Between Pastureland and Progress:
On the Many Lives of an American City

Sarah Wagner Tells a Tale of Lexington, Kentucky

Songbirds are the sweetest
In Kentucky;
Thoroughbreds the quickest
In Kentucky;
Mountains tower proudest,
Thunder peals the loudest,
The landscape is the grandest—and
Politics—the damnedest
In Kentucky.

–James Hillary Mulligan, “In Kentucky”

*

If you happened to plan a trip to Kentucky during the fall of 2010—flew into Louisville, rented a car, followed the bourbon trail from Bardstown to Lawrenceburg to Versailles and on to Lexington; came at the tail end of horse-racing season at Keeneland for green stalls, dirt tracks, and colorful costumes; and contributed to the small but substantial 11.3 billion dollars of the Kentucky tourism economy in 2010—you might have decided one evening, in search of a nice dinner, to take a drive into Lexington’s downtown.

If you drive to Lexington the way I do, you would come from the west. I follow I-64 most of the way but get off at the exit to Midway, a town about 15 miles northwest of the city. A left turn at that exit puts me on Leestown Road, a mostly straight line of asphalt that gently contours the hills. The road is only large enough for two lanes of traffic—one in, one out—but it’s also a state highway, so the shock of an oncoming truck climbing over the top of a hill or emerging from under a bridge pulls me out of the daze the road induces. I pass one horse farm after another, with a few cows and empty fields interspersed. The four-plank fences continue almost uninterrupted, changing color with changes in property ownership, white to black to gray. As long as a tractor doesn’t pull out to crawl in front of me, this route is even faster into the city than the highway. And if I trust that no cops will be out on a lazy Saturday morning, the speed limit is mostly just a suggestion.

Leestown Road eventually becomes the city’s Main Street, and almost immediately a slight bend in the road reveals the skyline of the downtown. A few buildings stand out: the steeple of Main Street Baptist Church, founded by a former slave over 150 years ago; a collection of sandwich stacks of concrete slabs representing Kentucky’s version of 1980s Brutalism; and the tallest building in Lexington—a shining tower, clad in what’s called University of Kentucky-blue—the beloved ugly pet of the city referred to as the “Big Blue Crayon.”

Then, amidst a menagerie of downtown parking garages, claiming the full footprint of one of Lexington’s eight downtown blocks, you would see a flat green field surrounded by a black four-plank fence—the image of a Kentucky horse farm transposed into the middle of the city. And if you drove downtown on a warm September day, you might have even seen horses on that green city block, grazing silently in the sun as the traffic lights changed from red to yellow to green, again and again.

*

The architecture of Lexington, Kentucky is neither remarkable nor appalling. Unlike many mid-American cities, it boasts a relatively diverse patchwork of properties from different eras. While Atlanta was flattening homes for its massive highways, while Nashville was replacing old bricks with new shining glass, while Birmingham was struggling to convince anyone, anyone at all, to return to its downtown, Lexington was only ever slowly growing. The city has been steadily expanding and densifying over the past century, with no major influxes of young business nor mass migrations of youth to more promising lands. Over the past century, without much work to become so, Lexington grew from what would have once been called a town into an accidental city.

The city has its own small architectural marvels. The first “skyscraper” in the city’s downtown, a 15-storey high-rise, was finished in 1914 by the prominent New York architecture office of McKim, Mead & White, the same office famous for the neoclassical but technologically impressive designs of Manhattan’s former Penn Station and the Central Library, Boston Public Library. An old 19th-century villa on the southeastern edge of the downtown was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect known for the design of the United States Capitol. And eight miles southeast of town is another private home that claims the modernist heritage of Le Corbusier, built by José Oubrerie, a protégé who left Le Corbusier’s Paris office to teach in the United States and ended up, of all places, in Kentucky.

Lexington was the first city in the United States to put a limit on urban growth, a political sign of commitment to the city’s surrounding horse farms.

