepreneurial partnerships among government, business and nonprofits. It also means inclusive, transparent planning and long-term strategies.

Demand excellence. Greenville raised the bar for downtown development with design guidelines and an architectural review process. Developers know they must meet high standards — and that city officials will work with them to overcome obstacles to mutual success.

Remember when the developer who wanted to build a one-story, suburban-style CVS drugstore on Lexington’s Main Street said the retailer wouldn’t do better? Well, a two-story, urban-style CVS is under construction on Greenville’s Main Street. When finished, it will look like it has always been there.

I asked Mayor Knox White to explain Greenville’s redevelopment vision in a nutshell. “Downtown is all about the walking experience,” he said. “The architectural guidelines, the landscaping, everything. It’s a religion with us.”

Build on success. Greenville’s revitalization was an intentional, long-term process. Partnerships were formed to create world-class anchor projects and beautiful public spaces that would attract private investment around them. Civic leaders were not afraid to dream big and take risks.

Greenville leaders said they always have a “next big thing” on the horizon. Lexington achieved much during the three years before last fall’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. We need a “next big thing” on which to focus.

This is a time of great opportunity for Lexington. Over the next couple of decades, Lexington will redevelop three huge tracts of urban land: the 46 acres around the Civic Center and Rupp Arena; the adjacent Distillery District; and the area surrounding the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus at the old Eastern State Hospital site.

Greenville shows what can be done, and the visitors from Lexington left talking like converts at a tent revival. But as we all know, even the most sincere believers can backslide when distracted.

Will Lexington stop being satisfied with good enough and try for great? Can those who went to Greenville help articulate a clear vision for Lexington and mobilize the community behind it? Will our leaders lead?

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

Charm before the storm: Greenville’s Wyche Pavilion

June 15, 2011

Before a violent thunderstorm Wednesday evening sent trash barrels flying through the air and Commerce Lexington visitors running for cover, the group enjoyed a reception at the Wyche Pavilion, a shelter made from the ruins of one of Greenville, S.C.’s oldest industrial buildings beside the Reedy River in downtown. The pavilion is a great example of “adaptive reuse” of a historic structure that speaks to Greenville’s authentic heritage as a textile mill town and manufacturing center.

Preservation more about the future than the past

April 5, 2011

Lexington’s historic preservation movement began in 1955. A group of citizens got together to prevent demolition of the Hunt Morgan House after The Thomas Hart/John Bradford House across the street was torn down for a parking lot.

That tragedy showed people the need to preserve buildings associated with the men and women who made Lexington an important early American city.

Lexington’s preservation movement reached another milestone three summers ago. That is when developers demolished 14 commercial buildings dating to 1826 for the CentrePointe tower that has not been built and may never be.

That tragedy showed people a different way to look at historic preservation. Saving old buildings isn’t just about preserving the past or creating museums; it is about remodeling and finding new uses for structures that contribute Lexington’s authenticity, sense of place and collective memory.

Historic preservation students at the University of Kentucky’s College of Design organized a symposium last week to discuss this growing trend in preservation, called adaptive reuse. It attracted a standing-room crowd from across the state.

The conference was held in the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, itself an example of adaptive reuse of a once-neglected building. Originally Lexington’s public library, it shares a corner with the Hunt Morgan and the 56-year-old parking lot where the Hart/Bradford House once stood.

“This is about building on existing assets, not erasing them,” said keynote speaker Roberta Gratz, a New York journalist whose books show how preservation contributes to vibrant cities.

Many of today’s zoning laws, building codes and development norms emerged after World War II. It was an era of cheap oil and automobile-centric design theories that defied all previous human experience.

“There is a lot of mind manipulation that’s gone on for 50 years that we need to undo,” Gratz said. That begins with government incentives that have encouraged demolition and subsidized new construction and sprawl.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to incent what we want,” she said, adding that it often is as much about changing perceptions as laws.

For example, tax incentives that get small businesses to locate in old urban properties would be far cheaper for taxpayers than building more roads and sewers for new suburban development. Renovating buildings is more environmentally friendly than building new structures that often won’t last as long.

