It won’t be cheap, but Lexington must renovate old courthouse

March 24, 2015

141231Downtown0070The old Fayette County Courthouse. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Remember the old TV commercials for Fram oil filters? An actor dressed as an auto mechanic would explain how a costly repair could have been prevented with regular oil changes.

His punch line: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

Those ads came to mind as I read the report about all that is wrong with the old Fayette County Courthouse and what must be done to fix it. The building is well into “pay me later” status, and any further procrastination will make things worse.

Lexington’s EOP Architects and Preservation Design Partnership of Philadelphia spent six months cataloging decades of serious abuse and neglect of an iconic building that has defined the center of Lexington for more than a century.

This Richardsonian Romanesque temple of limestone, completed in 1900, symbolized the idea that public buildings should be beautiful as well as functional. It had a 105-foot-tall rotunda with a bronze-plated staircase paved in white marble. The dome was illuminated by then-new electric lights, and the cupola was crowned with a large racehorse weathervane.

But by 1930, growing Fayette County government needed more office space. Rather than branch out to annexes, more and more was crammed into the courthouse. The ultimate architectural insult came in 1960-61, when the rotunda was filled in and most of the elegant interior gutted to add elevators and more office space.

Building updates were ill-conceived. Little was spent on maintenance. The weathervane, damaged by a storm, was taken down in 1981.

The courts moved out in 2000 to new buildings two blocks away. The old courthouse was handed off to the Lexington History Museum and left to leak and crumble. Concerns about lead paint contamination prompted its closure in 2012.

The old courthouse is just one example of how Lexington squandered a rich architectural inheritance. For decades, “out with the old, in with the new” was city leaders’ motto. Much of the new was poorly designed and cheaply built.

There were many short-sighted demolitions, such as Union Station and the Post Office on Main Street, plus “modernizations” that now look ridiculous. New schools and office buildings were often cheap imitations of contemporary architecture. The city allowed many handsome buildings to be razed for parking lots.

There also was a lot of “demolition by neglect”, a trend that sadly continues at such places as the 1870 Odd Fellow’s Temple that most recently housed Bellini’s restaurant. It’s no wonder, since the old courthouse such a visible example.

Mayor Jim Gray deserves credit for trying to change things. The Downtown Development Authority and its consultants have put together an excellent, no-nonsense plan for a public-private partnership to renovate the old courthouse as a visitors’ center, public events venue and commercial space.

The cost of fixing and upgrading the building for new uses won’t be cheap: about $38 million, although about $11 million could come from historic preservation tax credits.

But what other choice do we have? The old courthouse is a black hole in an increasingly vibrant downtown that will soon include a 21C Museum Hotel in the restored First National building.

The consultants’ report says the old courthouse is basically sound structurally, but the damage so severe that a purely commercial restoration isn’t feasible.

That means city leaders must finally face up to their responsibility, just as they had to do when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forced the city to fix long-inadequate sewer systems that were polluting neighborhoods and streams.

Fortunately, many Urban County Council members have expressed support for restoring the old courthouse. They recognize it as an investment in Lexington’s future. But you can bet some will vote “no” to try to score political points, just as three members did on the necessary sewer rate increase recently.

After all, what’s the alternative? Tear down the old courthouse? Imagine the bad publicity that would bring Lexington, especially after city officials in 2008 allowed the Webb Companies to destroy an entire block nearby to create a storage pit for idle construction cranes.

Demolition of the old courthouse would tell tourists that the “city of horses and history” doesn’t really care about its history. And it would tell potential residents and economic development prospects that Lexington is too cheap and short-sighted to care for its assets or invest in its future.

I think most Lexington leaders are smart enough to bite the bullet and do the right thing here. And if they are really smart, they also will make other investments to avoid big taxpayer liabilities in the future. As the old courthouse and EPA consent degree have painfully demonstrated, “pay me later” is rarely a wise choice.