At the turn of the 19th century, Lexington was labeled as the “Athens of the West,” a title still touted by the newly renovated visitor’s center in the city’s old courthouse. The town once claimed by the state of Virginia became home to the first college west of the Allegheny Mountains—Transylvania University—which would graduate two US Vice Presidents, two Supreme Court justices, fifty US Senators, one hundred and one US Representatives, and one Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. Kentucky promised a mixture of culture and lawlessness perhaps best described with a portrait of Cassius Clay (namesake of Muhammed Ali), “Lion of White Hall,” the Kentucky politician and emancipationist best known for his daring glare, well-ironed suits, and quick draw of a Bowie knife to fend off six attackers after a speech on abolition.

Cassius Clay’s portrait hangs in the new Lexington Visitors Center, by a set of shining decorative plates once owned by Mary Todd Lincoln’s family. The Visitors Center in the Old Courthouse sits at the intersection of Upper and Main Street, cattycorner to the block that once was the site of the downtown grass horse pen. Earlier this year, as I browsed pamphlets on Lexington’s current activities—advertising bourbon tours, basketball history, and of course, Kentucky Horse Park—I heard a couple chatting with the two women sitting at the main desk of the Visitors Center.

They are both from Vermont, but have been living in Boston, and now are looking for a quaint town and warmer weather to retire to. Lexington has made the final list, so they’re visiting to get a feel for the town. The woman rode horses as a girl, and hopes to ride again. Lexington is the Horse Capital of the World, they’d heard, and they had to visit. The man pointed out the window at the workers across the street lifting sheets of glass to cover the steel and concrete skeleton of what the women at the Visitors Center claim will be the newest and nicest hotel downtown. (There are advertisements for the new building among their stacks of brochures.) It’s nice, the man says, to have both horse farms and tall buildings in the same place.

*

When I first came to Lexington in the fall of 2012, a young student from Louisville excited to study architecture at the University of Kentucky, construction on the downtown lot seemed unlikely. Conversations among university faculty about the project were marked by the sad humor of resignation. The land had been consolidated with plans for a massive project, which had increasingly been scaled down from a block-sized skyscraper that would be the tallest building in Lexington to a vague potential of a building without a named architect or reliable investors. The project had been proudly and pretentiously titled “CentrePointe” (since renamed “City Center”) and was for a decade a gap in the skyline, mocking the city’s aspirations with each passing day.

The initial visualizations of the building caused immediate public outrage. The first proposal for the site was appalling—tremendously out of scale (a tower with a single footprint covering half the block, ready to stomp on its neighbors), with mismatched proportions and mixed architectural motifs, topping a stone-clad 13-story base with a curved-glass tower that looked less than double the base (around 25 stories). The building seemed to be mocking centuries of architectural history without understanding its own joke. If Lexington was going to be building a new multi-million-dollar project downtown, something that hadn’t been accomplished in decades, could it not at least look a little nicer? The proposal looked so absurd it didn’t seem real—besides, the progressive city-planning approval boards would scrap it, the citizens thought—but soon the laughter became more nervous. Permits swiftly and silently passed. The protests were already too late as soon as they began.

Perhaps, from the beginning, the city was asking too much. The project began with the demolition of a block, a heartbreak for some in the city and a relief to others. In a patchwork of small operations, the 15 buildings torn down, starting in 2008, served so many different types of people in Lexington. Buster’s drew millennial beatnik students with concerts, cheap beer, and packed parties (in fact, Buster’s only served beer—the building didn’t have sufficient plumbing to provide tap water to its drunk crowds, but the liability was worth the cheap rent). Mia’s gathered crowds of a similar age but different occupations; young professionals moving into Lexington and craving Kentucky family cooking would pack the restaurant in the mornings, while evenings promised a bar with small-town talk, a respite and reminder of home.

The Dame, a locally famous concert location, would coordinate their sets with Buster’s and cater to the Lexingtonians a few years too old for the grunge atmosphere of Buster’s. Club 141, around the corner, was one of the few queer clubs in Lexington at the time. When displaced by the demolition, Buster’s tripled their ticket prices, Mia’s moved and closed within two years, and the Dame moved and closed within one. Club 141 closed after just the early announcements of demolition, with no attempt to reopen.

Enlivened by more than just the coming and going of late-night crowds, the block housed business operations passed from generation to generation, with their signs faded under the summer sun. Joe Rosenberg Jewelers occupied the oldest continuously operated commercial building in Lexington. The Rosenbergs had owned properties on the block since the early 1900s—Joe Rosenberg Pawn Broker, Wolf Rosenberg Sporting Goods, Luis Rosenberg Jeweler, Rosenberg Luggage, Julius and Harry Rosenberg Real Estate. With the promise of CentrePointe, the old Lexington family was happy to leave their property for a significant financial investment in the new project and purchase of a new building across the street.