Like Lexington, most cities have plenty of downtown parking. It may not be free, but drivers often end up walking shorter distances than they do in mall and strip-center parking lots.

Donovan Rypkema, a Washington, D.C., real estate consultant, pointed out that not tearing down old buildings preserves a city’s options as the economy, people’s needs and real estate markets change. He noted that many young, educated people are moving back to the cities their parents and grandparents left. One reason is that cities’ mix of old and new buildings makes them more interesting places to live.

Part of preservation’s challenge, Rypkema said, is convincing lenders that adaptive reuse is a good investment.  But that is becoming easier, thanks to market forces in many cities. As Gratz noted, New York developers are now getting rich restoring old buildings that preservationists kept them from tearing down just a few years ago.

Other symposium participants included Matthew Kiefer, a Boston real estate lawyer and board president of Historic Boston Inc.;  Bill Weyland, a Louisville developer whose adaptive reuse projects include the Louisville Slugger factory and Glassworks building; and Holly Wiedemann, a Lexington developer who restores old buildings, including many abandoned schools, into attractive affordable housing.

“Preservation is a means to an end,” Kiefer said. “And that end is creating vibrant urban spaces where people want to live and work.”

It was a thought-provoking symposium, and it could not have been held in a more appropriate place. A half-century ago, Gratz Park was in such decline that owners were knocking down buildings like the Hart/Bradford House for parking lots. Now, these homes and commercial buildings are some of Lexington’s most desirable and valuable.

It’s worth thinking: what other future Lexington assets are in danger of being erased?

Charleston mayor’s ideas right for Lexington, too

March 6, 2010

Joe Riley is an evangelist for historic preservation, good urban design and proven strategies for making cities more livable and economically successful.

He founded the national Mayors’ Institute for City Design. The Joseph P. Riley Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Studies at the College of Charleston is named for him. But Riley’s best credential is his day job: since 1975, for an unprecedented nine terms, he has been the mayor of Charleston, S.C.

People who know Charleston often remark on what a great city it is — the beautiful waterfront, the Spoleto arts festival and the colorfully painted historic homes. Those old enough to remember what the city used to be like talk about how much it has improved.

During Riley’s tenure, Charleston’s annual tourist trade has increased from 1.7 million to 4.4 million visitors. At the same time, the city has often made lists of the best places to live and do business.

Riley was in Lexington last Wednesday to speak to an overflow crowd at the Downtown Public Library. Many civic leaders were there, as well as all four candidates for mayor.

With a rapid-fire PowerPoint presentation that lasted for more than an hour, Riley flashed slide after slide showing Charleston’s transformation from the time when “our downtown almost died.”

The pictures showed dozens of dilapidated buildings restored to elegance and commercial success; modest but well-designed public housing so attractive that expensive condos were later built across the street; neighborhoods and commercial streets rescued from neglect by city leaders who demanded and got high-quality private development; an elegant public park on what was once a waterfront eyesore.

“A big challenge was this vacant lot right in the middle of downtown,” Riley said at one point, prompting the crowd to erupt in laughter. “Oh, you have one of those, too?”

A key factor in Charleston’s success has been historic preservation. “We work hard to keep the bulldozers out,” he said.

Historic preservation hasn’t been so much about preserving the past — “we’re not a movie set or a theme park,” Riley said — but about creating an authentic, irreplaceable and human-scaled environment where people naturally want to be. The city also insists that new development be well-designed, well-built and, well, worthy of being in Charleston.

That means having effective laws and regulations, but also the kind of professional architectural review processes Lexington lacks. Such a process helps ensure that new development is appropriate, well-designed and in the best interests of the entire city and not just an individual developer or property owner.

“Try not to plop things down,” Riley said of new development. “Make it work. Make it fit.”

Excellence is often achieved with that last 5 percent of effort, the mayor noted. He repeatedly gave examples of using his political skills to make sure old buildings were saved, money was found to restore them and proposed new construction added to rather than detracted from the rest of the city. Riley said he once called then-President Bill Clinton to insist that a new federal building respect Charleston’s downtown esthetic.

“There’s never an excuse to build anything that doesn’t add to the beauty of a city,” Riley said, acknowledging that “the political land mines are all over the place.”

