A Process with Possibilities: Avoiding Demolition in a Local Historic District

Buildings, like people, evolve, grow, and even shrink. Of course, this cycle of change happens to buildings through the actions of people. Inaction, commonly referred to in its final phase as “demolition by neglect” also acts as an agent of change on a historic building. I’ve experienced my share of needless demolitions since entering the world of historic preservation – but most of these have been in neighborhoods or communities with no local zoning or overlays to protect the historic buildings from destruction. So it’s doubly frustrating when an urban corridor, rejuvenated over a stretch of years by engaged and dedicated residents – and an area protected by a historic overlay – is faced with a demolition request that appears, on the face of it, to be ill-founded and quite unnecessary. The late-19th century brick cottage pictured below, at 163 East Third Street in Lexington, Kentucky, is the subject of an active demolition request.


This brick cottage has served as a home, grocery, and newspaper office since its construction in the late 19th century.

Last week, I shared some some of the common myths and misconceptions about the National Register of Historic Places, the nation’s list of sites and buildings significant in our history. While listing in the NRHP is an honor, and makes tax credits available to property owners, it doesn’t offer much in the way of protection (except from federally funded, permitted or licensed projects, also known as Section 106). Local historic districts with zoning regulations are responsible for keeping intact so many of the historic places you and I enjoy on a daily basis or as tourists. Lexington, Kentucky, is fortunate enough to have such a system, known as the H-1 overlay. This zoning tool offers protection with possibility, not just protection for preservation.

The building in question, circa 1980, in the foreground.

The building in question, circa 1980, in the foreground.

What are the possibilities? They are kindly outlined in the zoning code for the H-1 overlay (Article 13), and professional staff (including architects) help property owners who buy a building in an H-1 district come up with ways (and alternatives) to preserve the building, keep it standing, and not go into debt in the process. This is free help.  This technical assistance is also available from the Kentucky Heritage Council, the State Historic Preservation Office. Again, this costs you nothing.  Perhaps most the most important point to consider, however, is due diligence.

I am a big fan of this practice. Prior to purchasing a new article of clothing, I am going to try it on and make sure it fits (or make sure there is free shipping on returns if buying online).  Buying shoes from Zappos is not as serious a proposition as purchasing property. Before buying a house, I want to make sure it is in good condition, and be aware of any regulations regarding what I can do to the property. When you buy a property in an H-1 district in Lexington,  you know about the zoning restrictions in that neighborhood. Any average, sensible homeowner or business person conducts due diligence prior to major purchases. The property in question? It has been in an H-1 overlay district since 1976.

Neighboring properties along East Third Street that have been restored.

Neighboring properties along East Third Street that have been restored.

A demolition request in an H-1 district also makes use of that handy practice, due diligence. What has the property owner, who should be quite familiar with the structure of the H-1 overlay, done prior to consider razing the building? The overlay requires that the demolition request be accompanied by evidence of this due diligence – that the owner of the property in question has tried to sell or rent the property; has had appraisals of the property; as well as any ideas for profitable adaptive reuse of the property – among other documentation. This is standard operating procedure, no matter who the owners are, or what sort of property is in question.

What is not acceptable is using neglect or lack of maintenance of a building as a pretext for demolition – and the Board of Architectural Review (BOAR)* has established precedent for this in previous demolition hearings. Owners of a historic property cannot create an economic hardship by letting the building fall down under their ownership. This inaction by a presumably well-informed, due-diligence adherent property owner is not justification for demolition. It is absurd.


Another circa 1980 view of 163 East Third Street (at far right), Lexington, Kentucky.

The demolition request for this building is currently scheduled for the May 25 meeting of the BOAR. The agenda will be posted on the Division of Historic Preservation’s website. The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, a local non-profit preservation advocacy group, has issued a statement about the demolition request and urges concerned citizens to let their own objections be heard – so please, support the strength of local historic districts, and add your voice against demolition.

I have watched this block blossom since I returned to Kentucky, and initially planned to write about this little house last fall. At the time, my requests for information about its fate met with positive feedback – that it would join its neighbors in being rehabilitated and become part of a thriving downtown corridor. I haven’t been inside this building, nor can I make any assessments of its soundness or what renovation would cost. I do know that demolition is not the appropriate next step, not in an area of Lexington becoming known for its mix of homes, businesses, restaurants, and lively social life, all complemented by a range of interesting and quirky historic buildings.


*The Board of Architectural Review is a five-member historic district design review board, appointed by the Mayor and the Urban County Council. The BOAR holds twice monthly public hearings to review requests for exterior changes to properties protected by an H-1 overlay zone.

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  1. Georgeanne Edwards says:

    I hope Jerry Lundergan sees your post! Too many historic buildings are victim to demolition by neglect. Don’t buy something you won’t take care of..surely a lesson for our children.

  2. David Ames says:

    Janie-Rice, I’d be happy to come down and shoot this site for the Historic American Building Survey so it can , at least, get into Library of Congress collection where it will live forever on film.
    For those of you who may not be familiar with the Historic American Building Survey it was a program initiated in the US Department of Interior during the Depression to provide unemployed architects to work drawing “antique” buildings. It has evolved into the premier documentation program in the word. On the photographic side it requires larger format (4×5, 5×7, or 8×10) photographs. The are parallel programs for Engineering establish in 1969 and for Historic Landscape established in the 1980s,

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