Proposal a test of whether Lexington is ready to grow up, not out.

December 20, 2014

thistleAn architectural rendering of Thistle Station, a proposed 16-story apartment building with retail on the first floor. It would be between West Third and Fourth Streets off Newtown Pike.

 

Thistle Station, the 16-story apartment and retail building proposed last week along Newtown Pike, will be a big test of whether Lexingtonians can practice what they preach about growing their city up rather than out.

At first blush, the $30 million project appears to be a great example of urban infill development, the kind Lexington needs if it wants to avoid paving over more of its precious farmland.

Proposed by a group of local investors led by John Cirigliano, Thistle Station seems to have a lot going for it. For one thing, the site and location are just about perfect.

The development would sit along busy Newtown Pike, across West Fourth Street from the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus. It would be near two popular brew pubs and the Jefferson Street restaurant district and within easy walking distance of downtown.

Yet, there is enough space between this site and surrounding residential neighborhoods that nobody should feel crowded or overwhelmed, even by such a tall building with more than 210 apartments.

The site is now a former lumber yard bordered by railroad tracks. Nobody will be displaced by this project, and no significant old buildings will be lost.

thistle2The developers plan plenty of parking, most of it screened from public view, with easy access to Newtown Pike, which will minimize traffic impact on other nearby streets. The building is on a Lextran bus line and will be near both the Legacy and Town Branch trails. The developers plan to build a connecting trail section on their property along Newtown Pike.

Renderings show an attractive piece of contemporary architecture, designed in part by the Lexington firm Pohl Rosa Pohl. Skillful use of classical elements — a base, a middle course and a cap — give the design visual unity.

Although the building would be bigger and taller than anything near it, the first story is wrapped by pedestrian-friendly retail space. A stepped-down face along West Third Street provides a more human scale appropriate to the adjacent historic neighborhoods.

An abundance of glass is framed by textured concrete to resemble brick, with several nice touches, such as open glass corners and subtle balconies. Thistle Station could set a positive tone for future architecture along this important Lexington gateway corridor.

While the downtown condo market has been soft since the real estate bubble burst in 2008, property professionals tell me there is demand for upscale rental apartments downtown. Many young and transient professionals, as well as empty-nest baby boomers, want to live in an urban setting.

Two more positives: Thistle Station is not seeking any public subsidies, such as tax-increment financing. And before going public, the developers briefed leaders of the three surrounding neighborhood associations and scheduled meetings to seek public comment and suggestions. So far, most of the response has been positive.

The developers plan to file papers next month to rezone the property from I-1 light industrial to B-1 business under the city’s new form-based guidelines. If approved by the Planning Commission and the Urban County Council in the spring, the developers say the project could be finished and open by fall 2016.

The riskiest aspect of Thistle Station’s plan would seem to be the small, ground-floor retail and restaurant spaces. A lot of similar space at other Lexington mixed-use projects is vacant after struggling to find and keep tenants.

Still, making this space available is the right thing to do. Retail is essential to creating vibrant neighborhoods. A few tall housing developments like this could help provide the population density and diversity Lexington needs to help urban shops and restaurants succeed.

I expect Thistle Station will get some opposition — I have never seen a development proposal in Lexington that didn’t. People here have always been averse to more density and height. But both will be essential if Lexington is to get serious about promoting urban infill rather than bulldozing more bluegrass.

If properly designed, development with greater density and height can be both attractive and compatible with existing neighborhoods. Thistle Station looks like a good place for Lexington to start proving that point.


Alt32 architects find niche making furniture for their buildings

December 8, 2014

141120alt32-TE0023Alt32’s architects designed and used their computer-controlled router to manufacture office furniture and wall panels for the Plantory, a shared workspace facility in the Bread Box building at the corner of West Sixth and Jefferson streets. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

There is a celebrated tradition of architects designing furniture. Think Frank Lloyd Wright’s steel office desks, or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s chrome-and-leather Barcelona chair.

So when a client told Matthew Brooks and Mike Sparkman, principals of the Lexington architecture firm Alt32, it was planning to order a lot of Ikea desks and file units for office space they were designing, “a light bulb went off,” Brooks said.

“Mike and I both have a passion for making things,” he said, noting that they had rented a woodworking shop downtown a year earlier. “It started out as a place for us to work on our own stuff, for our houses and whatever.”

But the more they worked, the more they thought of ways they could create and fabricate fixtures and furniture for buildings they designed. That experimentation also became a passion for Michael Mead, a colleague who died in September.

141120alt32-TE0011It was all part of a creative evolution that Brooks and Sparkman, both 46, had been going through since they bought Lucas/Schwering Architects, a 25-year-old firm where they had worked for more than a decade. In 2012, they rebranded the firm Alt32, after a computer programming code for creating space.

Last year, the firm was hired to re-imagine a former two-car garage off South Ashland Avenue as a Greek restaurant, Athenian Grill. They used their workshop to recycle wood salvaged from the building for trim and fixtures. That led to other ideas, such as how to design and make furniture from birch plywood.

The big opportunity came as part of their work to design space for the Plantory, a shared office facility that was moving to larger quarters in the Bread Box building at the corner of Jefferson and West Sixth streets.

The Plantory serves mostly small, non-profit organizations, so its renovation was a low-budget project. Still, it was big enough to justify Alt32 buying an expensive CNC (computer numeric control) router.

With a CNC, designers use computer software to create intricate designs that can be cut from a variety of materials.

“It can do forms and shapes and geometries that traditional equipment can’t,” Sparkman said.

Alt32 made 64 desks and other furniture for the Plantory using birch plywood. Each desk was cut from a single sheet. Because the pieces were artfully arranged on the plywood before cutting, they left attractive “waste” sheets that could be used as decorative wall panels and stairway enclosures.

“In this case, the only waste is the sawdust,” Sparkman said.

Future products could include light fixtures, signage and even three-dimensional exterior wall panels made out of metal or plastic, which also can be cut on a CNC.

141112alt32-TE0065A“We’re just dipping our toe into the potential,” Brooks said. “But it’s a different kind of business from what our professional services are.”

The primary business they bought with Lucas/Schwering was designing Kentucky schools. That is still the firm’s bread and butter, and they want it to continue to be.

But they see fabrication, which now produces about 10 percent of their revenue and employs three full-time people in the shop, as a growth area that offers interesting ways to add value to their building designs.

For example, they have already made furniture for one school design. The firm designed interior space for Providence Montessori Middle School, which renovated the circa 1840s Florence Crittenton Home, and designed and built all of the school’s furniture.

Brooks and Sparkman said they have several upcoming projects, including new spaces for Crank & Boom ice cream and Lexington Pasta. They’re working on furniture prototypes that might fit the needs of those clients.

They also have thought of developing a line of ready-to-assemble furniture that could be sold online and flat-packed for shipping, as Ikea does.

Brooks and Sparkman said they want to keep their firm focused on Kentucky, and especially Lexington. Most of their non-school work is local, and they and all of the designers and interns in their firm are graduates of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design. They also want to keep Alt32 small enough to be flexible and creative.

“This has opened our eyes to different opportunities for how to manipulate materials,” Brooks said. “If you look at architecture now, it’s all about how do we manipulate all the materials we now have available.”

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After 7 years of excuses, get tough with CentrePointe developer

December 6, 2014

141124CentrePointe-TE0001The CentrePointe block on Nov. 24, 2014. Below, developer Dudley Webb at the site in May and, below, the block before demolition began in 2008. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Fourteen months ago, when city officials were scrutinizing developer Dudley Webb’s financing to decide whether to let him begin excavation and construction of his problem-plagued CentrePointe project, I wrote that there are far worse things to have in the center of your city than a grassy field.

Now we know one of those things: a huge crater, nearly 40 feet deep and an entire city block square. A hole in the heart of Lexington.

Webb’s contractors spent three months last spring blasting, digging and hauling away more than 60,000 cubic yards of rock and dirt to build an underground garage. The three-level, 700-space garage is supposed to be the base of his proposed CentrePointe development of offices, apartments, shops, restaurants and hotels.

Webb said in May that the garage would be finished by late summer. But all he has done is dig a big hole, pour a few footers and make a lot of excuses.

CentrePointe has fallen months behind schedule, causing its major office tenant, the engineering firm Stantec, to cancel its lease agreement.

Instead of building the garage, as promised, Webb has sought more public subsidies. It is the latest episode in a tragedy that has been playing out since early 2008, when city officials let Webb demolish an entire block of historic buildings and popular businesses on nothing more than promises.

140531CentrePit-TE0140Webb has said over and over that he has financing to build. But when it comes down to it, he never really does. And, of course, it is always somebody else’s fault.

In August, Webb asked the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority to issue $30 million in bonds for the garage’s construction to lower his borrowing costs. The state refused, so he asked the city.

Mayor Jim Gray and the Urban County Council also wisely declined, even though Webb’s attorneys assured them that taxpayers would not be on the hook for repayment in case of default.

Even if that is true, city officials are keenly aware that a default on city-issued bonds would tarnish Lexington’s reputation even more than the CentrePointe fiasco already has.

Webb next turned to the Kentucky League of Cities, which agreed to create a non-profit corporation to issue the bonds. That was supposed to happen last week, but Temple Juett, the league’s general counsel, said the issue has been delayed. He did not have a new date.

If and when the bonds are sold, the big question will be whether anyone will buy them. The bonds are to be repaid by a portion of future tax revenues generated by the project. “The only people left holding the bag if there is a default are the bondholders,” Juett said.

Maybe the bond issue will be successful. Maybe Webb has the rest of his financing in place, as he claims. Maybe there will be no further delays, and CentrePointe will be built as promised.

Maybe pigs will fly.

If the bonds don’t sell, I predict Webb will come back to the city with his hand out. He will seek a bond guarantee or some other assistance in addition to the tax-increment financing package he last negotiated with the city and state in 2013.

There is only one appropriate response to any request for more public subsidies for CentrePointe: No. Period.

