I awoke on Friday morning to an ear-piercing noise and my daughters running into my room excited because the house across the street was finally being torn down to make way for a proposed condominium complex at the corner of Kentucky Avenue and East Main Street. Though I am a big supporter of downtown infill, this redevelopment project had the grand Victorian home at 518 East Main in its path; a house that should have been protected by a historic overlay. Built at the turn of the 20th century, this house had the original slate roof and a classic architectural style shared with the house next door and the house I live in. And so closes the book on another historic home in Lexington being sacrificed to make way for a needless, tasteless concrete altar to a developer who has figured how to take advantage of the porous historic preservation system.
In this case, Bill Justice of Justice Real Estate is the unapologetic culprit. Justice owns the Victorian home adjacent to 518 East Main and, as often is the case, has allowed the victimized property to erode through neglect. He and a local architect planned to erect a bunker-style building reminiscent of the downtown Chase Building or World Trade Center and initially had planned for the structure to be luxury condos with Justice and the architect each living in one of the units. However, with the downturn in the economy, the deal fell through. Nevertheless, according to an August 17th Lexington Herald-Leader story, Justice chose to tear the house down to “clear the lot” and draw interest to the corner.
The tragedy of this situation is two-fold. First, this house was intentionally left out of the Aylesford Historic District because Justice fought tooth and nail for any of his properties to be included. So, despite all the other houses in the Aylesford area and across the street in Bell Court being included, Justice’s properties were omitted from the overlay that ultimately paved the way for him to destroy a 112 year old house. Second, as has been the case in our beautiful city for decades, developers are still allowed to unilaterally make decisions about historic properties because there is no protective overlay in place throughout much of downtown. As a result, instead of Main and Vine Streets lined with pedestrian-friendly historic buildings more like the Kentucky Theater and Victorian Square, we largely speed by non-interactive buildings that will never contribute much of anything to our city outside the hours of 9-5.
Lexington has made amazing strides over the last ten years with the re-use and redevelopment of existing older and historic buildings, such as the Cheapside entertainment district and the erection of new developments on open lots, such as the Main and Rose mixed use project. Though as a city we can only look forward, learning from the mistakes and lack of regard of irresponsible developers will allow us to protect those buildings that give our city its true character.
Edited 8/20 12:00pm to clarify the omission from the overlay.