Successful cities put a lot of emphasis on beautiful public space that attracts people. “The things of value are increasingly the things we own together,” he said. “When you build a great public realm, the private money and development will follow.”

Riley’s strong leadership is controversial; he has always had a re-election opponent, and last time he had three. But Riley’s approach has clearly worked for Charleston and most of its citizens. He was re-elected for an eighth time in 2007 with 64 percent of the vote.

City-building is a complicated stew, but the principles Riley outlined are simple: vision, leadership, and a commitment to long-term value for the entire city rather than just short-term profit for individuals.

When Lexington has followed those principles, it has enjoyed some of its greatest success: creating the Urban Services Boundary in 1958; restricting rural lot sizes in 1964 and 1999; starting the Purchase of Development Rights program in 2000; and creating historic districts over the past 50 years (often, though, after significant damage was already done.)

Lexington has failed when it ignored those principles and allowed tacky, vinyl-box housing, commercial sprawl, haphazard architecture and, since the 1950s, the destruction of classic downtown buildings to make way for parking lots, drab concrete boxes and ego-driven glass towers.

“Our success as a culture, economic and otherwise, will depend on our cities,” Riley said. “We must treat them as precious heirlooms that we inherit and hold in trust for future generations.”

Church turns old buildings into affordable homes

July 23, 2009

It was a puzzle with no easy answer.

Two buildings from the mid-1800s — former servants’ quarters and Lexington’s oldest apartment house — were in such bad shape they had been condemned.

Their demolition would have left another sad gap in the historic neighborhood between downtown and Gratz Park.

Meanwhile, there is a need for affordable housing downtown for low-income people and retirees. Officials estimate that more than 8,700 households in Fayette County spend more than half of their income on rent.

With a lot of work and creative financing — such as tax credits and grants — the puzzle was solved Thursday with the dedication of First Presbyterian Church Apartments on Market Street.

The two buildings were carefully restored into a studio apartment, two one-bedroom units and seven two-bedroom apartments that will rent for between $330 and $550 a month. Tenants must have incomes below $22,700 for singles and $26,000 for families. Even before the first residents have moved in, there’s a waiting list.

Not only are the apartments affordable, they’re beautiful. While adding modern closets, fixtures and appliances, the developers preserved the buildings’ exterior, as well as inside touches such as windows, woodwork, wooden floors and fireplace mantels.

The large project team celebrated the apartments’ completion Thursday with a ceremony next door in First Presbyterian’s chapel.

“This project has been both a joy and an honor,” said Holly Wiedemann, a church member and president of AU Associates, which specializes in converting old buildings into affordable housing.

“It can be done,” Wiedemann said. “Historic buildings can be saved. Affordable housing can be produced, and it is desperately needed.”

Clyde Carpenter, a University of Kentucky architecture professor and member of the church, spoke passionately about both Christian outreach and historic preservation.

“Preservation is as much about the future as the past … it is about environmental sustainability, not wasting, not consuming,” he said.

In addition to giving historic buildings new life, Carpenter said, the apartments will add vitality to the neighborhood.

First Presbyterian, which recently restored its circa 1872 sanctuary, has played an important role in keeping the neighborhood vital. Among other things, the church restored Henry Clay’s law office next door and built a magnificent contemporary chapel in the 1990s that Carpenter helped design.

First Presbyterian Apartments, Carpenter said, represents a new ministry for the church.

AU Associates led the project on the church’s behalf with a big cast of characters. Financing came from Central Bank, the city, the Kentucky Heritage Council and the Kentucky Housing Corp. Design was done by S+A Architecture, with construction by Churchill McGee LLC.

Behind the scenes were many more partners, from lawyers Robert Vice and Mac Deegan to Kentucky American Water Co., which replaced water lines so old that some of them were made of wood.

“This is a model we need to replicate for other projects,” Urban County Council member Diane Lawless said of the public-private partnership. “Not only is it affordable housing, it is quality affordable housing. That makes all the difference.”

Click on each photo to enlarge.