When Webb assured city officials a year ago that his financing was solid, they forced him to put up $4.4 million as a “conditional restoration agreement” that could be triggered if work at the site stops for 60 days.

That $4.4 million is supposed to be enough to pay for refilling the hole, compacting the soil and restoring the block to its pre-excavation appearance — a grassy field.

If the developer can’t pay, the city can go to court and seek foreclosure on the property, which is owned by corporations set up by Webb and jeweler Joe Rosenberg, whose family has owned much of the land for decades.

Of course, it would make no sense to fill the hole. The city needs the parking garage, just as it needs a vibrant, tax-generating, job-creating commercial development to be built on top of it. The question is whether Webb is capable of ever building either.

Here is what should happen: If Webb can’t finish the garage in a timely manner, city officials should use their leverage to force him and Rosenberg to turn the project over to another developer who can.

For nearly seven years, city officials have bent over backward to try to make CentrePointe a well-designed, successful project. Webb has squandered opportunities and made a lot of promises he hasn’t kept. Enough is enough.

080618CentrePointeBlockTE018

 


Shop struggles with constant downtown construction projects

November 30, 2014

141124Failte0013At her first location, Liza Hendley Betz’s Fáilte Irish Imports faced the long Limestone reconstruction project. Now in the red building with McCarthy’s Irish Bar, it is surrounded by CentrePointe excavation and renovation of the 21C Museum Hotel. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

As she prepares to celebrate the 13th anniversary of opening Fáilte Irish Imports, Dublin native Liza Hendley Betz feels as if the luck of the Irish has been replaced by the curse of downtown redevelopment.

For the first eight years after she opened her shop in 2001, Hendley’s business prospered on South Limestone, just off the corner of High Street.

Betz’s bread and butter was selling Irish bread and butter — plus sausages, Bewley’s tea, Batchelor’s canned beans, Cadbury’s sweets and other comfort food from home to the Emerald Isle’s large expatriate community in Central Kentucky. She also did a good business in Irish tweeds, Celtic jewelry and souvenirs.

Then, with two weeks’ warning, South Limestone was shut down for 11 months for a major street reconstruction project.

141124Failte0043Her business struggled, but she was able to move in early 2010 to her dream location: beside McCarthy’s Irish Bar on South Upper Street. But the old red-and-green building also was across the street from the stalled CentrePointe project, which was then a grassy field.

“This is where I always wanted to be,” Betz said of the close proximity to McCarthy’s, a social center for the Irish community where she used to serve drinks.

As for CentrePointe, she figured, “I’ll deal with it when it happens. It can’t be any worse than what happened before.”

Or could it? Last December, all of the street parking across from her shop was closed after CentrePointe’s developer got city permission to begin blasting and excavation.

The street was a noisy, dusty mess for most of this year as the CentrePointe block was converted into a 40-foot limestone pit. Then everything stopped. Developer Dudley Webb is now trying to raise money to build an underground garage.

To make matters worse, the block of North Upper Street above Fáilte has been closed for months so the old First National Bank Building can be renovated into 21C Museum Hotel.

“This used to be a busy intersection,” she said. “You can go out here now and do a dance in the middle of the street. It’s hard these days to keep a business going with all this around you.”

Betz has rented a single parking space beside her shop, which has made it more convenient for customers to stop in for quick purchases.

Like many retailers, Fáilte’s prime season is between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, not just for gift items but because Irish Americans want food from home for their holiday celebrations.

On Dec. 12, the shop will celebrate its 13th anniversary with a 10 percent off sale, plus a party with Guinness beer, souvenir glasses and Irish music next door at McCarthy’s between 7 and 9 p.m.

Betz said she needs a big December, although her holiday season will extend to St. Patrick’s Day on March 17. She recently became a United States citizen, so she also is thinking about something special for next July 4 — if she can keep the doors open that long.

“It’s the worst time we’ve ever had,” said Betz, whose husband is a horse veterinarian. She minds the shop while caring for their two small children.

Like any good entrepreneur, Betz has been looking for ways to broaden her business beyond food and gifts. She has organized annual tours of Ireland, and she’s looking to use her Irish expertise to grow the travel business. She also is thinking about clearing some space in the tiny shop for a couple of tables to serve tea.

“I know I need to change things up a bit,” she said. “But I’m afraid to put money into anything right now.”

Betz also knows that, in the long run, she will have a great location when 21C opens and whatever ends up being built at CentrePointe is finished. But, as the famous saying goes, people don’t eat in the long run.

“I’m in the middle of downtown,” she said. “Who would think this is a bad location?”


New program allows restaurant patrons to feed hungry neighbors

November 26, 2014

Megan Moore was having lunch with friends from work last year at a new north Lexington restaurant when she noticed neighborhood residents walking by. She realized that many of them probably couldn’t afford her meal.

“I just couldn’t shake the fact that I love that these local restaurants have come into our neighborhoods,” Moore said. “And wouldn’t it be cool if people in this neighborhood could actually eat here?”

On her way out, Moore bought a gift certificate and asked restaurant employees to use it to feed anyone who walked in looking hungry but couldn’t pay. She did the same thing a few days later at North Lime Coffee & Donuts, near her home in the Castlewood neighborhood.

Moore, training and development director at KVC Behavioral HealthCare Kentucky, started wondering how she could make it easier for others to do the same thing.

So a few months later, when she was accepted into Leadership Lexington, an annual development program run by Commerce Lexington, she suggested a service project built around a concept she called Nourish Your Neighborhood. Others liked the idea, and it became one of four service projects undertaken by this year’s class.

141124Nourish0001Moore and her 12 project team members launched Nourish Your Neighborhood on Nov. 21 at Thai & Mighty Noodle Bowls, a restaurant owned by team member Toa Green. Thai & Mighty donated 20 percent of that day’s sales, raising more than $400 to get the project started.

Team members hope to recruit other restaurants to join in time for the next Nourish Your Neighborhood day on Dec. 16. More information, go to Nourishyourneighborhood.com.

“Our hope is to have different avenues for restaurants to participate, depending on what they want to do,” she said.

Here is how Moore hopes the program will work: Participating restaurants will come up with a way for them or their customers to donate money, most of which will be used to buy gift cards to that restaurant. The gift cards will be distributed to families in need as identified by the family resource centers in local public schools.

North Lime Coffee & Donuts also signed on. It has created a special doughnut and is donating half the proceeds from its sale to Nourishing Your Neighborhood.

Anyone can make tax-deductible donations to the program through the non-profit Blue Grass Community Foundation: Bluegrass.kimbia.com/leadershiplex.

“It’s basically restaurants creating the opportunity for patrons to donate and then connecting with people in the neighborhood who are in need,” Moore said. “And for me, it’s also about supporting our local restaurants.”

The group has made arrangements with Lexington Traditional Magnet School to be a partner and plans to enlist other Fayette County public schools.

Moore thinks the program could be especially valuable when schools are out for snow days, because many poor children rely on schools for two good meals a day. If they had a gift card to a restaurant within walking distance of their house, it could make a big difference.

The team also plans to partner with and give some of the money to other local organizations working to feed hungry people.

“There are so many incredible organizations in Lexington that are making a huge difference: God’s Pantry, Seedleaf, local churches,” she said. “We aren’t trying to take that over. Nourish Your Neighborhood is just a way to join in that effort and help them.”

The team members will graduate from Leadership Lexington in June, but they already are planning to form a permanent organization with nonprofit status to continue the work.

“We hope to make this a lasting, sustainable effort that could be translated to any community anywhere,” Moore said.

“I believe that in Lexington we have a very kind, generous, benevolent community.” There are people in our community who do really awesome things for other people. This is about connecting those people with people in need.”


Chevy Chase entrepreneurs plan Small Business Saturday event

November 23, 2014

141120ChevyChase-TE0044High Street Fly, a clothing boutique, is one of several new shops in Chevy Chase. Below, Danielle Montague, owner of MonTea specialty tea shop, helped organize the area’s Small Business Saturday event on Nov. 29. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

The holiday shopping frenzy begins this week, and local business owners want you to remember Small Business Saturday between Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

This day is about supporting locally owned businesses so more of your money stays in your community. It is about finding goods and services you never find in big-box stores. And it is about helping to keep your town unique and interesting, rather than letting it become just another generic link in the national retail chains.

One of Central Kentucky’s biggest Small Business Saturday events Nov. 29 is being planned by the Chevy Chase Business Owners Association. While some of its activities will last all day, most will be between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Participating shops will have refreshments and a “candy-cane pull” for discount coupons at other neighborhood stores. The association also is working with American Express, which offers a special discount through its Small Business Saturday program. (More information: Americanexpress.com.)

141119ChevyChase-TE0021Chevy Chase merchants are organizing a coat drive for Lexington Rescue Mission and a store window-decorating contest in which customers can vote. Free carriage rides will be offered in front of John’s New Classic Shoes on South Ashland Avenue.

“Santa will be making visits, and we’re working on carolers,” said Danielle Montague, an association leader and owner of MonTea, a specialty tea shop.

Chevy Chase was built between the 1920s and 1960s on land that had been part of statesman Henry Clay’s Ashland estate. Developer Henry Clay Simpson named the area for the Maryland golf club, where he was a member. One of Lexington’s first “suburban” shopping districts was built to serve the neighborhood.

“We were the original Hamburg,” Montague said with a smile. “We have just about everything here, and it’s walkable.”

The Chevy Chase business district has had a tough year, with months of reconstruction on Euclid Avenue and controversy over a rowdy bar the city shut down in September. But there has been a lot of good news, too.

The business district has been gaining popularity, as a variety of stores, including The Morris Book Shop, Worlds Apart and Donut Days, came in from the suburbs to join longtime businesses such as Farmer’s Jewelers and Chevy Chase Hardware. Several new stores have opened this year, including two in the past few weeks.

Ann-Michael Rawlings, who has operated Calypso Boutique in the Woodland Triangle for seven years, was at Morris buying a book this summer when she noticed the space beside Chevy Chase Hardware was for rent.

