New phone app gives architectural tour of downtown Lexington

October 20, 2015

Richard Greissman remembers sitting in the State Theatre one Saturday in March 2008 as several hundred citizens urged developer Dudley Webb not to demolish 14 old downtown buildings for his ill-fated CentrePointe project.

“We’re all sitting there going, ‘How did CentrePointe happen? How do we prevent it?'” said Greissman, who was then a University of Kentucky administrator. “I’m thinking, what’s my small part in this?”

He decided that if more people knew about the architectural and cultural significance of Lexington’s historic buildings they would be more interested in finding ways to adapt and reuse rather than demolish them.

So Greissman, who has photographed downtown for years, emailed a picture of an elaborate stone cornice on a Main Street building to a colleague, cultural geographer Karl Raitz, and asked what he could write about it.

“Twenty minutes later I get back a perfectly formed essay,” he said. “We went out to lunch and I said, ‘What do you think?’ and he said, ‘When do we start?'”

The LexArch photo app for iPhone and Android will provide a virtual architecture tour of Lexington's historic buildings. The app was developed by Richard Greissman and Karl Raitz. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Seven years later, Greissman and Raitz are launching LexArch Tour, an interactive architectural tour of downtown. The free app for iPhone and Android phones is now available for download. A launch event is planned for noon Wednesday at the Fifth Third Pavilion at Cheapside Park.

The app’s initial version includes photos, text and narration about the old Fayette County Courthouse and a dozen surrounding buildings, which are pin-pointed on a GPS map. The app also has hotlinks to a glossary of architectural terms.

“We see this as just a first version, what could be done practically in time for Breeders’ Cup,” Greissman said, adding that material is almost ready for another 20 buildings.

Greissman took the photos and Raitz wrote the text, which he narrates in small sections that can be chosen depending on the listener’s level of interest in each building. They each donated their time to the project. Beyond that, they had a lot of help. The app was built by Lexington-based Apax Software, and Prosper Media Group recorded Raitz’s narration. The $40,000 project, which includes money for updates and development over the next four years, was paid for by the mayor’s office and VisitLex, the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau. Another partner is the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

The app is designed for both tourists and locals, and the creators have big plans for expanding its functionality. “I’m hoping a lot of it is developed by folks saying, ‘What about doing this?'” Greissman said.

One model they have in mind is Street Museum, an app developed by the Museum of London in Great Britain. It allows users to hold their smart phone up to a location and see historic photos of what that place looked like over time.

The next step, they said, is to develop platforms that will let app users share their photographs and memories of downtown buildings on social media.

By next spring, they plan to have an update with many more downtown buildings, as well as historic photographs of those buildings and ones there before them. They eventually want to add video clips where appropriate.

Greissman and Raitz are talking with local game developers about how to integrate scavenger hunts and other interactive games into the app to make it more appealing to young people.

Raitz said one purpose of the app is to help people understand how cities such as Lexington are put together and evolve over time. They also want to increase architectural literacy among people who are interested in preservation but don’t know much about it.

“We want to get people out looking at Lexington in a different way,” Greissman said. “And then there’s the public knowledge and political capital it could provide for the next time some guy comes along and says, ‘Let’s tear this down.'”


CentrePointe soap opera needs good ending

October 30, 2011

I knew that a successful partnership between Lexington developer Dudley Webb and world-class architect Jeanne Gang would require a triumph of hope over experience.

At the urging of Mayor Jim Gray, Webb hired Gang in March to re-imagine CentrePointe, his stalled hotel, retail, office and residential development that for two years has been a conspicuously empty field in the center of the city.

CentrePointe, version 1

Webb’s initial CentrePointe designs were towering monstrosities. But Chicago-based Studio Gang developed a plan that was elegant, inspirational and appropriate to the human scale of downtown Lexington. Gang’s creative approach — and the thoughtful process by which she explained it — charmed a skeptical public.

So what did Webb do? He dumped her.

Gang is becoming one of America’s most sought-after architects. She has designed innovative, successful buildings around the world, including Chicago’s new Aqua tower. Last month, she became only the third architect to receive one of the MacArthur Foundation’s $500,000 “genius” grants.

Webb, on the other hand, has a record of building towers in downtown Lexington that look as if they belong in a suburban Atlanta office park. Works of genius? Not even close.

CentrePointe, version 2

Rather than cap his career by building a Jeanne Gang creation — and score a big marketing coup for himself and Lexington — Webb said last week that he had chosen to go in a “different direction.” He replaced Gang with EOP Architects, one of five Lexington firms that she had brought in to help her.

EOP does not have Studio Gang’s world-class stature, but it has done some excellent work. The firm is capable of producing a good design for CentrePointe, especially if it sticks with Gang’s vision.

That vision includes a varied, human-scale facade along Main Street that complements the interesting old buildings across the street; breathing space inside the block rather than one dense mass; and towers along Vine Street that look special and don’t overwhelm their neighbors.

But an architect can only be as good as his client allows. EOP’s biggest challenge on this job might be keeping its own good reputation intact.

CentrePointe, version 3 compared with version 2

Gang’s departure from CentrePointe is disappointing, but she leaves an important legacy. She set a high bar for new architecture in Lexington. She also showed how builders can honestly engage a community that finally seems to understand that good design will contribute to Lexington’s beauty, functionality and economic success.

The CentrePointe fiasco has made Lexington more demanding of high-profile developments, both their quality and their process. People are less willing to accept the way developers used to do business here: make plans in secret, unveil them with a “like it or lump it” attitude and bulldoze through opposition.

The University of Kentucky’s new Davis Marksbury building has set a high standard for good, environmentally sensitive architecture by which future UK projects will be judged.

Barry McNees has worked hard to incorporate good design and public participation into his plans for the Lexington Distillery District along Manchester Street.

Bluegrass Community and Technical College President Augusta Julian hired talented professionals and encouraged public input for plans for a new campus on the former site of Eastern State Hospital.

The Arena, Arts and Entertainment Task Force has hired world-class architect Gary Bates to oversee a public process for planning the long-term redevelopment of 46 acres of underused city land that include Rupp Arena and the Lexington Center convention complex.

Meanwhile, the Urban County Council’s Design Excellence Task Force is looking at ways to change laws and standards to encourage higher-quality downtown development than what Lexington has seen in recent decades.

All of this work is more significant than CentrePointe. Still, Lexington has a lot at stake in what happens on the block in the center of the city. People will be paying close attention to how Webb and landowner Joe Rosenberg handle that responsibility — assuming, of course, that anyone lends them the more than $200 million needed to build Webb’s dream.

Will CentrePointe help usher in a new era of good architecture in Lexington? Or will it become just another Webb development? I’m still pulling for a triumph of hope over experience.

Jeanne Gang's CentrePointe concept