Place is very important to most Kentuckians. We identify ourselves not by where we live, but where we are from – or where “our people” are from. I may live and work in Lexington, but I am from Mt. Sterling, and I cheer on efforts in my hometown that make it a more interesting, inclusive, and dynamic community. One of the most exciting ventures began almost 25 years ago – the Gateway Regional Arts Center – a perfect melding of the humanities and adaptive reuse of a historic building.
A bit of background: Mt. Sterling, the county seat of Montgomery County, is located in the Outer Bluegrass Region of Kentucky, and became known as the “Gateway” to the east, due to its position along several pivotal transportation routes (including the railroad, which arrived in 1872 as the Elizabethtown, Lexington, and Big Sandy – later to be the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad). As the last major retail and trading center before entering the eastern Kentucky mountains, the community enjoyed a long period of growth and prosperity during the 19th century.
My people came to Montgomery County in the 1820s from Fayette County, and settled on the west central side of the county, about two miles in from the Clark County line. Although frugal farmers, they instilled the importance of culture, education, and self-improvement into their children.
When the Montgomery County Council for the Arts was founded in 1991, I perhaps didn’t appreciate it as much as I should. At that time, all I wanted to do was get far away from my familiar environment (oh, those pleasant teenage years). First housed in a storefront on East Main Street, the program benefited from the hard work of many individuals and community organizations, as well as funding from the Kentucky Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.
I lived many hundreds of miles away from Kentucky in 2002 when the Arts Council purchased the former Methodist Church. The Methodist Episcopal Church South bought the lot in 1827 for $161 and built their church. This structure lasted until 1881, when a new Gothic Revival brick church (above and below photos) was constructed to house the growing congregation.
Upon my return to Kentucky, I went to work for the Kentucky Heritage Council, the State Historic Preservation Office, in Frankfort. One of my co-workers came up to me one morning and wanted to know if I was related to a woman he was working with, who was applying for a Save America Treasures (SAT) grant (if you’ve lived in Central Kentucky for anytime, you are inevitably kin to almost everyone). SAT grants were not easy to come by, especially at that time, when federal aid was shrinking – but the Council for the Arts won the grant, and launched a $1.3 million renovation of the former church.
The former church formally opened in 2009 as three-story arts center with “a large public performance hall, art gallery, gift shop, arts resource library, visual arts classrooms, music rehearsal rooms, artists studio space, offices and basement which includes a small performance cafe, dressing rooms and additional classrooms.”
The church sanctuary, where the students of Mrs. Alice McNew held their piano recitals for many, many years (I suffered through my recitals, though today I am so glad my parents forced me to take lessons…) is now an airy, light-filled space that hosts lectures, concerts, plays, workshops – the offerings at the Gateway Regional Arts Center truly are tremendous.
On May 17, I attended a wonderfully delicious Tea and Chocolate Tasting at the Gateway Regional Arts Center. Since my time at Regent’s College as an undergraduate, I’ve been a confirmed hot tea drinker, and subsequent adventures in England have only strengthened my utter devotion to all things tea…and chocolate, of course, is one of the main food groups.
Bruce Richardson, with Elmwood Inn Fine Teas, provided a lively and fascinating overview of tea history, culture, and the subtle nuances of the teas on the menu. The heavenly samples of chocolate came from Mt. Sterling’s own Ruth Hunt Candies, and paired perfectly with the tea.
I never would have imagined such a event being held in my hometown while I was growing up. The Gateway Regional Arts Center took an existing historic building, re-purposed it, and in doing so, not only brought new life to that streetscape, but has enhanced the quality of life in the surrounding area. Far from just being a Gateway to the east, the efforts of the Montgomery County Council for the Arts has shown that you don’t necessarily have to flee your hometown to find culture, theater, art, and an appreciation for the tangible and intangible benefits of learning about the world and its peoples. You can find a Gateway to the wider world right where you are. My frugal ancestors would have approved.