She quickly negotiated a lease, renovated it and opened her second boutique, High Street Fly, which specializes in local-themed T-shirts and vintage cowboy boots.

“I love the convenience of the neighborhood,” Rawlings said. “With the hardware store next door, even a lot of guys come in.”

Online retailer C.C. Prep Clothing & Accessories is owned by Atlantans, but when they chose Lexington as the location for their second store (after Charlottesville, Va.), they wanted to be in Chevy Chase.

“We didn’t really look anywhere else,” said manager Amanda Caldwell, who opened the store Nov. 14. “It’s great to be in an area where they support small businesses.”

Melissa Mautz has certainly found that to be true since opening the Pet Wants store in February. It sells fresh, regionally made dog and cat food, GMO-free chicken feed and American-made pet accessories.

“I knew I wanted to be in Chevy Chase, and business has been awesome,” she said. “We like being a part of this community.”

But like most retailers, Chevy Chase’s business owners know that the holiday season can make or break their year. “We rely heavily on it,” Montague said. “You can make your entire year’s rent in a month.”

Gary Doernberg, who opened Corner Wines five years ago in a tiny space that originally was a 1930s gas station, agrees. His shop specializes in low-priced wine lots from top vineyards, and this is high season for entertaining and gift-giving. But he has found Chevy Chase to be a great place to do business year-around.

“I’ve always loved this location,” Doernberg said. “I’ve been in the wine business, wholesale or retail, for 40 years. This is not the most money I’ve ever made, but it’s the most fun I’ve ever had.”

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The story behind Gratz Park’s bronze kids, soon headed for repairs

November 21, 2014

141111GPFountain0032Author James Lane Allen’s will left the city $6,000 to build a fountain dedicated to Lexington’s youth. Installed in 1933, it will get a much-needed makeover this winter.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Like horses, stone fences and antebellum homes, the bronze boy and girl in Gratz Park have become frequently photographed symbols of Lexington.

But early this week or next, depending on the weather, a crane will carefully remove the life-size statues from their perch on the fountain across Third Street from Transylvania University.

The kids will spend the winter at Lexington’s Prometheus Foundry for repairs and refinishing. If all goes well, they will return to the park in May after the fountain’s crumbling concrete and Depression-era plumbing are replaced and the stone and brick surrounds are restored.

The fountain “is just falling apart with age,” said Michelle Kosieniak, superintendent of planning and design for the city’s Division of Parks and Recreation. “We figured that since we were moving the statues anyway, we should take a look at restoring them, too, and hopefully get them ready to be enjoyed for another half-century.”

There is an interesting story behind these playful children and their fountain that says a lot about Lexington’s history of tension between progressive thought and conservative religion. But it has nothing to do with the statues’ lack of clothing.

141111GPFountain0024James Lane Allen was born near Lexington in 1849 and graduated with honors from Transylvania University in 1872. After a few years of teaching, he pursued a writing career and moved to New York City.

Allen became one of America’s most popular novelists and short-story writers in the 1890s. His tales, written in a flowery style popular in the late Victorian era, were often set in Kentucky and featured characters taken from early Bluegrass history.

One of his most famous tales, King Solomon of Kentucky, told the true story of how William “King” Solomon, an alcoholic vagrant, became a hero during Lexington’s 1833 cholera epidemic by staying to bury the dead while almost everyone else fled.

Novels such as A Kentucky Cardinal and The Choir Invisible became national best-sellers. But Allen’s 1900 novel The Reign of Law created controversy in Lexington because its protagonist accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution instead of a literal interpretation of the Bible’s creation story.

The Rev. John McGarvey, president of what is now Lexington Theological Seminary, castigated Allen in a widely publicized sermon. The Lexington Herald heaped on, opining that “dirt and dust” were “ruining the author’s mind.”

The criticism stung Allen, who wrote that Kentucky “never did appreciate its best people.” He never returned to Lexington — not even when the Lexington Public Library dedicated a portrait of him in 1916.

“My returning now would seem like vainly attempting to pass over into a vanished land,” Allen wrote his lifelong friend, M.A. Cassidy, the superintendent of Lexington’s public schools.

But Cassidy kept the author connected to his hometown. During the last decade of Allen’s life, Lexington schools celebrated his birthday each Dec. 21 and children would write notes and telegrams of good wishes.

Allen was touched, and he always sent thank-you letters. He ended a 1922 interview at his New York home with a journalism student from Lexington by saying, “Give my love to the Kentucky children.”

When Allen died in 1925, his will left his entire estate to Lexington to build a fountain dedicated to the city’s children. The estate was originally thought to be worth $12,000 — a lot of money in those days. Officials planned to build a swimming pool with a fountain in the middle.

But by the time the city actually got the money, Allen’s estate had shrunk by half because of the stock market crash and waning royalties as his books lost popularity. Lexington’s children had to settle for a fountain and statues.

The statues were sculpted by Joseph Pollia, an Italian-born artist in New York who had a distinguished career creating war memorials.

His sculpture depicts a boy showing his homemade boat to the girl, who expresses delight. The statues symbolize “the spirit of youth, with its tender dreams and delicate and beautiful aspirations, which found so much appreciation in the poetical soul of the author,” the Herald wrote when the fountain was dedicated Oct. 15, 1933.

But time and vandalism have aged those kids. The girl was pushed off her granite pedestal in 1969 and again in 1983, cracking her leg. Although the cracks were repaired, there is concern the statues may have corrosion inside.

“It has been likened to a muffler,” said John Hackworth, president of the Gratz Park Neighborhood Association. “It looks all right from the outside, but if you kick it, it might just disintegrate.”

Restoring the statues will cost $57,000 because their high lead content will require complicated safety procedures. The neighborhood association has given $30,000. Councilman Chris Ford recommended $150,000 in city funds for the rest of the work and restoration of the fountain with a new pump system.

The goal is to have everything finished by Gratz Park’s annual Mayfest celebration on Mother’s Day weekend.

“It’s a symbol of Lexington,” Hackworth said of the fountain, “It’s worth being preserved.”

141111GPFountain0008The fountain stands near Third Street across from Transylvania University’s Old Morrison Hall.


New novel explores race, class in 1940s Central Kentucky

November 18, 2014

In his novel Pickering’s Mountain, Joseph Anthony wrote about the complexities of strip mining and economic survival in Eastern Kentucky, where he lived in the 1980s as an English professor at Hazard Community College.

The New Jersey native has lived in Lexington ever since, and he has looked for a way to use fiction to explore two of Central Kentucky’s overarching issues: race and class.

While reading microfilm copies of the Lexington Leader in the public library, Anthony found his hook. It was a small ad placed near, but not with, a “Colored Notes” column from 1948, when even the news was segregated.

bookThe ad began: “Wanted: Good family with plenty of help … ” It was placed by a farmer needing share-croppers to live in a vacant house beside him and help with his tobacco crop.

It made Anthony wonder: what might have happened if the “good family” that answered that ad was black? And that is how he begins his new novel, Wanted: Good Family (Bottom Dog Press, $18.00).

The book is masterfully written and well-grounded in Kentucky history and mannerisms. It explores issues of race, class, relationship and the potential for change that are as relevant today as they were when this story takes place more than six decades ago.

“I wanted to write about our big drama story in Lexington, race, and how things have and haven’t changed,” he said. “And I had an idea of how to write about somebody who could do terrible things and not actually be a bad person.”

The newspaper ad said interested parties should not call or write, just show up. So that is what Rudy and Nannie Johnson do. He is a World War II veteran looking for work. She cleans houses, but was a nurse’s aide at Good Samaritan Hospital until she applied to train for a better job and was branded as a “troublemaker.”

The Johnsons and their four children — Herbert, Franklin, Eleanor and Harry, all named for people occupying the White House when they were born — live with her mother and sister in cramped quarters off Georgetown Street.

Lexington had a housing shortage in the late 1940s because of veterans returning from war. Things were worse for blacks, who were only allowed to live in certain parts of town and could rarely get credit to buy a house anywhere.

joeDesperate enough to take a chance, the Johnsons pile their children into a borrowed pickup truck and drive to the next county to answer the ad. The farmer and his wife, an older couple who lost their only son in the war, are surprised to see them. But they, too, are desperate. Like all good Kentuckians, everyone tries to be polite.

“We didn’t think to say ‘whites only’,” Wilma Lawson, the farmer’s wife, explains to readers. “We figured anyone who knew our place would know that.”

Indeed, they would. James Lawson has a dark past that everyone in their county seems to know. The Johnsons, being from Lexington, are unaware. But they have their own family secrets and shame.

Everyone’s secrets come out as the book’s major characters alternate chapters of first-person narrative. Readers wonder if any of these people, black or white, can escape the ghosts and prejudices of their past.

The characters are still working through events that occurred two decades earlier, when Kentucky race relations included lynchings and black residents being run out of small towns en masse.

What makes Anthony’s book so interesting is that it doesn’t try to preach or over-simplify. It shows that racism comes in black as well as white, and that injustice can afflict the oppressors as well as the oppressed.

“I’m a much nicer person as a writer than I am as a human being, and the reason is I have to see everybody’s point of view,” Anthony said. “I have to really try to understand their dilemma.”

While racism and prejudice are no longer legal, that doesn’t mean they have disappeared. Human relations are complex and always evolving.

“The book is about change, about the possibility of change,” Anthony said. “As Rudy says, if we can’t change we’re lost, we’re done. And that’s really what I wanted to write about.”

If you go

Joseph Anthony will sign copies of his novel,Wanted: Good Family.

■ 5:30 p.m. Thursday, The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

■ 3 p.m. Dec. 13, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington Green.


Artists must learn business skills to make a living from their art

November 17, 2014

lackyJohn Lackey at his studio at North Limestone and Sixth streets. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Lexington is starting to become a city where an artist can earn a living, but it requires almost as much focus on business as art.

