Case Study

Multi-Credit My Old Kentucky Dome

7 min read

Passionate Lexington developer rethinks old courthouse

A $32 million renovation of an old courthouse in Lexington, KY, using both State and Federal Historic Tax Credits, has converted an 120-year-old structure into a beautiful multi-use boon to downtown redevelopment – and also righted a spectacular architectural fail from 50 years ago when a beautiful interior dome was sealed off and turned into an HVAC closet.

An unusual facet of the financing for the Fayette County Courthouse project was an unexpected and fortuitous chance to get a match for about $5 million of Federal Historic Tax Credits with State Historic Credits.

In order to get the unusual match, developer Holly Wiedemann remembers that she had to have the building done by a rigorous deadline. And that work included bringing the dome back into view.

“In the 1960s, there was what I would call a brutal intervention where they inserted a floor to double the size of the courtrooms,” says Wiedemann, principal of AU Associates. “They filled in the central atrium with elevators and restrooms and they sealed off the dome by pouring a concrete floor and locating all the HVAC equipment in the rotunda area,” she remembers. “So they had a nice rotunda for the HVAC equipment. The good news is because they did that and literally sealed it off, they didn’t scrape every vestige of the historic fabric off, which they did in the rest of the building.”

The present building, a Richardson Romanesque- style design by the old Ohio firm of Lehman and Schmitt, has an 120-foot central atrium. It is the fourth courthouse on the site going back to 1806. It had been left to the pigeons since a museum there closed in 2012. (A new courthouse had been built at another site and opened in 2001, ending the old one’s judicial use).

“This was a very huge project for downtown Lexington. I’ve seen this building my whole life,” says the native Lexingtonian. “It was troublesome. I spoke to a couple of mayors about the possibility of re-energizing this vacant abandoned building.” She found success with the current mayor, Jim Gray, who himself had a background in building, having led big manufacturing builder Gray Construction before turning to politics.

Special State Historic Credit Expansion
The financing mix for the public-private partnership project included $10.4 million in Historic Credits, half each through the federal and the state programs. The city, under Mayor Gray, came through with $21.5 million in taxable bonds. Wiedemann found an investor for the tax credits in Old National Bank.

The state credits came through an unexpected opportunity that sped up delivery dates, says Wiedemann. She took advantage of a special historic credit expansion the state legislature approved that was apparently meant to benefit the 21c Museum Hotel in Lexington. The bill had a number of qualifications, including a put-in-service date of December 31, 2017.

The art boutique hotel got its tax credits, but there was no dollar limitation on the special expansion and the courthouse was just adjacent to the hotel.

“After reading the guidelines it became a blinding flash of the obvious that the courthouse, that sits cheek to jowl with the 21c building, could benefit from the same thing,” says Wiedemann. “I don’t think the state of Kentucky anticipated there would be several other buildings that would fit in those very narrow guidelines, but in fact the courthouse did. We had to move with blinding speed.”

Planning began in 2015, with Wiedemann bringing in Deborah Burke Partners of New York and K. Norman Berry Associates out of Louisville, both architecture firms with extensive historic preservation experience. Wiedemann’s firm, in existence for 28 years and specializing in adaptive reuse, urban infill and affordable housing, did the exterior construction work. She also got the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“My portion (of the courthouse construction) began in mid-July 2016 and we completed all the exterior and the roof and removed the scaffolding in January/February of 2017. Messer Construction of Lexington took over at that point to do the interior.

“We blasted through that to get a total cost of ownership by December 31, 2017,” Wiedemann says. In fact, the deadline was so tight that Wiedemann even postponed surgery until after the certificate of occupancy was obtained.

Kentucky Traditions
A lot of careful detail work was done to adhere to Kentucky traditions, both old and new (a couple of statues of Confederate generals on the grounds were adroitly relocated to the cemetery where the generals are interred). Kentucky limestone was used in the construction, and the event space has been christened Limestone Hall. The weathervane on top of the building now features a familiar Kentucky image, a thoroughbred horse, in a nod to one of the tenants, the Breeders Cup.

Some serendipity was involved, as well as the hard work. New clock hands were needed for the 1898 clock and it turned out Wiedemann had her pick of more than one. “I found this clock guy from New York and I had to find somebody who could restore the faces. This is original milk glass, absolutely beautiful faces. But the hands had been replaced. The guy said it just so happens I have four sets of 1898 hands in stock,” she says.

The same thing happened with another detail. “When we replaced the slate on the roof we replaced it with the exact same slate. From the same quarry (as the original),” she says, a small quarry in Virginia.

A lot of grime accumulated over the years represented another problem. “Schnell Contracting did an absolutely beautiful job because this building had been blackened by soot and probably carbon deposits and exhaust, it was almost black and you couldn’t see any of the detailing. It was wonderful to have that all cleaned,” says Wiedemann.

The Shining Crown of Downtown
Mayor Gray is set to formally christen the building on November 20th, capping a project that has helped revitalize a historic part of the city. Many of the tenants are already operating out of the renovated courthouse, and the project won this year’s Ida Lee Willis Memorial Award for historic preservation.

Wiedemann’s projects often include housing, such as her next venture, which will restructure some vacant buildings on a local Veterans Hospital site into housing for veterans. But the courthouse lent itself to other uses.

“All the uses are already happening except for the final one, a restaurant and bourbon bar. The top floor event space has already had 200 events,” says Wiedemann, including a Harry Potter convention. “They’re fully booked every Saturday in 2019 already.”

The event space is in the rotunda. Below that are the offices of the Breeders Cup organization. “Our visitors center, VisitLex, is on the first floor. The courthouse is the spoke of the wheel for Lexington. The radii of all of our main arterials are spokes in that wheel,” she says, reflecting the old days when all roads led to the courthouse in towns and cities around the South.

“This project alone created 500 construction jobs and 360 indirect jobs. It’s more than paid for itself and it’s created an economic engine for downtown that will function in perpetuity,” says Wiedemann.

“From a vacant abandoned old courthouse that was riddled with pigeons and lead and asbestos, it’s now the shining crown of downtown.”

Story Contact:
Holly Wiedemann, Principal
AU Associates, Lexington, KY

Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.