Lexington, KY: Something Old, Something New

Lexington, while building a new city center has plenty to see from the past

Lexington, Kentucky is a city on the move. In 2010 it installed a new mayor and the city has taken care to shake up the status quo. He has invited the owners of the 21c Museum Hotel, headquartered in Louisville, to open a branch in Lexington and plans have just been completed to purchase a building designed 100 years ago by McKim, Meade and White to be converted into the new hotel.

McKim, Mead and White was the principal architectural firm of its day and the building was the pride of Lexington for many years. Now it will become a museum cum hotel cum museum. The process should take about two years and create a special kind of excitement in downtown Lexington. The original 21c in Louisville was named the number one hotel in the US by Conde’ Nast Traveler for two years running. The hotel will bring a new luster to this middle western city

Plans are also afoot to give the center of the city a new architectural look. The Rupp Arena, a near sacred site, home to the University of Kentucky’s Basketball games, will be given a new shell. An architect, who is a stylistic adherent of Rem Koolhaus, contemporary European master, will design a new exterior for the building . The whole district is now called the Arts and Entertainment District. All of this is the work of Jim Gray, Lexington’s newly inaugurated mayor.

Gray, who says that he takes his inspiration from the Medicis of Florence is urgently planning in his office in downtown Lexington. The Medici family, who virtually ran Florence in the height of the Renaissance, were patrons to Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michaelangelo. They governed at a time of high art.

But this story is not only about the future, which looks bright, but also about the past. Lexington is home to two wonderful historic homes. Henry Clay, a nineteenth century legislator, member of Congress, and Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham, were both from Lexington. Their homes are there and can be seen while visiting the city.

Clay, who had a home in the city center until 1809, also had a stately home, Ashland, located just outside the city center of Lexington. It was a farm which grew hemp, livestock and grains. At its largest the estate encompassed 600 acres. Clay died there in 1852 and the estate was sold to Clay’s son, James Brown Clay who completely rebuilt it. Today the house contains many of Henry Clay’s furnishings and awards and is a real beauty, well worth a visit.

At the other end of town is the home of Mary Todd Lincoln. Mary was born in Lexington and grew up in this house. This is the only historic property in America which is devoted entirely to a first lady.

The house contains period furniture, portraits and items from the Todds and the Lincolns. It is obvious that her social position in Lexington was much superior to her husband, who was raised in a log cabin.

Lincoln had just two years of formal education, while Mary had twelve. She spoke French and had grown up in a house with servants who attended to her every need. When Lincoln met Mary their first exchange is recorded.

Lincoln said, “Miss Todd, I want to dance with you in the worst way.”

Mary is said to have told a friend,”And so he did.”

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