It’s nice, the man says, to have both horse farms and tall buildings in the same place.

Not all were so pleased. A Rite Aid in the demolished block was the only drugstore in Lexington’s downtown. News articles about the demolition often mention that the dilapidated drugstore had very little parking, and in a city used to free and easy parking, this was a crime. But the drugstore was essential for those bound to where they could only travel by foot—a limited radius of the city experienced by Lexington’s homeless that, after the closing of Rite Aid, would be without close and affordable necessities. With the closure of the block, and the loss of the downtown drug store, a four-story underground parking garage was promised to Lexington’s commuting citizens. The Rite Aid was forgotten.

*

In the spring of 2009 a Los Angeles attorney informed the city of Lexington that the anonymous foreign financial backer of CentrePointe had died the previous fall without a will. The announcement came right after the financial crash and was immediately suspect. The city was whispering. Had the funding even existed to begin with, or was the block torn down for nothing? Dudley Webb, the defiant developer of the site, announced alternative plans for financing the project, but already made enemies in the city council. The value of the land was reassessed and property taxes rose five-fold, and at the city’s request and Webb’s promise, by October of the same year the site was filled with dirt, blanketed with sod, and enclosed by a black four-plank fence.

By 2009, the Webbs were already well-known by the city’s permit office. Three massive concrete buildings with thin glass ribbons for windows mark their territory in the downtown: a Hilton, a Hyatt Regency, and a Central Bank and Trust. All three buildings are from a last holdout of a Brutalist architecture in Lexington. All were constructed in the early 1980s by the Webbs, two brothers who left the coal mining town of Whitesburg, Kentucky, in the early 1970s for the promise of commercial real estate success in Lexington.

In that era of grandiose city planning, the Webbs developed projects profusely with large sums of money secured by shady investors. The 1980s Webb Companies’ projects were some of the last urban renewal projects in the nation, a failed city-planning strategy that was late to come to Lexington and equally late to leave. The concrete buildings are still some of the largest buildings in the downtown, with a network of pedestrian walkways suspended between them, ensuring that those visiting the downtown could go from hotel to convention without having to cross the dirty sidewalks of dilapidated streets.

The Webbs are also responsible for the “Big Blue Crayon,” or the Lexington Financial Center, the unmistakably blue 31-floor glazed high-rise, the tallest building in Kentucky outside of Louisville. The Empire State Building of Lexington, the architecture marks the city’s ground like a pin in a map, not because it is beautiful but because it is impossible to ignore. The building, finished in 1987, is of some undistinguished architectural style (a hexagon in plan, stacked thirty-one times and chiseled at the top), and the audaciousness of the skyscraper is countered by an adjacent low and wide concrete parking garage, in a city where parking seems to be a building’s equal and opposite reaction.

Lexington was the first city in the United States to put a limit on urban growth, a political sign of commitment to the city’s surrounding horse farms. The road now completely circling the city was built in a series of phases in the 1950s and 60s, when Americans were looking for their own white-picket fences and snaking subdivisions on the outskirts of town. The ring road failed as soon as its construction began; instead of closing the city from overdevelopment, the circle opened the outskirts to it. Intersections between New Circle and its spokes became the most popular sites to build, promising suburban space and convenient access to both the downtown and surrounding suburbs. And the Webbs were there, ready to invest in strip malls and suburban monoliths.

CentrePointe would be the first Webb project in the downtown since the Financial Center, begun almost twenty years after, as well as the first project of its scale solely managed by Dudley Webb—a project his older brother Donald would not live to see completed. The Webb Companies have since claimed the slogan “Developing Tomorrow’s Landmarks™”—with a trademark symbol that is yet to be legally paid for and registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office.

*

Once the site was covered with sod, the block began to exist in the city as a strange and uncertain hybrid between public and private space. The two-acre lawn, while in images idyllic, was simultaneously foreboding. “We wanted to dress it up, make it look nice,” said Dudley Webb. “We told the community we wouldn’t leave it an eyesore.” The fence was not only a Kentucky motif, but its closed gates also intended to preserve and protect it from the city. It marked private property, reinforced by the officers who appeared when I tried to hop the fence one beautiful Sunday afternoon. Look, but don’t touch.

