July 13, 2014

How it used to be in Lexington

I am in a nostalgic mood today after watching a show on KET (Kentucky Educational Television for you out of state readers) showing Lexington in the 1940s.

The video featurs several older Lexington residents  who are telling of their memories of Lexington in the 1940s. It is so interesting...and reflected what seemed to be an easier and innocent time, though it was war time during some of those years. We tend to think that life was easier back in older times...but I am sure the stresses were there, but different.

photo sources...google images
History of Lexington...archive

My daughter who lives in Lexington and is interested in history will talk with me sometimes about Lexington during my days. Being a baby boomer, as well as a Transylvania University graduate I am familiar with downtown Lexington from the fifties, sixties, and seventies.

Lexington was once called the "Athens of the West." At one point in history the Lexington area of Kentucky was about as far west as our country had developed, except for Louisville. I do not have all of the historical dates for when Lexington began as a small settlement...but maybe in a future post I will give you more details. Statehood was granted in 1782...and before that we were Kentucky county in Virginia. My point is that Lexington has always been a business, cultural, and intellectual center since before statehood. I have a branch of my family (Ellis) that was in the Lexington  and central KY areas as surveyors and religious leaders in those early years. The surveyors were paid in land, which gave them thousands of acres as their own. I have checked the land records and am amazed that the Ellis family owned so many acres of central Ky. (If only we still had some of that pristine land! ha) So, for many reasons I feel a strong attachment to Lexington, and the Transylvania campus.

As a youngster I remember going downtown with my mother and grandmother for shoes.  Wennekers, a nice shoe store on Main St. was always on the agenda. During those days one "dressed" to go downtown to shop. I remember thinking how much I loved Lexington. And I still love Lexington.

I can remember eating with my family at the Phoenix Hotel one time and  that the hotel was the first place I ever saw ladies rooms where you had to put a dime in the door latch in order to use the water closet. I was just a kid and did not understand. There were also attendants to had you towels to dry your hands too. It was the fanciest place I had ever been as a youngster. ha!

Old Morrison on Transylvania's Campus. (just north of Gratz Park)

While I was in college in the early seventies one could still shop downtown, though some areas were beginning to loose customers to the mall stores. We had Turfland Mall during college...but who had money to shop? We were college kids. Fayette Mall was built while I was in college...and before I graduated. A few of the downtown stores established mall stores. This was the beginning of the decline of Main Street.

When I walked down Broadway to Main Street the shops that are now part of Victorian Sq had boarded up windows. There was nothing pretty about the area. Sometimes I would walk down to Main Street by cutting through Gratz Park.
But...downtown was not as bustling and formal as it used to be.

I remember going to Stewart's Department Store and Wolf Wiles as well as WoolWorths five and dime during my college years. Wennekers shoes was still on main street, and my mother and I would still shop for our shoes there...as it was about the only place in the state where we could find shoes for our size four feet. In fact, the last thing I purchased from my checking account  before graduation was a pair of black patent pumps (from Wennekers) to go with my black robe for college graduation. My checking balance was down to about fifteen dollars after the shoe purchase and I got married a week after graduation and my name changed. I guess I got that fifteen dollars out of the bank sometime.

The ket show discusses the buildings and shops on Lexington's Main street, many of which I remember and shopped in. Wolf Wiles. Wennekers Shoes.

Wolf Wiles Department Store

Purcell’s Department Store (circa 1905) was located on what was one of the
most historic blocks in Lexington. This was the site of the 1779 stockade, the first Market House (1791), and the first State House. Purcell’s Department Store
was one of the largest and finest department stores in the city’s business
Snapshots of Lexington's Past

The site of the Phoenix Hotel was used continuously as a hotel since 1797. It was the oldest surviving hotel in Kentucky, and probably west of the Alleghenies.
The Phoenix Hotel got its name after recovering from a fire in 1820. Guests of the hotel included at least six U.S. presidents, theatre and movie stars, and innumerable historical figures. This structure was integral to the social atmosphere in Lexington.

