Dr. Zirl Palmer’s Pharmacy at the corner of East Fifth and Chestnut Streets, most recently the home of the Catholic Action Center, is a building significant for the role it played in segregated Lexington, and for its design – but neither attribute will save it from demolition. Lexington doesn’t have the best record for valuing mid-century modern buildings, and a mid-century modern building that is also an example of the landscape of segregation is even less likely to figure in the public consciousness.
The landscape of segregation – most commonly interpreted through institutional buildings like churches and schools – is a trending topic in preservation circles today. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is raising money for the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the largest preservation campaign ever undertaken on behalf of African American history. The National Park Service issues grants to document, interpret, and preserve sites and stories related to the African American struggle to gain equal rights as citizens in the 20th Century. President Obama announced the creation of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument in Alabama in January 2017.
But preservation is much like recycling – it needs to happen locally in order to have a larger impact. And while there have been strides in Lexington to capture the stories of historically African American neighborhoods, it is nowhere near enough. The Palmer Pharmacy Building, a long-neglected gem of a building, which offered important services, helped the local economy, and served a community, will soon fall, and its passing will likely go unnoticed.
In March 1961, Zirl Palmer, a native of Bluefield, West Virginia, filed a building permit with the city of Lexington for “Palmer’s Pharmacy, Luncheonette, and Doctor’s Office.” He had purchased the parcel at the corner of Chestnut and East Fifth streets in 1959, but the existing one-story frame building was deemed to be “non-conforming” by the city’s building inspection department.
Palmer would become only the third African American to own and operate a pharmacy in Lexington – and the building that he had built in the East End Neighborhood is a striking departure from anything on the spot historically, and whatever will follow.
The two-story building faces onto East Fifth Street, with a striking curtain wall facade, the spandrels composed of blue enamel panels that catch the eye – and were likely intended to do just that. The facade wall allowed plenty of light to come into the building, and created a sense of openness to the street (which along with the striking blue panels, would invite people inside). While the structural material of the building is concrete block, it was clad with light glazed brick on the street elevations.
Palmer was responsible for introducing this amazingly modern building into an established historic neighborhood – choosing a modern style and sensibility for his business.
He became the first African American to own a Rexall franchise in the United States and battled discrimination all of his life. The state of West Virginia wouldn’t admit a black man to pharmacy school, so the state paid a portion of Palmer’s tuition and his train fare to Louisiana. After serving in World War II, and receiving his pharmacy degree from the University of Louisiana, Palmer moved to Lexington in 1952.
I don’t know if Dr. Palmer operated another pharmacy prior to the one on East Fifth and Chestnut Streets – but after opening for business in his new mid-century modern building, Palmer opened another pharmacy on Georgetown Street. It was there that a member of the Ku Klux Klan set off a bomb in 1968, damaging three businesses, and injuring eight people. Among those injured were Palmer, his wife, and their four-year old daughter, who were trapped in the wreckage for hours.
After the bombing, Palmer sold his businesses and retired. Later, he became the first African American to be appointed to the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees, adding that to a long list of community involvement across the state.
As I stood in front of the Palmer Pharmacy Building, plywood covering the glass storefront, but blue panels still catching the light from the sun, I wondered at the dichotomy between the hope and optimism expressed by the design of this building, and the agony and despair that must have gripped Palmer and his family in 1968. In 1961, there was a great deal of hope in America that our world was changing and improving. Some of the International-style architecture that flowered during that period was idealistic, straightforward, and completely forward-looking – this building illustrates those trends.
And then a man decided to bomb a store because he didn’t like the color of the owner’s skin.
One of the accounts I read about Dr. Palmer- and there is an oral history interview he gave at the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky – stated that he retired so that his family wouldn’t be endangered. I am not the best guide for the landscape of segregation – I can only view it as a student of history. But I am a mother, and like Palmer, I would do whatever I had to do to protect my family.
Dr. Palmer’s life, contributions, and sacrifices extend far beyond a physical structure. But wouldn’t it be nice if I was writing about the preservation of this building, rather than the city’s decision to tear it down?