The lawn existed like this for most of my undergraduate years, occasionally but reluctantly opening its gates to host the public on the Fourth of July or for downtown festivals. When the World Equestrian Games came to Lexington in 2010, the fence fulfilled its image—some of the demo events were moved into the pen, as if the city itself had been made to represent brochure images of Kentucky. The horses kept within the horse fence for those few days seemed naturally at home. So much so that when I moved to Lexington I remember hearing first that the four-plank fence was only created for the games, that the block was demolished for the games, and that the lawn for years after was part of the vestigial remains that exist in a city after hosting an international event. Through this memory, the horse fence in the downtown became a point of pride—a sign of the city’s international importance, a reminder of Kentucky’s strengths. This narrative began to replace that of the city’s failed development project.

A field in the center of the city did have a certain beauty to it. The grass was dense and plush, inviting us to lie on it. Whenever I’m away from Kentucky I miss the verdancy of the Ohio River Valley, where air thick with water and pollens feeds ecosystems even in the heart of a city. Grass feels so natural that it is hard to remember that Kentucky Bluegrass is actually not native to Kentucky at all. The perennial grass was originally found in Europe and its surrounding regions, first brought to the New World, like horses, by the Spanish. Yet the grass, like thoroughbred racing, has become synonymous with Kentucky. It is impossible to imagine the landscape of Kentucky without its acres of rolling bluegrass and its massive front lawns.

The first horse races in Kentucky happened on grass tracks. The Kentucky Jockey Club was established in 1797 with an influx of horse-racing Virginians into “the Great Meadow,” the grassy landscape that was contested Shawnee, Cherokee, and Chickasaw hunting grounds. The desirable Kentucky land was fought over until the last struggles of the Shawnee tribe in the early 1800s to maintain some portion of their claim, before the Battle of Tippecanoe forced a treaty that entreated the United States to all of Ohio with some reservations, before the same families were forcibly moved to Oklahoma not much more than a decade later. Later, the North American prairie grass indigenous to Oklahoma would be called Indiangrass and heralded as the state grass in a state that now claims to be home to thirty-nine Native American tribes, only five of which are indigenous to the area. Kentucky Bluegrass would be claimed by the horse industry, labeled as the magical ingredient that made Southern horses so strong.

A field in the center of the city did have a certain beauty to it. The grass was dense and plush, inviting us to lie on it.

In 1832, as the Shawnee Indians were crossing the country, “Chitlin’ Switch” opened in Lexington, the remodeled track of the Kentucky Association—and the second “skinned” dirt track in the country. The first was Union Course in what is now Queens, New York, when New York was the heart of early 19th-century American horse racing. Even before the Civil War, tensions between the Northern and Southern United States were high in horse racing. The earliest sporting event to make headlines across the new nation was a horse race on Union Course, where Eclipse, the fastest horse in the North, would race against Henry, the champion of South. Congress shut down for the day, Andrew Jackson suspended his presidential campaign to attend, and the New York Stock Exchange closed. In the final heat, Eclipse took an early lead, and then slowed with exhaustion. Henry passed to the front, but in the last few moments of the race, as crowds were roaring from the sidelines, Henry faltered, missed a step, kicked up the dirt, and Eclipse pulled ahead with 30 yards to the finish. The North claimed two victories: not just the fastest horse, but also the premier place to race.

*

Kentucky was a border state during the Civil War, and is now still a place where stories are passed from generation to generation of brothers fighting against brothers, of neighbors once friendly no longer acknowledging the other. Cheapside, a thin strip of land off Main Street and bordering the old courthouse, hosted one of the largest slave markets in the South. Crowds would overwhelm the side streets next to the courthouse to purchase “fancy girls,” mixed-race young women brought from the North to be sold as sex slaves below the Ohio River. The market was disreputable and repudiated by the locals. In 1833 the Kentucky General Assembly passed a ban on the importation of slaves into the state for the sole purpose of selling them, but the law did little to hamper the booming business in Lexington’s downtown. It is even rumored that Abraham Lincoln may have been at a Cheapside auction when his father-in-law, Robert Todd, purchased five slaves at the market.

