The Victorian Era, for which these buildings are named is so called because of England’s Queen Victoria who reigned from 1837 to 1901. One of the greatest rulers of English History, she served as Queen for 63 years, until her death at age 82. In 1861 her husband Prince Albert died. The Queen Never recovered from her grief ad her extended period of mourning, which lasted for many years, influenced social custom greatly.
The 16 buildings, which are now Victorian Square, were originally constructed for commercial use in the 1880’s. Located at the intersection of Main and what was once called Main Cross (now called Broadway), this block of building has always played an important role in downtown Lexington. Both Main Street and Main Cross were 5 poles width, or 82 and a half feet, the widest streets in town. On the Northwest Corner of the two streets stood the first courthouse in Fayette County, with a hut fro a jail built alongside.
The building on the northeast corner, which is now part of Saul Good Restaurant and Pub, was for many years the location of Pinkston’s Hardware and Service, but for many years earlier was the site of a saloon. In 1864, Sunny Side Exchange was here. City Directories show Pat Farrell operating a saloon off and on here between 1873 and 1884. Again in 1887 the name Sunny Side Saloon appeared. By 1890 Mr. D. E. Benckhart was the saloon’s proprietor, followed by W. C. Rogers in 1893, John Ryan in 1895 and A. J. Hagan in 1898 and 1899. Sometime between 1901 and 1907, the building was remodeled to conform to the height of its neighbors.
119 North Broadway, once the site of Pinskton’s Turf & Leather Goods and Cox’s Hotel, was used by John W. Lell as early as 1875 for a confectionery and restaurant. By 1888, the hotel was known as Lell’s European Hotel. Apparently, Mr. Lell was well known for his delicacies and supplied most of the stores in Central Kentucky as well as doing business in Missouri, Tennessee, West Virginia and Ohio. The site is now home to Saul Good restaurant & Pub.
The building at 115 North Broadway was once Jacob Stahl’s Restaurant. It operated as a saloon in the late 19th century, as did its neighbors. From 1875 to 1884, it was known as J. Stahl’s saloon, dealer in “Pure Copper Whiskey, Beer, Tobacco, ect.” From 1887-1893 Mr. H. Krouse operated a saloon at this location followed by W. J. Smith in 1895 and Druming and Weitsel in 1898 and 1899. The building was structurally unsound and was replaced during the renovation. This is not the location of the Broadway entrance.
The next building too, was a saloon in 1883 and 1884, becoming Crawford Brothers Grocers from 1888 to 1890, followed by McElhon and Moloney Plumbers from 1893 to 1899. Today it is what was most recently DeSha’s Restaurant.
105 North Broadway is now what was most recently DeSha’s Restaurant but was occupied by Mrs. Lavin from 1887 to 1893, becoming J. M. Donahue, dry goods in 1895.
The Building at 101-103 North Broadway housed most recently DeSha’s Restaurant. The building at 101 was once a grocery store owned by Thomas J. Cassell. The store opened in 1880 but was closed only a year later by a terrible fire. Mr. Cassell was able to reopen in November of 1881 and remained in business for 14 more years. The site continued to serve as a grocery store until after the turn of the century. In 1921, it became the first home of the Meyers Brothers, Emanuel and Edward J. The Meyers family name is still widely known for fine riding apparel.
103 North Broadway was once the establishment of George Koonz, manufacturer of baskets and willow ware, from 1877 until at least 1906.
The buildings at 409-413 West Main, once the home of Wooden Door, were built before 1883. In 1883, 409 and 411 housed Curry, Howard & Murray Co., Wholesale Grocers, which became Curry, Howard & Co. in 1887. Through the years, the space has been occupied by R.D. Wilson& Co. Implements, Lexington Cigar Store (in 1890) and Stoll, Vannatta & Co., wholesale liquor dealers (from 1983 to 1917). This was the ideal site for a wholesale liquor distributor as there were several saloons within this one city block.
