December 21, 2018 | by Saraya Brewer

When Zim’s Cafè and The Thirsty Fox—a two-part restaurant-and-bar concept with regional culinary ambassador Ouita Michel at the helm—opened in November, the businesses clicked into place the final pieces of a four-year, $32 million adaptive reuse project that breathed new life into one of downtown Lexington’s most iconic and recognizable buildings.

Just months before the renovations began, the future of the historic building was unclear.

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Having served as the Fayette County Courthouse from 1900 to 2002, it had existed in a state of steady decline in recent decades. In 1960, the overcrowded courthouse got a renovation that, while successful in making room for much-needed additional courtrooms, took little heed of the building’s original architectural integrity. An entire floor was added, bifurcating the grandiose original courtroom—with its two-story arched windows, stained glass and ornate plaster detailing—to make room for four modern and conventional courtrooms, which featured dropped ceilings and fluorescent lights. Many of the deteriorating historic details throughout the building were removed rather than restored, and—perhaps most notably—an elevator shaft was placed in the center of the building, which had previously offered sweeping views from the ground level up to a stunning upper level rotunda. The rotunda, fringed by an arched walkway and adorned with carved faces and a dazzling display of twinkling lights, was essentially turned into a storage closet for heating and air equipment as part of that renovation project, with a new floor installed below that would cover the building’s crown jewel from public view for decades.

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Now a focal point of the extensive interior renovations, the building’s rotunda had been hidden from public view for decades. 

The courthouse eventually outgrew the building for good, and when it relocated in 2002 to its current location on North Limestone Street, the Lexington History Museum moved in – until the discovery of asbestos and other hazardous materials forced that organization out in 2012, shuttering the building and leaving the outlook of its future wholly uncertain. Reviving the old courthouse was clearly going to be an expensive and complex project, and ideas that had been tossed around to turn the building into a permanent museum or new city hall hadn’t found the footing they needed to take hold.

“The problem of what to do with a rapidly declining signature symbol of our city weighed heavily on all of us,” said Lexington Mayor Jim Gray at the building’s ribbon-cutting ceremony in November. “We knew the good bones were here, but the bones had to be rearranged into something modern, inviting and compelling. Whatever we did here needed to be a beacon for the future and not just a curio of the past.”

To reach that end goal, a number of creative solutions were employed. Not wanting to fund the project solely with public dollars, Gray and his team worked with local developer Holly Wiedemann, whose firm AU Associates specializes in adaptive reuse projects, to devise a sustainable finance model, leveraging historic tax credits with a blend of public and private investment. The project was designed to be financially self-sustaining, with rents from the tenants covering the ongoing cost of building maintenance and repairs, eliminating the need for future public funding beyond the city’s initial investment. At the crux of the project’s feasibility was an eleventh hour discovery that the project was eligible for a limited tax credit program that was drafted by lobbyists and passed into legislation during the construction of Lexington’s 21c Museum Hotel.

“Before the historic tax credits, we could not have made this happen,” said Wiedemann of the special legislation, which circumvented the traditional caps and ambiguity of Kentucky’s Historic Preservation Tax Credit program for projects that met a very specific set of criteria. “Their lobbyists wrote some very specific guidelines – they thought that it would only apply to 21c, but we figured out that in fact, it would apply to this [project].”

To be eligible for the tax credit program, a project had to cost between $15 million and $30 million, be completed between 2015 and 2017, and be a historic building in a TIF district that hadn’t ever been utilized. The discovery that the courthouse project met the very specific guidelines opened the doors of feasibility for the project, while at the same time setting its breakneck pace for completion.

“It was a dead run from day one,” Wiedemann said. “Everyone worked so hard together.”

Today, the building is home to a combination of unique and carefully cast concepts that serve as a further reflection of the public-private approach to the project. Sharing the ground floor with Zim’s and Thirsty Fox is another Lexington institution with a hospitable mission: the Lexington Visitors Center, which relocated in June from the Victorian Square location it had inhabited for the previous six years. The building also houses the administrative offices for two organizations with special ties to the Bluegrass: VisitLex and Breeders’ Cup. And encompassing the top floor of the meticulously restored building is Limestone Hall, a striking event space that’s available to rent for weddings, conferences and other events.

Courthouse Square’s tenants include VisitLEX, the Breeders’ Cup, Zim’s Café and The Thirsty Fox, as well as Limestone Hall event space.

“I wanted to find symbiotic uses that would all together make it bigger than the sum of its parts,” said Wiedemann, whose firm oversaw everything from financing to construction to curating the tenants, working closely with Gray’s office, Messer Construction and a team of architects that included New York-based architect Deborah Berke and Kentucky-based architecture firm K. Norman Berry Associates.

The nature of the project also required that Wiedemann work closely with the National Park Service, the organization that works with state historic preservation offices to oversee historic tax credits—she was required to seek approval from them for nearly every design decision, from paint colors and materials to decisions on where to add or remove drywall. Driving every decision was a push to honor the building’s historic fabric as much as possible while maintaining modern functionality.

Exterior work included cleaning the stone, repairing the roof—including the copper-clad cupola and weather vane – and replacing the exterior staircase. Inside, in addition to carving out six unique spaces carefully outfitted for the functionality and design specifications of each tenant (bar, restaurant, visitor’s center, two administrative offices and an event hall), the team was concerned with design and construction decisions that would affect the overall building, from addressing structural issues to finding a way to restore the former glory of the rotunda.

Incorporating a view of the interior dome has once again become an integral component of the building, with a breathtaking open-air view of the rotunda, a signature element of Limestone Hall. To make the view accessible on all levels of the building, octagonal glass floors were installed on the second and third floors, mirroring the size and shape of the portal that provided the view from the ground floor up to the dome in the building’s original design.

“It’s very unique and the most eye-catching thing when people come into our office,” said Bryan Pettigrew, chief marketing officer for Breeders’ Cup, of the glass panes on the office’s floor and ceiling. “It’s just beautiful to be able to walk in and look at it every day.”

As a Lexington native and longtime proponent of adaptive reuse, the entire project was rife with personal significance to Wiedemann. As a child, her family owned the nearby Purcell’s department store, and she recalls passing the courthouse almost every day while growing up. Through decades of uncertainty surrounding the building’s future, she always held hope it could eventually be restored to its original glory.

Wiedemann said Gray was not the first Lexington mayor she had approached over the years about the possibility of saving the building, but he was the first to have “the vision to see what this could become.”

What it’s become, Gray said, is “nothing short of a miracle.”

“It is an animated and engaged space, more so now than ever before,” he said. “It welcomes everyone.”

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