Successful artists tell me they have had to learn strategy, salesmanship, client management and finance to earn money from their passion. Most of all, they have had to be flexible entrepreneurs, willing to try new things and see where they lead.

I talked about these issues last week with John Lackey, an independent artist in Lexington for a dozen years. Since 2010, he has operated Homegrown Press Studio & Gallery at the corner of Limestone and Sixth streets.

Lackey is best known for his intricate block prints and colorful acrylic paintings of Kentucky landscapes. They are fanciful scenes from nature, filled with swirling clouds and curly trees that almost seem to dance.

But Lackey does a lot more, both out of passion and necessity. He has done logos and other commercial art for businesses, including Alfalfa restaurant, where he once worked, and North Lime Coffee and Donuts, which shares his studio building. He also has produced more than a dozen concert posters for his favorite band, Wilco.

Lackey, this month, was commissioned by Kroger to paint an outside mural for its new Euclid Avenue store. The five interconnected, 12-by-7-foot panels along Marquis Avenue will depict “the trees with the most personality in Woodland Park, with human activity in the background,” he said.

He also is getting into filmmaking, after years of playing with time-lapse and animation photography. Lackey has an Indiegogo.com campaign that runs through Tuesday to raise money for a full-length movie. It will be set in Lexington’s northside and focus on themes of community and sustainability.

Lackey learned figurative art and print-making at the University of Kentucky, but some of his most useful professional skills were acquired during several years of hiatus between his studies, when he worked at lumber yards and car dealerships.

“I learned a lot that I still use today when I sold cars,” he said, including negotiating skills and how to read customers.

Lackey spent 14 years as a graphic artist for two Lexington TV stations, where he learned more about art and deadlines. He was then able to begin building an independent art career, thanks to an understanding wife with a steady paycheck.

Early on, he realized the work is a lot like being a home-improvement contractor. Customers who commission work have ideas, but often don’t know exactly what they want. That’s where listening skills and artistry come in.

Lackey said that being willing to try new things has helped him both get jobs and stretch artistically.

“At first, I didn’t do a lot of saying no, because I needed the money, and it pushed me out of my comfort zone,” he said. “It’s good if you have different things you like to do in art.”

The Kentucky Arts Council helped Lackey expose his work to potential clients. After being included in a show at the Governor’s Mansion, he was chosen to create the 2011 prizes for the Governor’s Award in the Arts. The council also helped him get a commission for four seasonal landscape paintings that now hang in the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s board room in Frankfort.

Many artists advise against doing free work to get exposure. While Lackey generally agrees, he follows his instinct on some projects where the payoff isn’t obvious.

For example, as a Wilco fan, he engaged others on the band’s website and volunteered to do artwork for a charity event. The band liked it and hired him to create concert posters.

The head of the Clyde’s restaurant chain around Washington, D.C., also is a Wilco fan. He saw Lackey’s posters and hired him to do artwork for the restaurants. The Clyde’s work was seen by Virginia-based Potter’s Craft Cider, which hired him to design its logo and labels. Such jobs can be vital income bridges between fine art projects.

Other free artwork has enriched his life, if not his bank account. Lackey has done more than 60 posters for the Holler Poet’s series at Al’s Bar, across East Sixth Street from his studio, where he occasionally reads his own poetry. Each poster became an opportunity to experiment with new techniques that have improved his work.

“For me, one of the benefits of being an artist is not having to do the same thing twice,” he said. “It keeps your brain regenerating.”


Montessori school renovates 1840s home with a rich history

November 15, 2014

141110Montessori0099Calleigh Kolasa, 13, left, Maya Pemble, 12, top right, and Gus Glasscock, 13, trim blackberry bushes outside Providence Montessori Middle School, now located in an 1840s house that for 119 years was the Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers. The school uses agriculture to teach everything from science to entrepreneurship. Photos by Tom Eblen

When the House of Mercy opened in 1894, the secluded old home at 519 West Fourth Street seemed like a good place to help “fallen” women. It was in an out-of-the-way part of town, near what was then called the Eastern Kentucky Lunatic Asylum.

What became the Florence Crittenton Home did a lot to help pregnant girls and young mothers with infants for 119 years until last November, when changing state social-work policies forced it to close for lack of funds.

Over the past couple of years, that out-of-the-way neighborhood has been experiencing a rebirth, with a heavy emphasis on education.

The former site of what is now called Eastern State Hospital is becoming the campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College. Transylvania University has turned an old industrial strip into an athletics complex.

So it is fitting that the old House of Mercy, a handsome brick home that dates to around the 1840s, has been beautifully transformed for a new life as Providence Montessori Middle School.

The school recently completed an extensive renovation, accomplished quickly so fall-term classes could begin. The result will be on display from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday during a public open house. The presidents of Transylvania and BCTC are scheduled to attend.

“This summer was a blur,” said Vivian Langefeld, the Montessori school’s director. “We worked day and night.”

Despite a higher offer from Transylvania, the Florence Crittenton Home board last March sold the 2.5-acre property to the Montessori school for $400,100 — well below market value — to make sure the historic structure wasn’t demolished.

With a combination of donations, fundraising and loans, the school did an extensive renovation led by Matthew Brooks, a principal in the Lexington architecture firm Alt32, and Chip Crawford and Drew McLellan of Crawford Builders. Their work recently earned a Community Preservation Award from the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

“It would have been a shame to have lost this place,” Langefeld said.

In addition to the tight schedule, Brooks said the biggest challenge was opening up space and light in the building, which had been added to three times since the late 1800s, without compromising structural integrity. The school’s requirement for big, open spaces was much different from the many small rooms the Crittenton Home needed.

Old carpets were pulled up and hardwood floors, including many of the original poplar planks, were restored. Original fireplaces were kept and structural brick was exposed on many interior walls to add to the charm.

Alt32’s staff also designed and built the school’s furniture and lockers from birch plywood, using a high-tech router capable of precisely replicating intricate shapes.

Brooks had a special interest in the project: his daughter will be a student there next year. He said the light-filled space now reminds him of Lexington’s original Montessori school in the St. Peter Claver Catholic Church Parish Hall down the street, where he attended kindergarten in 1972. (In another bit of neighborhood improvement, the church is now restoring and building an addition to that hall.)

In Montessori schools, children learn by doing in an environment with a lot of freedom and self-direction. This school, which has 38 students in 7th and 8th grades, uses small-scale urban agriculture as a vehicle for teaching everything from science to entrepreneurship.

Langefeld said the next step will be to fill the campus grounds with vegetable gardens, rain gardens, berry bushes and fruit trees. Chicken coops and beehives will be added in the spring so students can care for them and sell the eggs and honey.

“We do an entrepreneurial program where they all learn about supply and demand, profit and loss and so forth,” she said.

The house came with a good commercial kitchen, which students use for baking products to sell and fixing their own lunch once a week. A large room on the back will be turned into a shop with woodworking tools.

The school also hopes to develop cooperative programs with Transylvania and BCTC, and to engage residents and businesses in the surrounding neighborhood.

“Montessori’s vision for the adolescent was a non-institutional setting,” Langefeld said. “So this is perfect for that kind of environment, where it feels like they are more a part of a community.”

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Award-winning plan for saving bur oak a model for developers

November 9, 2014

141106SchoolOak0058

This bur oak, which tree physiologist Tom Kimmerer thinks is 400 to 500 years old, frames Firebrook subdivision at the intersection of Military Pike, right, and Harrodsburg Road. Ball Homes is developing the property and hired Kimmerer to come up with a conservation plan for the tree. He hopes it will be a model for other developers. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

The most fought-over tree in Lexington is now more noticeable than ever. Cleared of surrounding brush, it dominates the skyline at the intersection of Harrodsburg Road and Military Pike.

The giant bur oak was last in the news 13 months ago, when neighbors cited concerns for its welfare among their objections to Ball Homes‘ plan to develop 25 acres behind it into 42 single-family homes and 196 apartments.

The city rejected another developer’s plan for townhouses on the site in 2008 because the tree could have been lost or damaged.

But Ball Homes’ proposal was approved after the company developed perhaps the most detailed plan yet for conserving one of the giant, centuries-old trees that have been rapidly disappearing.

Last week, that plan won Ball Homes an award from the Lexington-Fayette County Environmental Commission. Tom Kimmerer, a tree physiologist who developed the plan, hopes it will become a model for other local builders and future developments.

141106SchoolOak0037Ball Homes hired Kimmerer, a consultant and former University of Kentucky forestry professor, to work with the company’s regular arborist, Ian Hoffman of Big Beaver Tree Service.

Kimmerer has studied these specimens of blue ash, shellbark hickory and bur, chinkapin and Shumard oak, which grow better and live longer in Central Kentucky than in any other place in America.

Many of these trees were well-established before Daniel Boone set foot in Kentucky nearly two and a half centuries ago. They are icons of the Bluegrass landscape and the oldest living things in Kentucky.

But dozens, if not hundreds, have been cut down or killed in recent decades by development. Because these species don’t reproduce well in urban areas, younger trees have not been growing up to replace them.

Kimmerer last year started a nonprofit organization, Venerable Trees, to research and help people learn how to care for and propagate these trees.

This bur oak had been in the yard of a 1970s house, since demolished. A large driveway was built below its canopy. That kind of soil compaction can be deadly.

So the conservation plan’s first move was to carefully remove the driveway and erect a fence to keep construction equipment at least 72 feet away from the tree. Six inches of wood mulch was then spread on three-fourths of an acre, which will be left open around the tree.

“One of the things I was impressed with about Ball Homes was they didn’t say, ‘This is how much space we’ll give you.’ They said, ‘How much space does this tree need?'” Kimmerer said. “There was some back and forth and a few compromises here and there, but they were quite generous in allocating space for the tree.”

141106SchoolOak0016Rena Wiseman, Ball Homes’ associate general counsel, said the company realized saving the tree was worth the trouble and expense because it would be a symbol for the neighborhood.