The Ben Ali Theatre opened in 1913 and was known as “the most up-to-date theatre in the south.” Built by Berryman Realty Company, the interior was designed by Tiffany Studios of New York City. The theatre was demolished in 1965 for the construction of a parking garage.

Old Fayette County Courthouse on Main Street

Old Postcard of Lexington Main Street 

Historic Lex photos at The Kentucky Virtual Library  click here.
Lafayette Studio Pics of Lexington

If you are interested in historic preservation...check out:
The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation
253 Market Street, Lexington, KY 40507
Tel (859) 253-0362 Fax (859) 259-9210
info@bluegrasstrust.org www.bluegrasstrust.org

“A city without old buildings is like a man without a memory.”
           – Anonymous

The show also also discussed Joyland Park. I remember going there a time or two as a kid. But the storytellers were telling of great dances at the Joyland Park bar back in the 1940s. Joyland park was was a hot spot for the big bands to play. Woody Herman. Cab Calloway. Count Basie. One of the ladies said that they dressed in "formals" for many of the dances,  not just dressy church clothes. Some of the ladies said that their parents would kill them if they knew they were out at the Joyland Park dances. One lady...said that she never told her parents that she slipped out to Joyland park to enjoy music, dancing, etc. Remember also that Lexington is the home of the Univerity of Kentucky and there is/was  never a shortage of college students around town. Apparently there were plenty of college students from Georgetown, UK, and maybe Transy. ha!

Joyland Park

Paris Pike

Defunct, Operated from 5/30/1923 to 1964 

The outer boundries of Lexington during this time period were the Ashland Estate to the east, the Lexington Cemetery to the west, Loudon Avenue, and sixth or seventh streets. One of the storytellers was still calling Harrodsburg Road Harrodsburg Pike.

One of the men told of Lexington's underside also. He said there were plenty of gambling clubs, bars, etc. I am guessing that is true today also.

The backdrop to this KET production was big band music and old black and white photos of downtown Lexington.

Lexington had a growth spurt beginning sometime after the nineteen seventies. It grew out to New Circle Road, and now it is beyond Man of War. Housing needs created subdivision on top of subdivision.  It is because of the attraction to Lexington that the town has grown...and it is no longer the Lexington of my college days. Today it is the center of the horse industry as well as some manufacturing items. Of course higher education is a priority... as well as sports. I will not say anything about the traffic! ha!

Lexington now

If you are a Kentucky resident you may go to this link  for information on future broadcasts of Swinging Lexington. It is a wonderful show!

One last thing that a couple of the ladies spoke about... what it was like in Lexington, and at the University of Kentucky during the WW2 war days. Campus was lacking in young men and so the women began running many organizations, and were in more leadership positions. Then the GIs came back...and the campus demographic changed again with so many either beginning or completing their education on the GI Bill.

I leave you with those thoughts. If you are an out of state reader of my blog I hope you found new information and interesting photos. What happened to Main Street Lexington most likely happened to most towns and cities,  once shopping malls arrived on the scene. But the culture of our Main Streets was once a strong social and business setting. Main Streets gave unity to communities.

I am fortunate to live in a small Kentucky town...with an old court square. The square used to be the center of business and social activity. The historic courthouse has been replaced by a new judicial center at another location. The old courthouse building is still in the center of town...and its use is being determined. Most of the historic buildings around the square are occupied with successful businesses and banks, but there are a few empty storefronts.

Our town centers and main streets may be of a bygone era...but they are worth being revived. I am so glad that I lived during a time when Main Streets were places where you would meet your friends, visit the dime store and buy bobby pins, and have a coke and hamburger at the lunch counter in the drug store or the dime store.

I hope you have a great week...and have the time to check into the history of  the town where you live, or where you grew up during your formative years.

I have a theory that maybe southern towns, midwest towns, and northeastern villages still have some remaining elements of the nineteen forties, fifties, or sixties. I sure hope so!

Mayberry here I come!

Thanks for visiting. I will have some of my usual topics and pics later.


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My Kentucky Living
My Kentucky Living

Hello, I'm Sheila and my house is a giant art project! I enjoy creating an environment where my family can feel safe, secure, and loved. We are empty nesters learning to slow down and enjoy life.

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