The earliest tenant found for 413 was Vance & Feeney, Stoves and Tinware. Started in 1885, it boasted a wide range of related goods and ten to twelve workers.
The firm of Leet Brothers was founded by H.H. Leet and Walter Leet in 1914 at 415-421 West Main. By 1948 the firm had split into Leet Brothers at 401 West Main, run by Walter Leet and his son, Walter Jr., and H.H. Leet Furniture Co., Inc., at 415 West Main, with H.H. Leet as president.
The building at 415 West Main was completed by 1887 and was called the Feeney Building. It housed J. Ely, carriage manufacturer, and Knoxville Furniture Co. The building was occupied successively by the Lexington Buggy Co., and Martin & Naven Laundry in 1888 followed by Rhodes Furniture Co. in 1890 and M & N laundry from 1890 to 1907, as well as Bosworth & Richardson, coal yard, in 1893, and P. H. Feeney, furniture and undertaker in 1985. By 1902, the eastern third of the building had become Rhodes- Burford Furniture Company. This building now houses Main Cross Gallery and the Lexington Visitors Center.
Between 1901 and 1907, earlier buildings were replaced by the current one at 421 West main. By 1902, the Rhodes Burford Furniture Company had expanded to include this space. In 1910, the name was changed to L.L. Roberts and the store continued to operate here fro quite some time under the management of Mr. Roberts’ descendants.
The building, which faces 430 West Short Street, was long the home of printing and engraving businesses, advertising agencies and commercial artists. It was also once the Centralia Creamery in 1918 and the Lexington Creamery in 1919. Today it is home of the Explorium of Lexington.
The balconies visible in the atrium area are the rear exterior of what was once Lell’s Opera House, called the “prettiest building in Lexington” shortly after it was built in 1882 by John William Lell. Mr. Lell was originally from Wurtenburg, Germany and come to the U.S. in 1854. He was an enterprising man and owned several businesses, including the confectionery at 119 North Broadway. He arrived in Lexington in the early 1870’s and opened a confectionery on Main Street. When it was destroyed by fire, he started over and was soon operating as many as seven different businesses.
According to George Washington Ranck in his book Lexington As She Is, “Mr. Lell has been prominently identified with all the large undertakings which have benefited the city. His capital introduced the electric light; he was President of the company.” He was president or director on boards of two banks and three building association. He was also a member of the Louisville Jockey Club and the Lexington Fair Association. He was an active Mason and Chief Patriarch of the Odd Fellows encampment in 1873.
Mr. Lell’s Opera House had one of the largest restaurants in Kentucky, with performances held every evening. It could hold up to 600 people. The shows were patronized mostly by male audiences. The establishment was also known, perhaps more appropriately, as Lell’s Beer Hall. The Chamber of Commerce, formed in 1882, had its headquarters here the following year.
The second floor of the Opera House was used as the Lexington Athletic Club’s Headquarters in 1888, the Lexington Gymnasium in 1890, and the Red men’s Hall in 1895 and again in 1898 and 1890. This building was widely known as the starting point for Ed “Strangler” Lewis’ climb to the world wrestling championship. Lewis used the second floor as his training headquarters when the old theater was converted into a gymnasium.
The building next door was also part of Mr. Lell’s enterprise, having been a barbershop from 1887 to 1895. IN 1901 it was a bakery and in 1907 a hardware house.
Many of the buildings along Main Street still sport their decorative metal ceilings at the time renovation began, and great care was taken to preserve them. Visitors will notice quite a variety of patterns from one building to the next. In some areas where the ceiling plates were missing, they were replaced with new ones, which were manufactured using original presses.
To highlight the original structures’ natural features, adjoining walls were left visible where the new opening was created. Each exposed brick archway with decorative ironworks signals passage from one building to the next.
Plans to renovate this block of buildings were announced in 1983. At the time, most of the buildings were in such poor condition that they had to be shored up before renovation could begin. The series of ramps throughout the square are necessary to connect the many different levels of the original floors.