Gardens to Gables

Preserve Lexington: Remembering How We Fought (We Lost, but We Certainly Did Fight)

Memories have a funny way of not staying put. Earlier this week, there were some sly bumper stickers waiting for me on my front porch, poking fun at the yawning hole in downtown Lexington that is Centre Pointe. My life philosophy typically follows the “laugh rather than cry” method, and laugh I did. But rumination would not be thwarted, and I’ve spent some time this week reflecting on the amazing community effort to fight to destruction of the block now known as Centre Pit and my part in the brave little non-profit called Preserve Lexington.

My new bumper sticker

My new bumper sticker

My preservation career began, right out of college with the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, where I worked while in graduate school. Despite some volunteering on the side, I went another direction professionally than non-profit advocacy work.

When I moved back to Kentucky, and got to know Lexington again, rumors swirled about a huge development downtown on Main Street. I frequented the Dame, and Buster’s was the best place to grab a beer and play air hockey. The destruction of the Woolworth Building was a wasted opportunity, especially as I saw the great things happening in Louisville and the wonderful adaptive reuse projects of Lexington’s own Holly Wiedemann and AU Associates.

What we called then the "Dame Block" looking toward Upper Street on East Main

What we called then the “Dame Block” looking toward Upper Street on East Main

Then one day, a friend of mine, Eric Thomason, and I laughingly said we should start our own preservation group with a very narrow focus – downtown Lexington, and in particular, that block of Main Street bordered by Limestone and Upper Streets.  And, before I knew what had happened, that’s what we did. A few more like-minded friends joined us for brainstorming and gab sessions, including Hayward Wilkirson, who had also spent some time for the Blue Grass Trust. Nothing had been confirmed yet about the block, but we decided to see if we could sway the currents of thought and development by bringing in expert voices.

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In 2007, we brought Donovan Rypkema, recognized nationally as “an industry leader in the economics of preserving historic structures” to town, to speak to Commerce Lexington at morning breakfast meeting, and to the public in the afternoon. Other cities across the country had successfully incorporated historic buildings – even ones that had been neglected for decades by their owners – into new developments and thus revived their downtowns – why couldn’t Lexington do the same?

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The next year, things got real. We weren’t, by far, the only people concerned about this block and what destruction of the building would mean.  I worked for the state back then, and kept myself to the background as much as possible. There was an exciting sense of energy and purpose, and our meetings quickly outgrew any of our living rooms.

People started joining us and talking about their visions for downtown, and how we could counter the curse of Lexington, which seemed to have a pattern of uncreative, staid, bulldozer mentality toward downtown development.  It seemed clear that we should have some sort of public event, to show the city, the Webbs, and the community that these “old buildings” and the businesses in them, had supporters.

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I never would have imagined the turnout – and I am rather proud of my healthy imagination. Over 300 people filled the State Theatre, spilling out into the aisles and the hallways. In the year after the block was torn down, I deleted all of my electronic files. It was too sad to hold onto them. So I have no idea what I said that morning – only that I believed fiercely in what we were doing, and in the other people on stage with me.

Part of Morton's Row, the oldest part of the block,

Part of Morton’s Row, the oldest part of the block, built in 1826.

And the people! Before there was a Kentucky Kicks Ass campaign, Griffin Van Meter brought a powerful visual and audio component to the program. Alex Brooks poured his heart into describing the organic nature of the entertainment venues on the block, and how they enlivened downtown. Leslie Beatty worked tirelessly promoting and organizing so that the day could happen – and so many more people – John Wilkirson, Mary Turner, Mick Jeffries, Amy Lett, John Hackworth, Bill Johnston, Jessica Case, Tom Eblen, Amanda Kerley, Carl Leonard, Joe Sonka – please forgive me, as my mind is a sieve, and I know I am forgetting the efforts of so many wonderful folks.

I've got the gift of gab, but I sadly have no idea what I said that day...

I’ve got the gift of gab, but I sadly have no idea what I said that day…

This is the first time I have ever written about Preserve Lexington. After we went to court, and lost, and the buildings came down – I lost a little bit of faith. In the power of community, in our elected leaders, judges, appointed boards and most of all, I lost faith that Lexington could ever do anything but repeat the mistakes of the past. That last feeling came back to me earlier this month, as we are almost halfway into year seven since the block was demolished, and there is still NOTHING there.

Another lost building from the block, home to the Mad Hatter.

Another lost building from the block, home to the Mad Hatter.

But a new sense of optimism, quirkiness, and vision IS flourishing in Lexington. It may not be on Main Street. North Limestone is redeveloping while maintaining the historic buildings that makes it so unique, and even though Peoples Bank may not be saved – the fact that people are talking about it and a movement to save it is happening – this is encouraging.

I avoided downtown for almost a year after the block went down – which was hard to do, given I lived only a mile away. And a bit of my faith and hope has returned – enough so that I have this blog, and I capture stories so that the incredible landscapes of Kentucky can be seen, and hopefully, appreciated. Because Kentucky does kick ass.

The one line I recall from my talk that day is the oft-butchered quote from William Faulkner: “the past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” I went on to say,  “William Faulkner certainly benefited from the webs of history that infused his novels – and Lexington must wake up and realize the benefits of our historic buildings –what they mean to downtown – and how this community can benefit from them.”

It’s too late for that block of Main Street. But it’s not too late for other places, and I believe we can change things, and we can save things. In doing so – we make a better and more interesting community for the people who live there and the people who visit.

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