Historians generally agree that Kentucky’s allegiances shifted sometime during or after the Civil War, that an initially Union-leaning state identified more strongly with the Confederacy after the loss of the war. There are many suggestions for this shift in identity. Generations have claimed Kentuckians realized the independence they had given up to the control of the national government, but some now argue Kentuckians did not initially realize how integral the slave trade was to the state’s economy, which was ravaged by the war; homes were torn apart and expenses were insurmountable.

Maryjean Wall, the author of How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders, proposed an alternate explanation for Lexington’s post-war switch. After the Civil War, the Kentucky horse industry began trying to secure outside investment in the region, but was struggling with its reputation for lawlessness. Northeastern horse farms were wealthier than their Southern counterparts even before the war, as much of the capital from the earlier industrial revolution had been concentrated in New York and other factory cities. Kentucky now found itself needing new investment and, relatedly, a new reputation, and becoming Southern was the answer to both.

Immediately after emancipation, Lexington was home to some of the most famous black sports figures. Isaac Murphey, born in 1861, was one of the greatest jockeys in American history; he won three Kentucky Derbies and claimed a 44 percent victory rate, a number that will likely never be surpassed. He lived in a Lexington mansion, allegedly with a lifestyle as lavish as any of the city’s white citizens. The successes of Murphey and others began to draw interests from other states, but Kentucky still held a reputation for violence. When August Belmont, the racehorse breeder and namesake of the third leg of the Triple Crown, moved his equine operations from New Jersey to Lexington, his manager reportedly arrived in the city fully armed.

Historians generally agree that Kentucky’s allegiances shifted sometime during or after the Civil War.

Despite fast horses and strong athletes, Kentucky only began to claim a place in national horseracing when reformers of the early 20th century pushed legislatures in the Northeast to shut down racing facilities with claims about morality, and most notably succeeded in New York. Some Northeastern farms moved to Kentucky as Lexington gradually assumed a Southern, genteel plantation mythos. Black jockeys in the business faded from the spotlight as the business began to boom. (In 1896, Isaac Murphey died of a heart failure and was buried in Lexington in an unmarked grave.) Kentucky embraced its identity as a “Southern” counterpoint to the shut-down Northern horse powers. Capitalists from all over the nation began investing in farms and thoroughbreds in the state. Outside investments soared. The South was horse country, and Lexington was the capital.

*

Lexington’s city limits can be defined solely by its politics; the city is one of three small blue islands in the middle of a red state—the liberal refuge a college town often provides. The demographic is younger, as students move from rural Kentucky into the small city and stay, committed to the state but often unwilling to return to their more conservative hometowns. The greater metropolitan area of Lexington now claims approximately half a million residents, nearly three quarters of which are white.

Once, while still an undergraduate student at University of Kentucky, I ended up driving through Lexington’s downtown with Nader Tehrani, principal of NADAAA, an international office known for projects in New York, Seoul, Boston, Melbourne, and Los Angeles. He had come to Lexington to give the keynote lecture for a conference, and the responsibility of driving him from the airport to the university campus was making my hands sweat. I was standing in the airport lobby with a close friend, waiting for at least a half hour before his plane’s arrival. I had his cell phone number from his secretary, a strange and uncertain privilege.

“I’m at an escalator, but I am not sure which one,” he said, his voice strained and flattened by the cell receiver.

“There’s only one.”

We drove through downtown Lexington with Tehrani in the back of the car, first following Vine Street, Tehrani on the phone, clearly upset about the execution of some project at his office back in Boston. He asked before we got in the car if we could drive through the city’s downtown before going to campus—not a surprising request from an architect. Of course, I acquiesced, but with reservation. We passed under the skywalks of the 1980s concrete buildings, weathered but strong, outdated but cared for. We drove by the Big Blue Crayon, which felt like more of an architectural embarrassment than ever with Tehrani in the car. Then, emerging from behind the Big Blue Crayon, drawing attention completely away from the smaller establishments, was the CentrePointe block.

By that time the land was no longer the grassy field, but an uncertain development—quite literally a hole in the center of the city, dug four stories deep and lined with concrete highway barriers. Two massive cranes rose from the hole, a bit off-center as if to suggest use and progress, but in the same position, month after month, year after year.

