Only a Park Rose from the Ashes of the Once Mighty Phoenix Hotel

Phoenix Hotel, 1879
Clay Lancaster Collection
The theme "Then vs. Now" provides insight into Lexington’s past. Building by building, whether standing or demolished I'll explore the structural influence on our city. Historic photographs, architectural evidence, and archival research all contribute to providing a narrative that illustrates each building’s evolution and, in turn, the influence of that structure on Lexington’s history. Archival photographs juxtaposed with contemporary pictures help to give the clearest glimpse into Lexington’s history when a building still stands.  In those cases where (lamentably) a building has been razed, one’s best sources are research of historic newspapers, books, photographs, and stories.
Phoenix Hotel, undated
Frank C. Dunn

At the corner of Limestone and E. Main stood what was possibly one of Lexington’s most architecturally and historically important buildings: the Phoenix Hotel.  Constructed in 1897 on the footprint of no less than three taverns, the Phoenix Hotel was established in 1820.  Its name was purportedly derived from the hotel surviving a fire in the 1820s.  

The Phoenix Hotel was the stop of at least six presidents, the location of the Morgan’s Men Association’s inception (1868), the Kiwanis Club of Lexington’s inception (1919), and the home of WVLK-AM for 33 years (1947-1980).

In a Phoenix Hotel ballroom, in 1902, Judge James H. Mulligan read his now infamous poem, In Kentucky.

Including the former taverns (most famously, the Postlethwaite's Tavern), the Phoenix was quite possibly the longest standing hostelry this side of the Allegheny Mountains.  Its demolition in 1981 ended this reign, making room for the World Coal Center.

Demolition of the Phoenix Hotel
ca. 1981 (note the billboard)
Kentuckiana Digital Library
Conceived by Wallace Wilkinson, later governor from 1987-1991, the World Coal Center (WCC) was to house the corporate headquarters of major coal companies.  Depending on the source and plan referenced, the tower was to be 50, 41, or 25 stories beginning with first floor retail space.  The demolition of the Phoenix Hotel jumpstarted a statewide discourse on politics, coal, and preservation.

Despite Kentucky's coalfields being found in the hills of eastern Kentucky, Wilkinson argued that Lexington was the center of commercial activity for the eastern portion of the state. Building his WCC in the coal fields was not viable.  In October 1981, an op-ed in the Bowling Green Daily News belied Wilkinson's defense of the coal center suggesting that the choice of location was just "another 'slap in the face' to coalfield residents" and that the project would only perpetuate the removal of resources from eastern Kentucky.

The WCC ultimately succumbed to lack of funding. Its shadow hangs over another project that has stumbled from lack of resources: Centrepointe. While the loss of the Phoenix Hotel is thirty years in the rearview of Lexington's memory, the loss of Morton's Row is much fresher in the mind of Lexingtonians. The excitement for the Jeanne Gang re-design (combined with disappointment of proceeding without her) and the close eye Lexington keeps on every development demonstrates that some lessons were learned from the loss of the Phoenix Hotel.
Phoenix Marker  Happy Independence Day
Phoenix Park
(Photo: Peter Brackney)
(Photo: Peter Brackney)
But directly across from the Centrepointe block, Phoenix Park sits as a stark reminder to the loss of one of Lexington's most significant structures. From the ashes of the Phoenix Hotel, even some thirty years later, only a park remains.

And below, an aerial shot of the Lexington Public Library (ca. 1989) and Phoenix Park:
Screenshot from