Historic First Baptist building needs saving

July 4, 2009

I never paid much attention to Lexington’s First Baptist Church, the Gothic limestone temple that overlooks West Main Street across from Rupp Arena.

Unil recently, I had never been inside. It has been a long time since many other people have, either.

When Pastor John C’deBaca gave me a tour, I was amazed. The 1,500-seat sanctuary has arched oak pews beneath a stunning vaulted ceiling of massive chestnut beams. There are four balconies, beautiful stained glass windows and a huge pipe organ.

There also are water-damaged walls and a stone front entrance that is closed and braced with wooden beams because city code enforcement officers fear it could collapse.

Rebuilding the entrance would cost about $75,000. Add another $24,500 for electrical work. And $14,000 for a new roof. Then there are the crumbling stairwells to the front balcony, water problems in the basement and worn masonry and exterior windows. The list seems endless.

What was once one of the South’s largest Baptist congregations has dwindled to about 50 people, many of whom are native Spanish-speakers. The congregation’s financial resources are no match for the urgent repairs their once-grand building needs.

“We’ve been working on it piecemeal as we can, but it’s a huge challenge,” said C’deBaca, who once taught building trades in Texas and now spends as much time ministering to his building as to his flock. “There’s a lot of potential in this building … if the community knew what was here.”

C’deBaca has been working with Tom Blues, the Urban County Council member, Bill Johnson of the Old Western Suburb neighborhood and others to come up with ideas to restore and perhaps find other uses for this 35,000-square-foot architectural gem.

So far, solutions have been elusive.

First Baptist Church’s history is as illustrious as its building. Founded as Town Branch Church in 1786, it was one of the first Baptist congregations west of the Allegheny Mountains. Its first pastor, John Gano, baptized George Washington.

The congregation met in a log cabin on the site, which also was Lexington’s pioneer cemetery. The church moved to Mill Street in 1819 but returned in 1859 and inhabited a succession of three buildings, two of which burned.

Most graves were moved to Lexington Cemetery in the mid-1800s. But when the last church building was demolished in 1913 to build the present one, the grave of John Bradford, publisher of Kentucky’s first newspaper, was found under the west wall. It was left there, according to state historical records.

First Baptist Church has suffered declining membership for decades. There were schisms and disputes, but location seems to have been the big factor.

There is little nearby parking, except for a small lot whose rental now provides income for the church. Some of the church’s 67 rooms are rented to Inner City Breakthrough Ministries.

What does the future hold?

“Ideally, I would like to see the congregation grow and prosper,” C’deBaca said. “But that hasn’t happened in the 11 years I’ve been here. We’re open to possibilities, and we need help.”

Perhaps the church could partner with other ministries, or turn the building into a religious conference center, Johnston suggested.

Or the church could sell the building, which would raise money to restart its ministry elsewhere. A developer could then turn the building into a concert hall, museum or exhibition space, a community center or even apartments, offices or restaurants.

One catch is that the building couldn’t be dramatically altered and still be eligible for historic tax credits that could help pay for its renovation.

Julie Good, executive director of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, did her master’s thesis on old churches that have been renovated for other uses. “There are so many examples of adaptive reuse of buildings like this,” she said.

“You have a great building that should be preserved at an important downtown location,” said Blues, the councilman, as we gazed up at the chestnut-beam ceiling.

“If this could be seen by people with good business sense and imagination, I’m sure we could figure out something.”

Historic preservation needs more than first steps

May 16, 2009

Will this be another downtown survey that is filed away and forgotten?

Or will Lexington follow through and take steps to leverage what’s left of its rich architectural past for a more prosperous future?

The city historic preservation division last week unveiled a survey of every building on 34 downtown blocks. It graded each pre-1965 structure’s historic and architectural merit as “outstanding,” “significant,” “contributing” or “non-contributing.”

Mayor Jim Newberry ordered the survey after controversy erupted last summer over developer Dudley Webb’s demolition of a block of buildings dating to 1826 to make way for the CentrePointe tower he has yet to begin building.

Preservationists were outraged, but Webb claimed the old buildings were insignificant and too dilapidated to reuse.

