(EDITOR’S NOTE: As this article went to press, the historic former Fayette County Courthouse – home of The Lexington History Museum – is closed and inaccessible to the public.)
The year was 1900. The world was literally electric with the International Exposition in Paris, France. Soon, that city would gain the moniker “City of Lights” for its exuberant display of electricity.
Closer to home, Lexington – a longtime aspirant to the great cities of the world (the downtown street plan emulates Philadelphia, Cheapside is named for the London, England, marketplace) – displayed its own electric exuberance in the form of its brand new County Courthouse. The city’s nighttime sky was alit with the glow of 128 bulbs in the building’s dome. Visitors entering the building were bathed in the glow of another 128 bulbs, 16 set into each of the eight risers in the interior front steps of the Main Street entrance.
The building itself was an architectural wonder. Designed in the Richardson Romanesque style by the Cleveland, Ohio, firm of Lehman and Schmitt, the dome presented a design challenge because it is, in fact, a cube surmounted by a half-sphere. Think placing a circle over a square and you may appreciate what was involved in its construction.
The interior of the building, and the dome itself, boasted features replicating a 14th-century Tibetan palace. This, mind you, smack dab in the middle of a small sleepy Southern town.
Entering the ground floor from the Short Street side, a visitor would look up some 112 feet to the dome. As originally constructed, the courthouse featured an open “steamship” staircase (think “Titanic”) that provided an unobstructed view of the dome.
Whether visitors appreciated the Tibetan design, those who took a closer look at the dome features (even standing on the then-top third floor, the underside of the dome was another 82 feet up) would see the replication of a palace courtyard, with two balconies spanning across the windows on each of the four sides of the cube. Above the balconies spread the dome and its 128 bulbs, replicating a night sky lit with stars.