A Mid-Century Modern Symbol of Segregated Lexington: The Dr. Zirl Palmer Pharmacy Building

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.

Google streetview image of building, prior to the facade being boarded over.

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.

The storefront has been boarded up in preparation for demolition.

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.

Section of the 1934 Sanborn map of Lexington, showing the corner where Palmer’s Pharmacy would be built.

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.

From the December 14, 1961 edition of Jet Magazine.

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.

A detail of where the glazed brick tied in with the concrete walls, on a side of the building that wasn’t highly visible.

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.

The Chestnut Street elevation of the Palmer Pharmacy.

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.

From the July 23, 1970 edition of Jet Magazine.

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.

Dr. Zirl Palmer, 1920-1982.

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?

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  1. patricia clark says:

    Is there any move to prevent it? what is going there?

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      The city of Lexington owns the building and is planning to tear it down – from what I’ve been told, the interior has been allowed to deteriorate. (But I haven’t been inside)

  2. Carol says:

    Great article. Lexington is terrible at preserving mid century modern ( People’s Bank comes to mind) and even worse at honoring the architectural heritage of the African American community.

  3. Angelia Drake says:

    Would love to see a training center there. Not a get reach program like so many are pretending isn’t their motive.

  4. Elizabeth Palmer says:

    This was my Father in-law. He was a great man that has not be recognised for his accomplishmemts.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Mrs. Palmer, I feel very fortunate to have been able to learn what I could about Dr. Palmer – he had such an impact on the community of Lexington, and more people should know about his life. Thank you so much for reading my piece.

      1. Zirl Palmer Jr. says:

        Thank you so much, for speaking on behalf of my father. Our family has tried for years to get something done on behalf of my father but all has failed. After so may years,of being told we can’t help you there’s not much more we can do. If there’s any person or persons we could contact,to try and save this building. Please let us know. God bless you.You have a good and faithful heart. Zirl Palmer Jr.

        1. Nita McMullen says:

          Take it to the historic society people down town at court house on main street or in Frankfort .. Google it in this area and have it labled as a historic building and they will not be able to tear it down don’t give up please .. If you have to call wlex18 need and they should be able to help you they know who you should contact if not contact Gayle Slaughter she is a lawyer she can help you . 😉

    2. Jay Gray says:

      I would love to meet some of my family that I’ve never met from Lexington. Grandma Tina (Maggie) still lives in Bluefield. She is Uncle Zirl’s last living sibling.

  5. Reggie Gay says:

    #INCREDIBLE story. Kentucky African-American #HISTORY Wonder if any of his family still resides in Lexington?

  6. Jonita Davis says:

    This there any African American organization trying to save this are there any fund raising in the works.

  7. Jay Gray says:

    He was my Great Uncle. My grandmother, his sister is the last living sibling. She still resides in Bluefield, Va. I love learning these types of things about my family.

  8. Kim Robinson says:

    It’s should be restored. It would be nice if some builders would donate materials and services to retore the building keeping historical features and name the building after the original owner.To bring African American business to the area.

  9. Stephanie Oldham says:

    I sure hope we can save our history.

  10. Marilyn Dishman says:

    I agree that we definitely should preserve this historical building–not only as African American heritage, but it is significant as a part of Lexington’s heritage. This building is monumental! This is the kind of monuments we should all honor and preserve!

  11. yvonne giles says:

    It will be a tragedy to remove it from the landscape. I do believe that it can be saved. It has only been a short time since the Catholic Action Center occupied it as a facility that served a diverse population. How bad could it have been for them to have utilized the building for so long?
    We need to honor this man and his family. In my conversations with people in the community they have told me that Dr. Palmer helped them as young adults to gain employment opportunities. One I have spoken to actually was delivered prescriptions for the pharmacy.
    If money can be found to move the Confederate monuments, why can’t money be ‘found’ to save this building? I probably should not say this, BUT, is it because a black professional, who chose to build in and provide services to a black neighborhood, is not worthy of recognition of his contribution to our society?

    Do we need to lobby city council members?

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      I don’t see how anyone could NOT realize that Dr. Palmer made a significant impact in this community, and it is a shame that his story is not better known. Contacting the council members and the mayor is a good start, but I am afraid the city has alternative plans for the parcel (and getting institutions to halt their forward progress – well, we haven’t been able to stop UK from tearing down neighborhood after neighborhood).

  12. Rosetta Harris says:

    It would be nice to save it for historical reasons but Lexington is not going to let blacks have anything with out them having something to do with it we still have to know we’re i place is in Lexington Kentucky white people here could care less about black people here

  13. Rose Carter says:

    Dr. Palmer was a member of Main Street Baptist Church and I believe he started our Health Committee along with a few other members. I still remember were he used to sit on Sunday mornings.

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