Newberry said a comprehensive survey was needed as “a reference point from which our conversation can begin” about which downtown buildings are worth renovating and reusing.

“That will be a substantial step in the right direction so our discussions can be more productive than they have been in the past,” Newberry said last week. “I think it’s healthy for us to have a community discussion of those values now rather than in the heat of the battle.”

Newberry also ordered code enforcement officers to sweep downtown to make sure old buildings aren’t suffering “demolition by neglect” as many of those on the CentrePointe block had.

The mayor’s strategy makes sense. The survey, which will be posted for public comment on www.lexingtonky.gov beginning Monday, is a useful first step.

But it is at least the third first step Lexington has taken in the past three decades.

After an earlier downtown demolition controversy, then-Mayor Pam Miller commissioned a similar survey in 1993. Several of that survey’s “significant” buildings have since been demolished.

Most of the buildings on the CentrePointe block, which is now an empty mud hole, were rated “significant,” except for the 1826 building that housed Joe Rosenberg’s jewelry store, which was rated “outstanding.”

The 1994 survey recommended that the city prevent demolition of those buildings. It also recommended that the city “encourage property owners, through code enforcement, to provide continued maintenance for buildings in the area.”

The Kentucky Heritage Council has other downtown surveys, most done in 1979 and 1980 by architectural historian Walter Langsam. They describe in detail the architectural and historic merit of many of the now-demolished buildings on the CentrePointe block.

Do you see a pattern here? Many of the more than 50 people who came to a meeting last week to see the latest downtown survey did, too. They asked about next steps. Where do we go from here?

Lexington has done and continues to do a lot of good historic preservation, thanks to the Blue Grass Trust, other organizations and many dedicated individuals and businesses. Among them: Bank of the Bluegrass, Ben Kaufmann, Gray Construction, Thomas & King, Peter Armato, Holly Wiedemann.

And just west of downtown, visionary developers Barry McNees and Rob McGoodwin are working separately to redevelop industrial complexes built for two of Lexington’s former signature industries, bourbon and tobacco, into assets for the new economy.

But historic preservation has always been a struggle in Lexington, because too many people have the wrong idea about it. They see preservation as an economic drag instead of an economic engine.

Preservation is rarely about recreating the past to make a museum piece. Instead, it’s about mixing the best of the past and present to create interesting, useful buildings for the future that speak to Lexington’s unique heritage and culture.

It’s really not so much preservation as recycling.

Look carefully around Lexington and in other cities around the country and world and you will see fine old commercial buildings being given new life. And they’re usually a lot more special than the new, generic towers built by cost-conscious developers.

Downtown revitalization isn’t an accomplishment, it’s an ongoing process that requires vision, leadership and citizen engagement.

It’s not about creating laws for everything, because laws and process can do as much to prevent great development as bad development. The key is creating sensible, flexible laws that allow leaders, under the watchful eyes of citizens, to help a city achieve its potential.

During the next few weeks, as citizens comment on the latest downtown building survey, Urban County Council members should adopt the Downtown Master Plan and proposed new zoning laws. They, business leaders and interested citizens also should look at strategies other cities are using to protect their historic assets and recycle them for the future.

Creating a successful downtown Lexington isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. But we’ll never get very far if all we ever take are first steps.

Morton's Row, including this building from 1826 that was one of Lexington's first Greek Revival structures, was torn down to make way for CentrePointe. Photo by Tom Eblen

This 1826 building, one of the first Greek Revival structures built in Lexington during the mid-1800s, was demolished for CentrePointe. Photo by Tom Eblen

Developer gives old buildings new life

March 22, 2009

The “AU” in AU Associates stands for “Adaptive Use.”

But if you remember the periodic table of elements from science class, Au also is the symbol for gold.

Holly Wiedemann has created gold for her Lexington development company — and golden opportunities for several Kentucky communities — through a complex alchemy of historic preservation, architectural innovation and creative finance.

AU Associates specializes in restoring once-beautiful old buildings by adapting them for new, economically sustainable uses. Most were once schools, rich in architecture and memories, and are now affordable apartments that put abandoned buildings to good use — and onto the tax rolls.