“It’s the focal point,” said Lee Fields, Ball Homes’ vice president of development. “Besides, trees going down cost us money. The lots that always sell first are the ones with the trees.”

Kimmerer and Hoffman assessed the tree’s health and removed several damaged branches. They installed a lightning rod to help prevent future strikes.

The tree has long been thought to be more than 300 years old. Kimmerer guesses it is closer to 500 years old. Still, despite lightning strikes over the centuries and hollow spots, the oak is quite healthy.

“There’s no reason in principle why that tree couldn’t live for hundreds of years longer,” he said.

Ball Homes plans to retain ownership of the tree and surrounding land, including the apartment buildings. That should help ensure the tree’s long-term care, Kimmerer said, adding, “Our management plan for this tree goes way beyond just the construction phase.”

Kimmerer is one of only two tree physiologists in Kentucky. As it happens, the other one, UK forestry professor Jeff Stringer, lives in a renovated old schoolhouse next door to the bur oak. For years, he has been closely watching the tree’s health and debates about its future.

“That tree is in really good shape, and this plan should help keep it that way,” Stringer said, adding that its prospects for survival are better than they have been in decades.

In addition to avoiding soil compaction around a tree, Kimmerer said the most important factors in good long-term care include frequent inspections for signs of stress and keeping lawn fertilizers and herbicides away.

“Modern lawn care is anathema to old trees,” he said.

Kimmerer has surveyed many of the open tracts inside Lexington’s Urban Services Boundary, which will eventually be developed.

“There are at least 50 of these ancient trees that are going to get in the way of development or, conversely, could be seen as symbols of a new development,” Kimmerer said. “That’s one of the encouraging things about this project is that the tree will become emblematic of the whole neighborhood.

Award winners

Winners of the Lexington—Fayette County Environmental Commission’s 44th annual awards:

■ Lexington Police Services, for the We Care program.

■ Lexington Women’s Garden Club, for garden on Wellington Way.

■ Idle Hour Neighbors Alliance, for two monarch way-station gardens.

■ Klausing Group, for a vegetative roof, permeable pavers and Pinnacle Home Owners Association Children’s Garden.

■ University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, for Food and Environment Alumni Plaza project.

■ Lakeshore Apartments Association, Andover Management Group and Barrett Partners Landscape Architects, for improvements to the pond at Lakewood Park.

■ Ball Homes, for bur oak preservation plan.

■ FoodChain, for aquaponics project.

■ Pax Christi Catholic Church, for electronics recycling program.

■ Lexington Division of Environmental Policy, for urban tree canopy assessment and planting plan.

■ Bluegrass Greensource, Downtown Lexington Corp., for downtown Trash Bash.

■ Lansdowne Neighborhood Association, for Zandale Park Stream Bank Protection Project.

■ Pinnacle Home Owners Association, for Children’s Garden.

■ Kentucky Utilities, for the Arboretum’s Party for the Planet Celebration.

■ Community Montessori School, Montessori Middle School of Kentucky, for storm water quality improvement and stream restoration project.

■ Clays Mill Elementary School, for Springs Branch storm water improvement project.

 

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‘Lost Lexington’ a reminder of great buildings and people

November 1, 2014

The cover of Lost Lexington explains why Peter Brackney’s new book is so timely: It shows a mothballed old courthouse in desperate need of renovation beside the gigantic crater that has replaced the city’s oldest business district.

141102LostLexington002Brackney, a lawyer and writer of the local history blog Kaintuckeean.com, said the plight of the old Fayette County Courthouse and the CentrePointe boondoggle were big motivations for writing his book.

So was the University of Kentucky’s controversial demolition this summer of several significant mid-century modern buildings on his alma mater’s campus to make way for new construction.

“Everywhere you see a parking lot, something once stood,” Brackney said in an interview. “I think the more you learn about some of these historic structures, the more you appreciate what we have left.”

Brackney focuses on what is gone, and it is an impressive collection of special buildings and places once central to community life. They include elegant mansions, a racetrack, an amusement park, a football stadium, railroad stations and a private garden that early settlers referred to as “paradise.”

Lost Lexington (The History Press, $19.95) includes a forward by Mayor Jim Gray and many photographs. But what makes it most interesting is Brackney’s thorough research into these places and the remarkable people associated with them. I know a lot about Lexington history, but I learned some things.

Brackney begins with Lexington’s best-known preservation story: the 1955 demolition of the 1798 Hart-Bradford House for a parking lot. That act, and fears that the 1814 Hunt-Morgan House across the street would be next, led to creation of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation and the city’s first preservation laws.

“If you looked at the Hart-Bradford House and didn’t know a thing about who lived there, you would think there was nothing special about it, just a nice two-story brick house,” Brackney said.

brackneyBut, as the book explains, that house was built by Henry Clay’s father-in-law, Thomas Hart, a Revolutionary War veteran and influential land speculator. The next resident was John Bradford, Kentucky’s first newspaper publisher and a major civic leader. Clay was married in that house, and Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan may have been, too.

Few people now remember another longtime resident of the house: Laura Clay, an early champion of women’s rights. She learned about the subject the hard way: watching her father, emancipationist Cassius Clay, cheat her mother out of property after their divorce.

Among the several fabulous, long-gone estates featured in the book is Chaumiere des Prairies, where three U.S. presidents were entertained and the traitor Aaron Burr was held under arrest.

Col. David Meade’s estate was famous for its beautifully landscaped gardens. When he died in 1832, a farmer who bought the property destroyed them with grazing livestock, prompting neighbors to post signs about “paradise lost.”

Brackney tells the stories of such 20th century landmarks as the Phoenix Hotel, Union Station, the Southern Railway depot and Joyland Park. Joyland Park was famous for its amusement rides and the huge dance pavilion where Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw and other big band leaders performed.

One interesting story was about how, for 23 years, the afternoon Lexington Leader gave every white kid in town free swimming lessons at Joyland’s public pool. In those segregation days, the newspaper provided free swimming lessons for black children at Douglass Park.

The book tells about two sporting venues that no longer exist: the Kentucky Association racetrack and Stoll Field/McLean Stadium, the home of UK football games and other community events before Commonwealth Stadium replaced it in 1972.

UK’s recent demolitions and the CentrePointe project, which destroyed more than a dozen downtown buildings and 51/2 years later is nothing more than a hole in the ground, were a wakeup call for historic preservation in Lexington.

But Brackney, who lives in Jessamine County, laments that many other communities still haven’t gotten the message. Nicholasville’s oldest Main Street commercial building, built in the early 1800s, was recently demolished.

“While we do have to balance preservation and progress, we have to make sure there’s an understanding that people lived and worked in each of these places; they’re not just bricks and mortar,” he said.

“Drive down Nicholasville Road, drive down Richmond Road, and there’s nothing that separates them from Glendale, Ariz., or any new city,” Brackney added. “There’s nothing that makes them unique. And it’s Lexington’s history and uniqueness that helps make it a great city.”

If you go

Peter Brackney will speak and sign copies of Lost Lexington:

5:30 p.m. Nov. 3: Thomas Hunt-Morgan House, 210 N. Broadway, hosted by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. The event includes a panel discussion about historic preservation in Lexington.

2 p.m. Nov. 9: The Morris Book Shop, 882 E High St.

6 p.m. Nov. 9: Barnes & Noble bookstore, Hamburg Pavilion.

7 p.m. Dec. 2: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington Green.


House-flipping venture turns Victorian disaster into showplace

October 19, 2014

141009Rehab0027

Left to right, Josh Despain, Bennett Clark, Ryan Clark and Michael Hogan spent 16 months renovating a circa 1889 mansion at 515 North Broadway that was filled with trash and animal waste when a lender foreclosed on the previous owner last year. They sat on the front porch  with a photo of the house taken when they bought it.  After a complete renovation, the house is now for sale for $1.2 million. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

The business venture began innocently enough. Four young men with backgrounds in architecture and real estate decided to pool their money, buy an old house, renovate it and try to resell it at a profit.

They looked for a manageable project; perhaps a 1920s bungalow in need of a little updating.

What they ended up with was a three-story, 5,282-square-foot Queen Anne mansion built in 1889 that was such a disaster it made headlines. Over the next 16 months, this house-flipping project almost flipped them.

But the disaster at 515 North Broadway is now a beautiful, completely renovated showplace, listed for sale for $1.2 million. And the four young men have learned some valuable lessons about construction, historic preservation and business.

“This project literally was the epitome of everything: it took longer, was harder and cost more than what we expected it to,” said Josh Despain, a landscape architect.

140118BroadwayHouse0004Despain, architect Michael Hogan and soon-to-be architect Ryan Clark work together at Ross Tarrant Architects. They spend most of their days behind desks.

“We were interested in the idea of getting our hands dirty and doing some construction ourselves,” Hogan said.

And, as young married men hoping to start families, they were looking for some extra money, too. So they teamed up with Clark’s cousin, Bennett Clark, a single real estate agent and builder who had been thinking along the same lines.

They had looked at several old houses when 515 North Broadway made headlines in February 2013. The Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. foreclosed on the previous owner. Authorities put her belongings on the sidewalk, almost stopping traffic as passersby picked through it.

Everything was filthy and covered in animal waste, prompting city health and code enforcement officers to step in. The inside of the house was even worse. The smell sickened almost everyone who stepped inside.

141009Rehab0007But the mansion was well-located, structurally sound and retained a lot of its original character. The lender got a dozen offers, and the four guys bought it for $195,752.

“Until we started taking out the plaster and some of the damaged areas, we didn’t really know what kind of condition it was in,” Hogan said. “But, structurally, we felt really good about it.”

Also salvageable were most of the original windows, including some stained-glass ones, and most of the woodwork and flooring. There was a magnificent staircase that rose three stories through the middle of the house.

But the partners quickly realized that all of the plaster needed to be removed to make way for new insulation, plumbing, electricity and interior walls.

“We saw it as a unique opportunity to build a new house within the shell of an original Victorian,” Hogan said.

