A working downtown

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Not long ago, it was hard to imagine the Franklin County Judicial Center arising from the mudhole around the 1835 courthouse designed by Gideon Shryock. Things have since progressed to the point that the Project Development Board in charge of overseeing the job was invited Monday to tour the framed-in office space in the $30 million complex that could open for business a little more than a year from now. Merchants who bank on trade from downtown workers will be overjoyed to welcome back the courthouse staff that’s been laboring in temporary suburban offices.
The local judicial center is one of 70 such projects undertaken statewide since 1998 by the Administrative Office of the Courts. While some of these buildings are new, free-standing structures that replace older ones, Frankfort’s creatively integrates the historic courthouse into the new complex as both a design element and a functional unit.
It could have been different, and nearly was. Although the board reached early consensus that the judicial center should remain downtown, the exact location was the topic of extended debate. One option would have put a new building where the Farmers Market is now, alongside the Kentucky River across Wilkinson Boulevard from the Capital Plaza complex. Others had their eyes on the John C. Watts Federal Building on Broadway, considering by many to be the perfect site, but excessive red tape ruled it out. At one point, the board made the old Model Laundry property its top priority.  Most people probably didn’t even know there had been a laundry on the back streets behind the Old Capitol, and the out-of-the-way location eventually led the committee to look for a better choice.
The answer eventually became obvious: keep the original not just as old building in search of new life but as a working courthouse, flanked by a modern addition equipped with the technological advances a 21st century justice system requires. When the judicial center begins operation, the old courthouse will be the front door and remain a continuing part of everyday business downtown.
There have been a few complications. When annexes to the nineteenth century courthouse had to be stripped away to prepare the site for the new addition, it cost $331,265 to shore up the old foundation. Surprises are inevitable when working with aged architecture. The development board also plans to refurbish the courthouse clock tower, one of the most prominent features of the city skyline.
The whole central business district should take inspiration from what’s happening. Progressive property owners formerly tried to “modernize” their deteriorating facades in an effort to emulate new competitors springing up in the suburbs. Now they see antiquity as something to showcase, not cover up.
Downtown must combine old and new. Visitors like the historic ambience, to  be sure, but they also expect commercial enterprises to keep up with the times. Just as the judicial center blends an old courthouse with a modern office complex,  the business district should recruit purveyors of the essential products and services customers want – and used to find right in the center of town.  Downtown Frankfort would benefit from filling some of these voids when the courthouse workers return.

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