Lexington’s city limits can be defined solely by its politics; the city is one of three small blue islands in the middle of a red state.

Tehrani was still absorbed in his conversation as we passed by the looming construction site, as we passed by the old buildings on the adjacent blocks reminiscent of the old night clubs, music venues, and small proprietorships, as we drove under the shadows of the newer developments—past the Big Blue Crayon, past the concrete developments of the Webbs. We got to the end of the street, where it turns to the curved roads of the suburbs, when he hung up the phone.

“Wait, where is the downtown? Did I miss it?”

We turn around to go back up Main Street.

*

After Jim Gray became mayor in 2011, the CentrePointe project was reenergized. Lexington wanted an architectural icon for the city, recognizable not just for its scale (the project was always intended to tower over its surroundings), but also by a brand-name architect who might bring some international prominence to the city. The director at the University of Kentucky’s School of Architecture introduced the new mayor to Jeanne Gang, principal of a promising young architecture firm in Chicago. Studio Gang was a young but ambitions firm. The office had just finished their first project of a similar scale, the Aqua Tower in Chicago. The new architects brought with them the promise of revitalizing the stalled project and addressing the community’s concerns about the initial, unflattering, proposal.

Studio Gang’s proposal, like most done by famous architecture offices, ignored many of the initial stipulations for the project. This might make its failure seem inevitable, but the final design instead persuaded the city council of the merits of the development. The proposal began with the simple concept of breaking apart what was intended to be a giant building that filled the block into a complex of structures that, while connected on the first floor and conceptualized as one project, might read as a well-composed set of smaller buildings that could relate more to the variation and scale of the existing Lexington context. The block divided the proposed program with a mix of residential and hotel rooms in a building resembling bundled straws on one corner, and a faceted tower on the opposite corner to be filled with offices.

In between these structures, five local firms would create smaller residential and retail buildings constrained only by height and the master ground plan. The ground floor of the building would be a mix of indoor and outdoor spaces, all publicly accessible. Local restaurants and shops would be scattered around the perimeter of a shared park, inviting both those who live in the complex and those who do not into the very heart of the square. While rent in the square would undoubtedly be exponentially higher than the block that once held Buster’s and Mia’s and the Rite Aid, the project as it was presented did promise a mixing of people—potentially with spaces specifically suited for small businesses like jewelers and hatters, and programming dependent on the local architects involved in the project. Walking around the block would be inviting, the streets lined by a series of small and differentiated storefronts broken up with greenery and the gentle undulations of facades.

“Wait, where is the downtown? Did I miss it?”

Only two months after Studio Gang presented the plan for CentrePointe, Jeanne Gang was named a MacArthur Fellow. The news made local headlines: “CenterPointe architect wins $500,000 MacArthur ‘genius’ grant.” The project gained importance, too. To those not already familiar with the young Chicago architecture firm, the grant declared the promise of the proposal. It provided external validation and assurance that the Jeanne Gang’s CentrePointe would become the icon the city desired. Like the remnants of the World Equestrian Games, it suggested status and international importance. Gang’s commitment to integrating her work into the city pleased the planners involved in the project, and her promise of commissions for local firms excited those that might otherwise be offended by an eternal talent search.

One month after Jeanne Gang was named a MacArthur Fellow, she was fired from the project. The reason was unclear. Some say the proposal was too expensive and required specialized labor Lexington could not support. Others claim the Webbs had never seriously considered the proposal at all—that it was merely a means of convincing the city to approve speculative development on the site. And still others believe that it was Jeanne Gang herself who ended the contract when tensions became unbearable between the reserved, liberal architect and the boisterous, conservative Dudley Webb.

Tehrani was not surprised by this turn of events I recounted. When I drove by the construction with him, the project seemed to have no aspirations beyond its existence as a four-story-deep square hole. Construction had begun on a project that was not Jeanne Gang’s—a project that no one, at that moment, was claiming. Since the architect’s dismissal, proposals had come and gone. A forced agreement between Webb and the city made soon after Studio Gang’s dismissal required that the site be filled if the promised three-story underground parking lot was not built, so for four years slow progress was made on hollowing the ground of the site for cars with no plan or financing for what would be built above it. (When the rain would come in the spring, before the site was paved and drained, the mud would ooze into the streets and flood the left-turn lanes. Closed sidewalks made walking around downtown uncomfortable, and traffic barriers compressed street lanes and closed street parking.) The hole in the city suggested an architecture that sunk away from its aspirations—from its obligations—to represent the city.

