The Blue Grass Trust’s deTours is a group of young professionals (and the young at heart). The program provides behind-the-scenes tours of historic buildings, places, and sites in central Kentucky. BGT deTours are free and open to the public. They occur on the first Wednesday of every month.
This month, the BGT provided a behind the scenes look at the US Post Office and Federal Courthouse in Lexington. Completed in 1934, the Neoclassical building was constructed to serve as a post office, courthouse, and federal building. While several renovations (the first in 1957) left the building mostly intact, the post office was removed from the first floor in the 1970s and 80s. It remains Lexington’s preeminent example of Neoclassical architecture from the period. The court rooms and halls are as stately as the day they were put into service. If the walls could talk, they could tell stories of great trials and great calamities in Lexington, including a visit from Thurgood Marshall and the escape of two prisoners that led to a killing spree and manhunt.
US post offices and federal buildings were typically designed by DC architects. In an unusual turn, however, the Lexington firm of H.A. Churchill and John P. Gillig was chosen for the Lexington Post Office and Federal Building. It seems the Public Buildings Act of 1926 created such a backlog of construction projects that it was necessary to farm some out to local firms. At one time, Churchill designed post offices around the country for the federal government and it is assumed his firm was chosen to design the Lexington building on this merit. Though Churchill and Gillig are officially listed as the architects of the building, it is believed that Louis Simon, Supervising Architect of the Treasury, exerted a great deal of control over the design.
Though the building no longer houses the post office, it continues to function as a federal building and courthouse. The Eastern District of Kentucky’s US Marshal’s office is located on the first floor, just off the great hall (you can just make out the most wanted bulletin board at the far end of the hall in the photograph above). You may be familiar with the the Eastern District of Kentucky’s US Marshal’s office from the popular television series Justified. Unfortunately, the series has never filmed in the Federal Building and our tour guide assured us that the headquarters featured on the show are much nicer than the real offices. Too bad for the current US Marshal, Loren “Squirrel” Carl!
When the post office moved into its own facility in the 70s and 80s, the space it vacated on the first floor of the Federal Building was re-purposed into another court room and a holding room for jurors. Rather than removing the teller windows and post office box structures, project managers chose to simply fill the openings with material sympathetic to those used in the rest of the Great Hall, in order to make the former workspace more functional for its new purpose. As a result, it is easy to imagine what it looked like when the post office functioned in the space!
The two-story main courtroom on the second floor looks much as it did in 1934. The original floor plan, furniture, bronze grills and decorative finishes have been maintained (though the carpet is new). The walls of the courtroom are Appalachian Golden Vein marble. Arrayed on the courtroom walls are portraits of the judges of the US District Court for the Easter District of Kentucky who are retired, deceased or serving as senior judges. The portraits are original, though copies exist of several of them.
During the tour of the courtroom, our guide was asked about famous trials that have taken place in the courtroom. But the trial that is most remembered by Lexingtonians is one that never occurred. On Oct. 1, 1973, Wilmer Elvis Scott and William Sloan escaped from federal custody by jumping from the third floor of the Federal Building while awaiting trial. They overpowered a woman who was in the Sayre School car line with her children, forced her to drive to her home, bound the family and left in the woman’s car with a rifle and knives. They then drove to the home of Reverend John Barnes, where they shot and killed Barnes and his two teenaged children, Johnny and Francine (also Sayre students). They later drove John Barnes’ car to Falmouth, where they killed three other people at a motel the next day before being apprehended. The men were later convicted of the murders. The story still haunts the people of Lexington. Though I’ve only lived here for about five years, I’ve heard it discussed on numerous occasions.
The US Post Office and Federal Court House has been a constant in the life of downtown Lexington for almost 80 years. Although its intended functions were significantly simplified when the post office relocated, the neoclassical building lost none of its grandeur in the process. The Federal Court has proved to be a good steward of the property by maintaining its historical integrity throughout the decades, despite the drastic changes in its day to day operations. There is little doubt that the building will continue to stylishly preside over the community’s trials and tribulations in the future.