Added Bennett Clark: “Our mindset was to make the house modern in the places that you need for a house to be modern, but bring back the formal areas to their original glory.”

141009Rehab0002To save money, the partners did about 60 percent of the labor themselves — mostly demolition, basic carpentry, landscaping, paint scraping and other grunt work. They hired contractors for skilled work such as electricity, plumbing, HVAC, roofing and window restoration.

Bennett Clark, who was the general contractor, made the reconstruction project his full-time job. The other three worked nights, weekends and vacations there.

“Our wives hate this house,” Ryan Clark said, as the other three chimed in about how their own homes were neglected during the project.

Because the house is in a city historic district, the partners had to follow strict guidelines on the exterior renovation. They weren’t expecting any special treatment, either: the city’s rule book pictures their house on the cover.

But they said it turned out to be a pleasant experience.

“If you’re just up front with them from the get-go and you’re not trying to hide anything, they’re super easy to work with,” Despain said.

The partners’ challenge now is selling the house for enough to recoup their investment and make a profit. Although expensive, the price is within the range of similar downtown mansions, many of which have had less extensive renovations.

So, do they plan to do this again? They think so, but not anytime soon. Since beginning the work in mid-2013, the three married guys have all had their first children. They expect to have less free time in the near future for construction.

The partners said they learned that to be successful in the renovation business, it must be your business, not a hobby you do in your spare time. A property must be chosen wisely, and the cost of purchase and renovation carefully calculated.

“It was the first project we had done together, so we wanted to make sure we did it right,” Hogan said. “Not only were we trying to make money, but we were really trying to learn a lot about historic preservation. It turned out really well.”

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Here’s the local hero a forward-looking Lexington should celebrate

October 18, 2014

What holds Lexington back? Well, for one thing, we celebrate the wrong member of the Hunt-Morgan family.

That may sound trivial, but it’s not.

In my work, I talk with some of Lexington’s most innovative people. They are behind many of the exciting things now happening in this city. Privately, though, many say they feel as if they are swimming against the tide. Lexington resists change, is too comfortable with the status quo.

Lexington loves to celebrate its history, and rightfully so. But the value of studying history is not to dwell on the past; it is to better understand the present and find inspiration for the future.

As a boy growing up here in the 1960s, I considered Gen. John Hunt Morgan a local hero. The Confederate cavalry raider was the star of the Hunt-Morgan House museum, his mother’s home on Gratz Park. His statue was on the courthouse lawn.

But the more I learn about Morgan, the less I respect him. He stole horses and burned towns, all to further a cause that wanted to break up the nation and keep black people in slavery. To my adult mind, that’s not hero material.

Morgan was a colorful, controversial character, and if Civil War buffs want to celebrate him, that’s fine. I would never want to see his statue removed from what is now the old courthouse lawn, because he is a significant figure in our history.

THMBut it is a shame he is more famous and celebrated here than his nephew, Thomas Hunt Morgan, a pioneering scientist and the first Kentuckian to win a Nobel Prize.

Thomas Hunt Morgan came along two years after his uncle’s death in a Civil War ambush. He was born in the Hunt-Morgan House on Sept. 25, 1866 and grew up behind it, in another family home facing Broadway.

That house was in the news last week. The Woman’s Club of Central Kentucky has deeded it to the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which plans to restore it for programming and events.

I was vaguely aware of Morgan’s accomplishments, but I didn’t fully understand his significance until I read an essay Tom Kimmerer, a Lexington forest scientist, wrote recently for the website Planetexperts.com.

“Thomas Hunt Morgan was to become the most important biologist of his time, and laid the foundations for all of modern biology,” he wrote.

After a childhood of collecting birds’ eggs and fossils, Morgan earned degrees from the University of Kentucky and Johns Hopkins University. He spent 24 years doing pioneering embryology research at Bryn Mawr College. He joined the faculty of Columbia University in 1904 and the California Institute of Technology in 1928.

Morgan exhibited the best traits of scientific skepticism. He didn’t just theorize, he experimented. His work challenged, and eventually affirmed, two major concepts of biological science: Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mendel’s ideas about genetics.

At Columbia, Morgan used fruit flies in sophisticated experiments to explain how genetics and evolution work. He showed that chromosomes carry genes and are the mechanical basis of heredity.

“He did not believe any biological theory unless he could test it,” Kimmerer wrote. “Almost every biological scientist working today is the beneficiary of Thomas Hunt Morgan’s approach to research.”

Morgan won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1933 and wrote seven books, all now classics of science. He died in 1945.

Kimmerer and I were talking recently about how Morgan may be one of the most accomplished Kentuckians in history. UK’s biological sciences building is named for him, and there is a state historical marker outside his boyhood home.

But I’ll bet if you asked most people in Lexington who Thomas Hunt Morgan was, they wouldn’t know.

Kimmerer has a great idea: Lexington should start planning now to celebrate 2016 as the year of Thomas Hunt Morgan, because it will be the 150th anniversary of his birth. This celebration could showcase Lexington as a city of modern scientific education, research and commercialization.

There could be Thomas Hunt Morgan banners on Main Street, exhibits and school science fairs. There could be a lecture series about his work, as well as the scientific research now being done in Lexington or by Kentuckians elsewhere.

Perhaps the Kentucky Theatre could show The Fly Room, a new scientifically accurate movie set in Morgan’s Columbia University lab, and invite filmmaker Alexis Gambis to come and speak. The film’s set, a recreation of that lab, was on display in New York this summer. Could it be brought here?

Could this attention help the Blue Grass Trust raise money to restore Morgan’s house? Could the Fayette County Public Schools’ STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics) Academy be named for him?

A statue of Thomas Hunt Morgan on the new Courthouse Plaza would certainly be appropriate. He should be a local hero, an example to future generations that a kid born in Lexington can grow up to change the world.


If you wrote your own obituary, what would you say?

October 14, 2014

Obituaries can be either the best or worst part of a newspaper.

We all recognize the bad ones; they contain dry lists of awards and accomplishments, saccharin sentimentality and euphemisms for death.

But good obituaries — whether news stories written by reporters or classified notices placed by families — offer vivid descriptions of what a person was like and how he or she lived. In a few paragraphs, they offer a glimpse into a rich life, and maybe even some advice for living our own.

I love well-written obituaries. My favorite annual issue of The New York Times Magazine, usually published the first Sunday of each year, is called The Lives They Lived. It has short essays about a couple dozen people who died the previous year. Some were famous, others obscure, but each of their lives had a big influence on society.

So I was intrigued when Neil Chethik, director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, told me about a class he was teaching last Saturday called Writing Your Own Obituary. I decided to sit in.

“I think the more we talk about death and accept it as a part of our lives, the better off we will be,” Chethik told his 10 class participants. His own interest in death and its impact led him to write his first book, Fatherloss: How Sons of All Ages Come to Terms with the Deaths of their Dads.

People came to the obituary class for many reasons. Some didn’t trust their relatives to get it right, or they wanted to have the last word, so to speak. Others weren’t so much interested in producing an obituary for publication as writing a meaningful letter to leave for relatives and close friends.

Contemplating your own obituary forces you to put your life in perspective: your faith, values, relationships, accomplishments and regrets. It’s an opportunity to reflect, evaluate and sum up. It can even give you a feeling of some control over that time when you will lose all control.

Chethik shared obituaries he found in newspapers around the country that were effective and even inspiring. Some were written in the first person and included life lessons and short tributes to people who were special to the deceased.

“What we’re trying to do is get to a deeper level of what you care about,” Chethik told the class. “It’s easy to go further in writing than you might do personally, at least in some families.”

Chethik suggested several prompts: List 10 words you think describe you. What activities do you love most? What have been your most important relationships? What have been your “mottos” throughout life?

Some people might also want to consider including confessions, regrets or reminiscences from their “glory days.” Accuracy in the details is essential; no family wants to be haunted by errors.

There is always debate about photos — should you publish a recent portrait or a favorite from years ago, or both? — and whether to give the cause of death or leave readers to speculate.

Beyond those basics, good self-written obituaries reflect the writer’s authentic voice. They are clear and concise and avoid minutiae. Distilling accomplishments, feelings and emotions into a few well-chosen paragraphs is a good discipline.

Writing your own obituary also might spark a desire to compose a longer memoir for family, friends or even publication. People like to read tales well told about interesting experiences. It is why powerful memoirs have always been best-sellers.

Online resources for writing your own obituary, or that of a loved one, include Obituaryguide.com and Obitkit.com, which was created by a former colleague of mine at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

One more thing: Don’t avoid humor. The right touches of appropriate humor can lessen the pain of death, just as they make life more enjoyable, Chethik said.

When comedian Joan Rivers died at age 81 last month, many obituaries recalled the funeral instructions she left in her 2012 autobiography. “I want it to be Hollywood all the way,” she wrote. “I don’t want some rabbi rambling on; I want Meryl Streep crying, in five different accents.”

Like many of those in Chethik’s class, I found the process of contemplating my own obituary more enlightening than morbid. That’s because it made me think as much about how I want to live the rest of my life as how I want to be remembered.


Lexington should stand firm on protections for cable customers

October 11, 2014

timewarnerAssociated Press Photo by Mark Lennahan

 

Bravo to Mayor Jim Gray and a unanimous Urban County Council for taking on Time Warner Cable. It’s about time somebody stood up to the giant cable television and Internet companies and their frustrating game of monopoly.

For far too long, the cable industry has abused the local franchise system across America to provide mediocre service at ever-increasing prices.

Meanwhile, cities have become pawns in the industry’s merger-and-acquisition game, which has left fewer companies owning more of the nation’s critical broadband infrastructure.

The Urban County Council last Thursday gave first reading to resolutions that would deny transfer of ownership of the local cable system as part of the industry’s latest deal, which would split Time Warner’s assets between Comcast and Charter Communications in a $45 billion stock swap. The systems in Lexington, Louisville and Cincinnati would go to Charter.

