Too often, historic buildings part are lost to the siren song of redevelopment, bulldozers sending dust and debris flying so quickly that it is hard to believe that generations of people used and occupied the structures so quickly tumbled to the ground. When I read in the paper this morning that the building at the corner of East Third and Race Streets in Lexington had collapsed yesterday evening, I groaned, but knew that its obituary had been written years before, as the frame building sat empty and unmaintained.
In the historic preservation community, the loss of this building would be termed “demolition by neglect.”While that appears to be the cause of the building’s demise, the comments by neighborhood residents reveal relief that a blight and eyesore is now gone. If someone had been able to invest in the building years ago, this might not have happened – but Lexington’s East End has been the victim of neglect for decades now, both by government entities and some property owners.
There are encouraging signs – the Charles Young Center appears to be receiving more attention and care than in the years past, and the Lyric Theater has hopefully emerged from its contentious existence of the last 20 years. But many more historic dwellings and corner stores remain at threat – this is a social discourse I am perhaps not equipped to decipher. But what I can do is provide a snapshot of what this building was before its quiet and inelegant deterioration, a process more commonly acknowledged among people. The rigors of old age and disease may sometimes rob our loved ones of their strength and the spark of personality we cherish – but that doesn’t mean they were always thus. So it is with the historic buildings around us.
The 1896 Sanborn Fire Insurance doesn’t include the corner of East Third and Race Street in it coverage area – but it does appear on the 1901 Sanborn map. Based on the stylistic details of the building, including the elongated windows, incised lintels, and bracketed cornice, it could date from 1880 to 1900. And although it is described as one building, it operated as two connected buildings, which is clearly visible on the maps and if you walked by on the street.
On the 1901 and 1907 Sanborn maps, the section of the building next to Race Street was two stories, and first noted as grocery (1901) and then a saloon (1907).
The part of the building listed as 502 East Third was only one story, with a porch on the facade, and labeled as a dwelling. In the 1927 Polk’s City Directory, the two-story, right hand section was home to a Kroger’s Grocery Store. Next door was the People’s Drug Company, and the residence of R.M Cooper and his wife, Veenie. Cooper was the President of People’s Drug Company, and the fact that 502 East Third was now a combination commercial/residential building indicates that the second story had been added.
According to a story in May 20, 1920 edition of the Lexington Leader, The People’s Drug Company, was “a new corporation of Lexington” and had “purchased the stock of goods and fixtures of Callis Brothers’ drug stores at Bowling Green, one of the largest drug firms in the State.” I didn’t uncover much about the Coopers, but their stay in Lexington must not have been long. In 1932, Consolidated Drug Stores, Inc. called 502 East Third home, and no occupants were listed in the city directory. Kroger’s Grocery and Baking Company was still located next door at 500 East Third.
The building continued to serve as grocery store until after World War II, but by the 1960s, Lexington was a state of long overdue flux, and desegregation radically changed the nature of the commercial districts in Lexington’s historically black neighborhoods. In the 1990s, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader, the building was the East End Variety Shop. Now, it is a pile of debris, and what was once a pivotal corner in a bustling neighborhood awaits its latest transformation.
Rebuilding is a cycle all communities experience, whether through expansion, natural disaster, or “updating” and redeveloping. There have been some positive overtures on this side of Lexington in the last few years. While I mourn the loss of a type – the frame corner commercial building (always more vulnerable than its brick kin), I hope that whatever replaces it on this spot is a building embraced by the neighborhood, of the neighborhood, and a space that will continue the steps toward revitalization and rebirth. Because even as it drifted toward its eventual ignominious end, the former Kroger Grocery/Drugstore was always more than the eyesore it had become. It was once a vibrant, living structure that was home, business, and a healthy and cherished part of a community – and we would do well to remember its history, just as we try to build a better future.