Wiedemann is working with First Presbyterian Church and Central Bank in downtown Lexington to restore a run-down Market Street apartment building from the 1800s into 10 attractive apartments that will rent for $300 to $600 a month. Old woodwork and fireplaces are being reused, architectural details restored.

“The proportions are comfortable to be in, and out each window you can see church steeples and gardens” of neighboring historic homes, she said.

That project is one of several now under way, Wiedemann said, representing $8.6 million in investment and providing 150 jobs.

“They have the right angle on the historic-preservation argument: It is first and foremost an urban-redevelopment argument,” Michael Speaks, dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design, which includes the architecture school, said of Wiedemann’s company.

“Her firm is one of the few that is taking historic properties and using creative financing to give them new life and make communities better,” Speaks said.

Wiedemann, 53, comes naturally to her love of history and old buildings.

A great-great grandfather, George Wiedemann, started Wiedemann brewery in Newport. A great-grandfather, J.D. Purcell, started Purcell Department Store, which was in a grand old building on Lexington’s Main Street that was demolished in 1978 to make way for the Radisson hotel. “Boy, that would be a great building to have now,” she said.

Wiedemann grew up on the family farm in Scott County called The Hollys, for which she was named. The farmhouse, built in 1789, gave her an appreciation for the beauty and durability of old buildings.

After earning a degree in landscape architecture and urban planning at the University of Georgia, she worked for a major developer in Tulsa, Okla. She realized she would need to learn more about real estate finance to do the kinds of projects she wanted to do.

That led her to Duke University in North Carolina, where she earned a master’s in business administration and met her husband, Bart van Dissel, then a doctoral student. They moved to Boston, where he taught at Harvard Business School and she worked for Winn Development, a pioneer in adaptive reuse of historic buildings.

“That, for me, was the Ph.D. level education” in historic tax credits and unconventional finance, she said. It also sparked her interest in building affordable housing.

Through consulting work, Wiedemann raised the money to start AU Associates after she and her husband moved to Lexington in 1992. The firm’s first major project was remodeling the old Midway School into 24 apartments for seniors.

The Irvine mayor’s wife saw the project and got Wiedemann to do a similar one in the Estill County town. Since then, AU Associates has done other school-to-apartment renovations, with more planned in Glasgow, Winchester, Beattyville and Buffalo in LaRue County.

“These old schools are often beautiful buildings that were built to last and are located in lovely residential areas,” Wiedemann said. “Many of the people who live there now taught or went to school there and have wonderful memories.”

The firm converted an ornate former YMCA built in 1913 in downtown Louisville into 58 market-priced apartments and St. Francis High School. And it is turning a former tuberculosis hospital in Ashland into 34 apartments for domestic abuse victims.

AU Associates’ projects often are complex because they use historic tax credits, partnerships and creative financial arrangements. “We cobble together multiple funding sources to make these projects work,” Wiedemann said. “That’s why a lot of people don’t do this work.”

But the projects work, and there’s a lot of demand for them.

“The growth potential is amazing,” said Johan Graham, who along with Martha Dryden makes up Wiedemann’s core staff. “We really have as much work as we can handle just from the business coming through the door.”

The firm’s offices are on Georgetown Street in a formerly derelict pre-1800 house that AU Associates restored with a contemporary addition. Behind it is the firm’s first start-from-scratch project — ARTEK lofts, which was developed in partnership with neighbors in the Western Suburb Historic District on a formerly blighted lot.

Wiedemann and her husband live at ARTEK, which has impressive views of the downtown skyline and the Henry Clay monument in Lexington Cemetery. Unfortunately, ARTEK came on the market during the recent downtown condo boom and right before the current economic bust. Wiedemann said about half of the 38 units, priced from the low $170,000s to the low $280,000s, remain unsold.

The project’s unique contemporary architecture by Christopher Fuller of K. Norman Berry & Associates in Louisville uses a lot of concrete, steel and brick. Like the historic structures Wiedemann’s firm usually works with, it is built to last.

“In 50 years, it will be qualifying for historic-preservation restoration grants,” Wiedemann said with a smile. “It’s not going anywhere.”

Click on each photo below to enlarge it.