Gray’s re-election campaign also is tapping into public anger at Time Warner. The campaign is urging voters to sign a petition demanding that the company “improve customer service, deliver better speeds and give us what we pay for.”

Few cities have taken as aggressive a stand as Lexington has. Not that others aren’t concerned.

The Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Justice Department are both reviewing the deal proposed by Comcast, Time Warner and Charter, which are, respectively, the nation’s first, second and fourth-largest cable operators. Dozens of consumer advocacy groups have spoken out against it.

It’s hard to say how all of this will end. But here is how we got to this point:

Time Warner bought Insight Communications in 2012, but never negotiated a new franchise agreement with the city. It also has ignored some consumer-protection provisions of Insight’s franchise agreement, which the city has never enforced.

Since the acquisition, Time Warner has invested little in Lexington’s infrastructure while steadily raising prices. The company’s cost-cutting measures have hurt customer service, and public frustration has been rising. City officials say they have been flooded with citizens’ complaints about cable service and pricing.

Time Warner officials claim they have improved service, and their own surveys show high rankings for customer satisfaction. Yea, right. A J.D. Power & Associates’ survey last month of residential television service providers in the South ranked Time Warner dead last. (Comcast was second-to-last.)

Lexington officials say they are not seeking any new consumer protections in the franchise agreement negotiations — they just want to preserve the things Insight agreed to. Those include staffing the company’s customer service center beyond normal business hours, so customers with day jobs can actually get there.

The city also wants to preserve some way of holding the cable company financially accountable for service problems short of canceling the franchise agreement. Currently, the city can fine Time Warner $100 a day — although officials say that has never actually happened.

Time Warner has not been willing to agree to those modest terms, nor does it want to continue paying for the public-access television studio. It’s all pretty small potatoes, considering that Time Warner’s Lexington revenues probably exceed $100 million a year and the company has made little investment in its system.

If Time Warner and Lexington officials are unable to reach agreement by Oct. 23, when the council could take a final vote on the ownership transfer resolutions, it is unclear what will happen. Mostly likely, the issue would end up in federal court.

Time Warner, Comcast and Charter have deep pockets, but Lexington officials should not back down. Citizens these days need more protection from corporate abuse, not less.

More importantly, city officials need to make sure whatever agreements they reach leave the door open for more competition. With only two major Internet providers — Time Warner and Windstream — Lexington needs more broadband competition.

Cities such as Chattanooga, which are lucky enough to have municipally owned utilities, have invested public dollars in creating high-speed fiber-optic networks. Those networks are attracting entrepreneurs who are creating the high-tech jobs of the future. Unfortunately, that’s not a practical option in Lexington, whose existing utility infrastructure is privately owned.

Lexington officials must embrace creative approaches for seeking private investment in new fiber-optic networks, such as Gray’s proposed Gigabit City initiative. And they must stand firm in trying to hold accountable the revolving door of local cable and telephone monopolies.


New book tells sad, fascinating story of madam Belle Brezing

October 7, 2014

140929BelleBrezing0002Belle Brezing’s last and most famous house of ill repute, at 59 Megowan Street (now Eastern Avenue at Wilson Street).  The third story was added after an 1895 fire. She died there in 1940. Below, two undated portraits of Brezing. Photos courtesy UK Special Collections.

 

Belle Brezing closed her house of prostitution nearly a century ago. She died in 1940. So why is she still famous, the subject of endless fascination?

That question helped prompt Maryjean Wall to finish a biography of the notorious Lexington madam that she started as a University of Kentucky history student in the early 1970s.

“The more I heard about her, the more I wanted to do a book,” said Wall, who returned to UK and finished her doctorate in history after a long career as the Herald-Leader’s award-winning horse racing writer.

140929BelleBrezing0003“Here’s a person who lived in the shadows, but was so integral to this community that there is a big collection about her life in UK special collections,” Wall said in an interview. “The first thing you have to ask is why? Well, it’s because she was at the center of power in this community.”

Wall’s new book is Madam Belle: Sex, Money and Influence in a Southern Brothel (University Press of Kentucky, $24.95).

Brezing has long been a popular subject. The late E.I. “Buddy” Thompson, an auctioneer and local historian, wrote a biography of her in 1983 that went well beyond an earlier sketch by another local historian, lawyer William Townsend.

Brezing was clearly the model for Belle Watling, the generous madam in Margaret Mitchell’s classic Civil War novel, Gone With The Wind. Mitchell never confirmed her inspiration, but her husband, John Marsh, ate breakfast many mornings in Brezing’s kitchen while he was police reporter for the Lexington Leader.

Wall’s book adds new details about Brezing’s sad but financially successful life, most notably that she attempted suicide at least twice. Even as a 19-year-old prostitute, she was well-known enough in Lexington that her botched effort to swallow too much morphine in a suicide pact with another woman made the newspapers.

But the main contribution of Wall’s book, aside from a well-told tale, is that it adds context and perspective about the red-haired madam’s place in the power structures of both Lexington and the horse industry.

When Brezing died at age 80, copies of the Lexington Herald with the news quickly sold out. Time magazine even published an obituary.

She is buried beside her mother at Calvary Cemetery on West Main Street. Even now, her grave looks especially well-tended and is often decorated with flowers. The Catholic Diocese refused to let Wall see records related to Brezing’s grave, she said.

Looking back on Brezing’s early life, it is a wonder she succeeded at anything.

She was born Mary Belle Cocks in 1860 to a single, heavy-drinking prostitute in a rented house on Rose Street. When Belle was 18 months old, Sarah Cocks married George Brezing. He ran a saloon and grocery when he wasn’t beating his wife.

Belle was shunned at school, lost her virginity at 12 and had a child at 14. Sarah Cocks died when Belle was 15, leaving her alone with a mentally handicapped infant daughter, who would spend most of her life in institutions under an assumed name. After a brief marriage and divorce in her teens, Belle started working the streets.

Brezing then went to work for Jenny Hill, who operated Lexington’s most high-class house of ill-repute. It is now the Mary Todd Lincoln House museum, because Abraham Lincoln’s wife spent her childhood there a few decades before Hill arrived.

140929BelleBrezing0001“I’m very intrigued why she went from being a street prostitute on North Upper, which was then a bad neighborhood, trying to commit suicide with another woman — what was that about? — and then the same year she gets into Jenny Hill’s house,” Wall said. “She must have had to clean herself up.”

Brezing left Hill’s house in 1881 and opened her own on North Upper Street — a building now part of a Transylvania University athletic complex.

“I think in Jenny Hill’s she probably learned good language, good style, became sort of educated,” Wall said. “And she had a client list when she left, because she went back to North Upper under very different circumstances.”

Brezing moved to another North Upper house, then in 1890 to 59 Megowan St. — now Eastern Avenue — at the corner of Wilson Street. It was a mansion outfitted in elegant style that became the talk of the town and racing circuit.

Trotters were the popular sport then, and Brezing’s clients included many influential horsemen who passed through town. She had several wealthy patrons, most notably one — or perhaps both — of the Singerly brothers.

William and George Singerly of Philadelphia had inherited an industrial fortune. They fancied race horses and Belle Brezing. Singerly money not only bought and outfitted the Megowan Street house, but it allowed her to buy rental property around town. Brezing didn’t get rich on prostitution, Wall said, but with real estate investments.

Lexington had a large red-light district during this era of Victorian morality. Wall cites one grand jury report that said the city had 158 brothels. Brezing’s was fanciest, from its antique furnishings to the lavish parties she gave for wealthy customers.

When anti-vice crusaders periodically tried to close the red-light district, Brezing’s house would be shuttered briefly. But when Lexington filled with soldiers training for World War I, the Army did what city politicians would never do — put her out of business.

She lived her last two decades as a drug-addicted recluse in a crumbling mansion.

Brezing’s previous biographers were men of an earlier generation, who Wall says tended to portray her as a victim and social outcast.

“She was shunned by the women in this town for sure, but I don’t see her as ‘poor little Belle’ at all,” Wall said. “I see her as a person who could take circumstances and work them to her advantage. She did that all her life.”

The book tells how Brezing clawed her way to the top by using men, investing wisely and playing politics. It also explains how so many others made money from her illicit business: the liquor merchants, grocers, clothing retailers, furniture dealers and horse traders.

Wall said she tried to avoid glamorizing either prostitution or Brezing’s life choices.

“Never would I do that,” she said. “Belle fit a lot of the stereotypes we have of prostitutes. She was a drug addict. She had worked the streets. Because she was smart, she managed to succeed in spite of the gender prejudices of her time.”

Book signings

Oct. 11 — Cincinnati Books by the Banks Festival

Oct. 14 — Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington

Oct. 15 — Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort

Oct. 16 — Filson Historical Society, Louisville (Oxmoor Farm)

Oct. 23 — Paul Sawyer Public Library, Frankfort

Nov. 15 — Kentucky Book Fair, Frankfort


Ashland estate marks War of 1812 with artifacts, re-enactors

September 23, 2014

If you hear cannon and musket fire near downtown Saturday, don’t be alarmed. The colorfully costumed soldiers and Native Americans aren’t invading Lexington; they’re just performing for Living History Day at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate.

Ashland this year is marking the bicentennial of the War of 1812. And, no, it’s not two years late. Among the many little-known facts of this often-overlooked war is that, while it began in June 1812, the fighting didn’t stop until February 1815.

Ashland is commemorating the Treaty of Ghent, which Clay, John Quincy Adams and other American representatives negotiated with the British and signed on Christmas Eve 1814.

ghentjacketAs the congressman from Central Kentucky and speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Clay was a politician for all seasons. He not only helped end the War of 1812, he helped start it, too. That dual role helped launch one of the most illustrious American political careers of the 19th century.

But Clay was hardly the only Kentucky connection to the War of 1812.

“Kentucky doesn’t have any battlefields for this war; the war itself didn’t happen here,” said Eric Brooks, Ashland’s curator. “But more than any other conflict this nation has fought, the War of 1812 was a Kentucky war.”

