The question of historic value always enters into the discussion when a building is threatened. This raises the question: What is the difference between an old building and a historic building?
This question was posed in a State Journal editorial concerning the fate of the old YMCA building in downtown Frankfort. It was stated, “There are those who claim all should be done to save the property because it is historic. But we think it is called the Old Y for a reason – having been built in the 1910s, it is old, which in and of itself, doesn’t mean it is historic.”
The reference standard for determining “historic” is being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which was established in 1966. Even then, the Old Y was still in original use and given its architectural style and age, would have met the criteria for listing. It wasn’t until 1979 that the Old Y achieved this distinction, when it was listed as a contributor to the Frankfort Commercial Historic District along with much of downtown and the 19th century buildings across Bridge Street.
But that was then, and this is now. The building has been vacant for some time, and it has fallen into disrepair. Does it still qualify as “historic?”
The Old YMCA building is more than 100 years old. This does not necessarily make it historic; however architectural historians consider that any building over 50 years of age may be considered historic if it meets additional criteria of significance and integrity. This building does.
Someone significant to the history of Frankfort designed the Old YMCA. This is part of the additional criteria used to determine whether a building has historic significance. The work of Frankfort architect Leo Oberwarth, as well as that of his son, Julian, is important to our community and is much of what makes our city special and unique.
In addition to the Old Y, their names are associated with the First Baptist Church, many of the buildings at Buffalo Trace Distillery (a National Historic Landmark), buildings at Kentucky State University, the Capitol Hotel (now Whitaker Bank), Second Street School and even the Frankfort Municipal Building. Leo Oberwarth was a personal friend of Paul Sawyier, another person of historic significance to our community. One could argue that they both provided us with the “sense of place” that we call home.
The Old Y has architectural integrity. Despite decades of neglect, much of its original architectural character remains. Its Beaux Arts design is evident and someone with training would be able to look at this building and tell you the approximate construction date (1910). That means it provides an opportunity to teach us something about our past, and it should be considered a cultural resource. This is yet another reason it meets the definition of a “historic” structure.
The front portion of the structure is solidly intact with interior features of arches, molding, trim and re-lights that were visible to the public as recently as the “Designer Showcase” in 2011. For the temporary use application permitting that event, structural assessments were done and validated by licensed engineers. The gymnasium space and third floor guest rooms to the rear are not stable for access, as they have experienced the most deterioration due to a failure of the roof deck. But the masonry walls remain intact, which is a testament to the quality of the original construction.
The Old Y, with two other public facilities — the Governor’s Mansion and the downtown train depot — were part of a capital construction campaign spurred by the building of the new Capitol. These public facilities have defined and served our community for generations. Many still recall utilizing the Old YMCA before its replacement by a modern, new Y developed as a part of the Edward Durell Stone Capital Plaza development.
While unfortunate that the floodwall was placed where it was, it allows the building, which has already withstood seven significant floods, to continue to offer the rare amenity of a waterside terrace and a riverside landing area with a stairway to communicate up the steep bank. And it is a privilege of the historic structure to be able to place these amenities back in service, as new construction would not be allowed within the flood plain. This offers another important opportunity for the downtown commercial district to connect the riverfront.
The Franklin County Trust for Historic Preservation would like to see action for the preservation, rather than the demolition, of this significant historic structure. It will take considerable investment and will need the support of public officials and the public in general to encourage this type of investment. Whether achieved by current developers or others, the building still has the potential to again become a unique Frankfort amenity.
Eric Whisman is president of the Franklin County Trust for Historic Preservation.