*

Just a few meters from the open pit, tucked under the road in a tunnel of concrete, a small creek runs parallel to the thick open walls of limestone that define the CentrePointe hole. The running water, now hidden from view, is the very reason the city grid of the downtown is organized almost 45 degrees off from the typical north-south. Lexington was founded as a settlement on an offshoot of Elkhorn Creek. The town formed when Main Street was laid parallel to what would be called, from then on, Town Branch.

The creek regularly flooded the town, which was built on the flood plain between two natural dams. In 1790 a canal was dug to prevent the frequent destruction, and the street running alongside it was named Water Street, a name that would later be mostly subsumed in an expansion of Vine Street—which still marks the heart of downtown. The canal was soon brimming with city run-off and downtown sewage. When rainstorms would end a summertime dry spell, the city would flood with a mix of refuse and mud, and the canal would fill with silt that had to be dug out once again.

By the late 1800s Lexington had found what seemed to be a solution to the problem—cover it up. Structures were built over the canal to hide it from view, resting just above the typical flood heights. In 1890 conversations were begun about construction of an arched brick sewer under Vine Street, but only almost a decade later, once criminal charges were made against the city for negligence, did slow progress on the burial of the morbid creek began.

Lexington was built on limestone, a uniquely porous rock that makes Kentucky’s geology particularly interesting to field experts. (Just two hours southwest of Lexington, near Bowling Green, Kentucky, is the longest known cave system in the world.) The success of Kentucky’s race horses is often attributed to the mixture of limestone and bluegrass. The soil is rich with calcium and minerals that the horses need. A similar claim is made for Kentucky Bourbon—it is better because the water is filtered through Kentucky limestone, because the wooden barrels are made from strong Kentucky trees.

But this natural phenomenon has a grim history. In 1833, a cholera epidemic wiped out nearly ten percent of the Lexington population. In 1849, a second epidemic (this time, part of a larger national pandemic) conquered the young city, claiming the life of Robert Todd, who was running for the Kentucky Senate at the time. (The same pandemic swept the Mississippi River system and is responsible for the death of former president James K. Polk.) The disease spread to unknowing victims through both food and water. The Town Branch was the likely contaminated source, carrying the bacteria through the downtown. Worse, Lexington’s limestone helped spread the disease beyond the typical bed of the creek system. The contaminants traveled through the porous stone and spread into the city’s wells, devastating the town built on karst land.

During his first term (and his prior work as vice mayor) Gray had been an early advocate for a city park that would follow the path of Town Branch, returning greenery to Lexington’s bare downtown. By the end of his first term, he found an architect for the project by hosting an international competition—five invited landscape architects submitted proposals to a jury of five of the most influential design voices in the city. The project made headlines before a winner was even selected. Kate Orff, whose New York office Scape/Landscape Architecture was still young and relatively unknown, was selected based on a proposal that used processes already natural to the karst landscape below to move the historic creek not just through a straight channel in the ground, but in more natural tumbles and toils of above and below ground passages.

Just six years after Jeanne Gang, Kate Orff won the MacArthur Genius Grant, and Lexington celebrated. The award was all over the news, on the heels of Lexington’s successful application for a grant from the US Department of Transportation to make the proposed Town Branch Commons a reality. With six months left on his second term as mayor, Jim Gray stuck a ceremonial shovel in the ground, where the project would begin with the upgrading of an old buried sewer system.

*

In 2019, as I walk down Lexington’s Main Street, imaging the creek flowing just below the concrete sidewalks, pretending that the sky mirrored on windows is in fact the water below, I see Joe Rosenberg’s name, in cursive neon, on the interior of a window façade. That name has become familiar to me—it fills the library’s directories of the CentrePointe block’s old establishments. The Rosenberg jewelry store has since moved one block down and on the other side of the street, in a building that has the year it was erected—1990—embossed in concrete on the top of the façade. The interior of the store is decorated with an old sign from the Rosenberg business, a painting of a Kentucky thoroughbred, and several large paper advertisements that seem to be fading, even though I know that they are new.