Kentucky contributed 25,000 soldiers to the War of 1812 — more than all of the other 17 states combined. About 60 percent of the war’s casualties were Kentuckians. At the battle of Wild Cat Creek in northern Indiana, almost every U.S. soldier was from Hopkinsville.

Much of the gunpowder used by American forces was made from saltpeter mined in Kentucky, including at Mammoth Cave. Newport was the U.S. Army’s major supply depot. Twenty-two of Kentucky’s 120 counties are named for War of 1812 veterans.

In 1812, Clay and other “war hawks” pushed for declaring war on Great Britain, which despite its Revolutionary War loss continued to mess with the new nation. Of greatest concern was Britain’s arming of Native American tribes, who were attacking white settlers who had taken their land.

While the War of 1812 settled most of those issues, it ended up being a military stalemate that came at high cost: British troops invaded Washington, D.C., and burned the White House and the Capitol.

“We as a state need to understand the role we played in solidifying this nation as a legitimate and survivable nation in the world,” Brooks said. “Prior to the War of 1812, there were a lot of countries that thought the United States was a flash in the pan, that democracy would never work.”

Saturday’s festivities at Ashland will include re-enactors from Ohio and Michigan portraying the 2nd Kentucky Militia. There also will be Native American re-enactors, who will demonstrate tomahawk throwing at their encampment on the 17 acres that remain of Clay’s 600-acre estate, most of which is now the Ashland Park and Chevy Chase neighborhoods.

There also will be farm animals, crafts, special activities and an actress portraying Charlotte Dupuy, a slave who filed a highly publicized lawsuit against Clay trying to win her family’s freedom.

Ashland has several important relics related to the War of 1812 that will be on display. They include a copy of the Treaty of Ghent in Clay’s own handwriting, his place card at the negotiating table and an ivory cane he received as a gift.

The mansion also has one of two paintings Clay won while playing cards with his fellow negotiators. (In addition to being a masterful politician, Clay was a party animal who loved to drink and gamble.)

Ashland’s most important War of 1812 relic is the military-style coat Clay wore during treaty negotiations in Ghent, which is now in Belgium. Clay’s coat set the style for American diplomatic attire for decades. It was last worn by a Clay descendant when Ashland opened to the public as a museum in 1950.

“That’s the last time it will be worn, too,” Brooks said. “If for no other reason than there are not a lot of 6-foot-2, 145-pound men around anymore. And, obviously, it’s very, very fragile.”

If you go

What: War of 1812 Living History Day

When: 10 a.m. — 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27

Where: Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, 120 Sycamore Road.

Cost: $14 adults; $7 younger than 18; $35 family.

More information: Henryclay.org, (859) 266-8581


State audit of Fayette schools shows need to restore public trust

September 20, 2014

Superintendent Tom Shelton and a majority of the Fayette County Public Schools board reacted to the state auditor’s report Wednesday by emphasizing that no money is missing and no criminal activity was found.

But if they think the auditor’s damning assessment of “chronic mismanagement” is any vindication of their performance, they should think again.

The auditor’s staff spent the summer combing through the school system’s books after budget director Julane Mullins sent board members an email in May alleging that a $20 million budget shortfall resulted from irregular accounting made worse by “numerous acts of mismanagement.” She also contacted the auditor.

“Auditors did not find any evidence of alleged criminal activity,” Auditor Adam Edelen’s office said. “However, they determined that poor financial management, weak policies and failed communications culminated in a weakened financial position for the district.”

The investigation found that errors and mismanagement left the board unaware of the district’s true financial situation, and that information was concealed from board members.

Auditors also cited a pattern of high pay, big raises and perks for top administrators with a lack of transparency at a time when school programs are being cut and teachers are scraping for needed classroom supplies.

The schools’ Department of Financial Services spent $115,212 on travel, training and reference books over a four-year period. And a trust fund left by a deceased teacher for “enhancement and enrichment of the educational program” was instead used for administrators’ travel and training.

The auditor also made note of the number of highly paid administrators. The district has 36 people making more than $100,000 a year — for a total of $4.35 million — including three new positions with salaries totaling $386,000.

Shelton’s first response to the audit was to push back. While acknowledging there were problems, he told parents in an email that “some of the state’s assertions are based on faulty calculations, factual errors, and false assumptions.”

But somebody must have reminded Shelton that the auditor’s office is one of the most respected in state government, and that this is hardly the first school system it has investigated. A second email to parents had a much different tone: “I recognize that winning back the trust of our constituents will require swift and bold action.”

Shelton’s first move was to hire two financial and management consultants — although he couldn’t say how much their services would cost.

Shelton is a certified public accountant; finance is supposed to be his strength. Last year, he created a new chief academic officer’s position and hired Jessamine County Superintendent Lu Young to fill it. That should have given him more time to focus on management.

Yet, most of the problems the auditor found related to finance and management.

The auditor blamed several problems on a “toxic” relationship between the finance and budget directors. Shelton said he became aware of the problem soon after becoming superintendent in 2011. So why, two years later, is it still a problem?

There is little in this audit to inspire confidence in Shelton’s leadership.

Parents, teachers and taxpayers (who just had their school tax assessment raised 2.3 percent) must be convinced that officials are more interested in educating Lexington’s children than in staffing central office with well-paid administrators.

Business leaders also need reassurance, because an excellent public school system is vital to Lexington’s economy. The auditor’s phrase “chronic mismanagement” is sure to resonate through the business community like fingernails on a chalkboard.

All of this comes at a critical time for Fayette County Public Schools, which has begun a major school redistricting process. Redistricting is a nightmare under the best of circumstances, guaranteed to make some people angry no matter how fairly the lines are drawn.

Efforts to restore credibility could be made more difficult by a divided five-member school board.

Chairman John Price and Vice Chairman Melissa Bacon voiced support for Shelton last week, as did board member Daryl Love. But board members Doug Barnett and Amanda Ferguson, whose persistent questioning of management was partially vindicated by the audit, expressed reservations about Shelton’s ability to continue as superintendent.

Shelton’s annual evaluation, which was postponed because of the audit, is now due. That should be interesting. His employment contract is up for renewal in June 2015.

But board members have as much work ahead of them as Shelton does. They must restore public trust in their ability to work together to provide effective oversight.

This audit is an embarrassment for Lexington as well as for the Fayette County Public Schools, and it should be a wakeup call. Our children deserve better.


Author of new William Wells Brown biography speaks in Lexington

September 16, 2014

William Wells Brown is a name few people recognize today. He may be best known in Lexington as the namesake of an elementary school and community center in the East End.

But Brown (1814-1884) became a celebrity in the 19th century as the first black American to publish a novel, a travelogue, a song book and a play. He wrote three major volumes of black history, including the first about black military service in the Civil War.

The Central Kentucky native, who spent much of his adult life as a fugitive slave, spoke widely in this country and Europe against slavery. After emancipation, he was an important voice for black self-improvement. He also became a physician.

But that summary of accomplishments gives no clue about the fact that Brown’s own life story was as complex and fascinating as any work of literature.

wwbEzra Greenspan, an English professor at Southern Methodist University who has edited two collections of Brown’s writing, next month will publish a groundbreaking biography of America’s first black literary giant, William Wells Brown: An African American Life (W.W. Norton & Co., $35).

As part of a national tour celebrating the bicentennial of Brown’s birth, Greenspan is in Lexington this week to talk about his biography, which sheds new light on a man whose life and work were often surrounded by mystery and controversy. Greenspan plans to speak to students at four Lexington schools, and he has two free public events Thursday: a 4 p.m. talk at Third Street Stuff coffee shop and a more extensive presentation at 6:30 p.m. at the Lyric Theatre.

I had been eager to read Greenspan’s book since last year, when I interviewed him for a Black History Month column about Brown. I recently got a draft and found it to be an engaging, well-written story, filled with new information from years of painstaking research.

Greenspan’s work was difficult because Brown left no personal papers — perhaps because of scandals involving his first wife and a daughter — and the fact that he often mixed fact with fiction when writing about himself. Because Brown was born a slave, early records are sparse.

Greenspan first came to Lexington in 2009, when he and his wife were traveling around the United States and Britain to places where Brown spent time. They came here because Brown’s first published work — a narrative about his life in slavery — began: “I was born in Lexington, Kentucky.”

Brown may have thought that, because he was taken from Kentucky when he was only 3. But Greenspan discovered that Brown was actually born in Montgomery County, the child of a black slave and his owner’s white cousin, George W. Higgins. Called “Sandy” as a youth, Brown later adapted his chosen name from that of a subsequent owner.

Greenspan’s book traces Brown’s life from Kentucky to Missouri, where he lived on a farm next to Daniel Boone, to his work on Mississippi River steamboats for various masters, including a notorious slave-trader. All this time, Brown was observing much that would eventually find its way into print.

Brown’s third and successful escape from slavery came in 1834, when he was 19, after he saw both his mother and sister “sold down the river.”

His accomplishments were remarkable on many counts. He taught himself to read as an adult. With no formal education, he became a stylish, sophisticated and unusually prolific writer and a speaker of such skill that he attracted huge audiences.

Brown also was a resourceful entrepreneur. He profitably managed most of his own publishing, and he fiercely guarded his creative and financial independence despite persistent racism.

As Greenspan’s book recounts, Brown took considerable literary license with facts and indulged in bold examples of using others’ material in his own work. As both an activist and writer, he was fearless.

Brown’s most famous book was the novel Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, first published in London in 1853. It boldly cast its title character as the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, whose relationship with his slave Sally Hemings had long been the subject of gossip.

Clotel was heavily influenced by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was then an international sensation. Brown was always savvy about writing and rewriting his work to sell. But Stowe’s novel, which also was deeply rooted in Kentucky, had a profound impact on Brown.

“It was basically a retelling of his own life story,” Greenspan said. “It hit home in a very powerful way.”