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How a Kentucky Town Saved Its Last, Best Midcentury Building

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Six years ago, Lucy Jones had just returned to her hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. As she reacquainted herself with a city she hadn't lived in since childhood, she saw a rather peculiar building while driving down the city's main drag. It was a sliver of a vivid turquoise structure with an emotive zigzagging white roof peeking from between a hulking condominium and parking garage. Before that, she had never even noticed it. Set back from the road, The Peoples Bank is an apparition of streamlined modernism plopped into the middle of a busy Kentucky thoroughfare. Within the hour, Lucy Jones had called the building's owner and requested a private tour.

When the bank first debuted, with its generously high ceilings and terrazzo floors, it caused quite a stir. In fact, there had never been anything like it. Other than a few dreary shopping malls on the edges of town, Lexington has a paltry number of midcentury modern buildings. According to Lucy Jones, their numbers are dwindling. "There were few truly audacious examples of midcentury modern commercial architecture in Lexington to begin with and most of them have been destroyed in the name of progress." She continues, "The fact that The Peoples Bank has remained intact and was never subject to renovation is nothing short of a miracle." Built in 1962, The Peoples Bank is the work of architect Charles Bayless.

A graduate of Carnegie Mellon, Bayless is thought to be the first architect to introduce a pre-cast folded-plate roofing system to Lexington, Kentucky. With a zigzag silhouette and floor-to-ceiling glass walls, "The Peoples Bank isn't only one of the last remaining modernist buildings, it's one of the finest."

When Lucy Jones arrived, she realized that she wasn't the first to try to lease the beleaguered monument. In fact, just about half of Lexington had been intrigued by the peculiar blue building and had called the owners with the intent of renting it. Lucy was informed that they had all been given the same answer: "Yes, you can rent it; Yes, the asbestos would cost $100,000 to remove." Unable to pay for the asbestos removal on her own, Lucy moved on.

It wasn't until a few years later that Lucy Jones received a text message from a friend, "Why is there demo equipment outside the blue bank building?" Of course, the text was a reference to The People's Bank. Just a few days prior, demolition equipment had decamped to the parking lot of The People's Bank, brandishing a permit. It was then that Lucy called David O'Neill, Lexington's Property Valuation Administer, to ask for help. According to David, "It won't be easy to save, but it's possible." In this case, possible meant the nearly impossible.

Saving the building would require relocating it completely, which would cost upwards of $800,000. Undaunted, Lucy was informed that they needed to prove community interest in order to stave off the demolition. That's when they were confronted with a Herculean task: "By the end of the weekend, we needed to raise a prospective $150,000 and secure a meeting with Lexington's Mayor, architectural enthusiast Jim Gray."

By Lucy's own account, she began "frantically calling everyone who had ever expressed interest in the bank." It was during that calling spree that Laurel Catto had the idea that, in retrospective, probably saved The Peoples Bank. "She wanted to turn it into a nonprofit space." Lucy continues, "Laurel Catto recognized that our preservation efforts aligned perfectly with the mission of The Warwick Foundation. Their organization had been seeking a presence in Lexington and the building was a perfect fit. They offered $300,000 in foundation money to relocate the building and build it toward its future use as a community and cultural center. Not only would this midcentury gem be saved, but it would have an important second life in service to the city." But there was one caveat: Lexington, Kentucky had to match their donation.

It was at that moment that something truly rare and special happened. Friends and family posted harried pleas to their Facebook pages, artists donated their work, and volunteers set up tours. Their efforts seemed to snowball. Finally, with seven hours left to go before their midnight deadline, they raised the final $9,000 to save the bank.

When asked why she did it, Lucy Jones explains that it wasn't really a choice. "I couldn't imagine returning home and seeing an empty lot where the building used to be." She continues, "Fortunately, there was an entire community of people who felt the same way." So, while preservationists mourn Robin Hood Gardens and Paul Rudolph's inimitable Orange County Government Center, it's important to remember that in Lexington, Kentucky, friends and family raised $250,000 to save their last, best modernist building.


· Midcentury Modern Building in Lexington, Kentucky Faces Looming Demolition [Dwell]