I happened upon Joe Rosenberg’s store with time to spare. No other customers were in there, and the two staff members behind the counter were reclining in their chairs. They greeted me and asked what I was looking for, and I asked about the Rosenbergs. The smaller of the two men pulled a thin binder from below the table, filled with some old laminated pages about the history of the old Lexington operation. The taller remarked, “The boss is just in the back. Would you like for me to get him?”

Joe Rosenberg wears a tie, no jacket, keeps constant eye contact, and asks me who I am. When I thought I would be asking questions I found myself answering them: What do I do? Where do I go to school? Am I from Lexington? Why am I interested in Lexington? Who am I writing for? I tell him I was just at the Lexington Public Library across the street, looking through old city directories to see what was once on the CentrePointe block. I tell him I am interested in how Lexington is constantly shirking from its responsibilities as a metropolis, reluctant to choose a vision, struggling to maintain a rural identity. He smiles at this.

He leads me back to his office where he explains his hesitancy to speak. He feels the city has turned against him. He contends that the Lexington Herald-Leader got the story wrong—the media had it out for him—they were garnering support for the underdogs but missed the larger picture.

He says he found himself slowly collecting other buildings, as unmaintained buildings were too costly to renovate and sold off by their owners. He was friends with the Webbs, and when they proposed collaborating on a project for the block, he was interested. He is proud of running a downtown business, and when he talks about the initial plans for the project—to bring something big to downtown again, a building that would bring more people from the suburbs to the city center—his voice becomes more animated. But beneath his excitement, I sense some reluctance. Not everything has gone as planned.

There was criticism. The consolidation of the properties was suspicious. The Webbs had purchased some and the Rosenbergs others, and the intention to raze the block was only announced once the last properties had been purchased. The facades along Main Street were historic, but they had not been registered—and the buildings behind them required significant work and investment to meet contemporary codes. The facades themselves could have been saved, but conversations started too late and the excavators were already sent. Plus, there were already grander ambitions for a project that would be Lexington’s tallest building.

Rosenberg asks me if I like the design of CentrePointe—he knows I am studying architecture—and I tell him, “Honestly, I don’t.” The early designs were out of scale and imposing. Jeanne Gang’s proposal was sensitive and attractive, but still too ambitious. The current proposal was manageable, but nothing special; neither good nor bad. But, I admit, I’m particular. He smiles. He’s excited for the project and praises how Jeanne Gang’s influence made it the wonderful design it now could be. Breaking down the proposal from one building into many would make the downtown more interesting and livelier. Outdoor patios would draw people from the street. Trees would line the sidewalks.

Joe Rosenberg Jewelers has been downtown since 1896, he tells me again. If he owns a downtown business, why would he want to sabotage the city? He wants it to grow. He wants to bring more people into the heart of Lexington. A framed poster behind his desk shows the first, towering plans for CentrePointe. Below it is the quote Rosenberg uses as his email signature: “Happiness is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.”

*

Ten years after the demolition of the CentrePointe block, construction above ground has begun again. Successive ribbon cuttings are held to celebrate the openings of Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse, Starbucks, and a store operated by Keeneland, the closest horse-racing track to the downtown. The Marriott, Lexington’s newest hotel, is expected to open sometime this month. The complex was renamed City Center, some claim because Marriott preferred the title; others insist it was because the name CentrePointe was associated with too much bad blood.

The buildings on the block are already absorbing the life of the city. They are lit up for special occasions. Their tenants host birthday parties and tour groups, daily workers and the interested passer-by. People smile and nod as they open doors for one another—one of my favorite charms of the South. Yet, the impeccably laid sidewalks still feel like a surface covering something below, some character of the city hidden away from the shining images of a new downtown complex. A city whose histories, faults, and oversights reminds us of the responsibility it has to all of its people. A city whose hole in its center was a more honest representation of what it had endured and become. A city that remains more incomplete than not. For now, though, a completed skyline will suffice.

Sarah Wagner
Sarah Wagner
Sarah Wagner is currently a Masters of Architecture candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She graduated in 2016 from the University of Kentucky’s College of Design with majors in both architecture and English literature.





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