Fifth Courthouse (1900-2002)

In October 1897, H. L. Rowe, a local architect, prepared updated plans to rebuild the courthouse using fire-proof materials.  During November 1897 the reconstruction was let for bids, however, the lowest bid of $175,000 were rejected by the Fiscal Court.[i]  In October 1897, the Combs Lumber Company removed the damaged upper walls to prevent them from collapsing.[ii]

In January 1898, the Fiscal Court met to discuss alternatives to the reconstruction based upon the old plans.  They decided to build a “new temple of justice” that “would be an honor to the proud and courtly Queen of the Blue Grass.”  In March 1898, the Fiscal Court approved the plans submitted by Lehman & Schmitt, of Cleveland.  The new courthouse was a Richardson Romanesque style.  The plan specified a three-story stone masonry building, with a dome, clock and cupola (with weather vane).  The construction contract was awarded to Clarke & Howard[1], General Contractors of Lexington, for $134,100.  The contract excluded the electric light plant and elevators.  The building was to be completed within one year.  The County Court also hired J. R. Williamson as supervisor of construction.[iii]

On July 20, 1898, work began on the foundation of the new courthouse.  On September 5, 1898 at noon, the corner stone was laid in a Masonic ceremony by Judge W. H. Thompson, Master Mason of Louisville.  The stone was located in the northeast corner of the new building.[iv]

At 9:30 am on May 20, 1899, the final stone was set by Judge Frank A. Bullock on the Main Street side of the dome.  The decorative stonework was carved by Ignatious Maloney, a local sculptor.[v]

The building was illuminated by over 100 chandeliers, equipped with both gas and incandescent lights.  Two electric dynamos in the basement supplied electric power[2].  The building was finished on February 1, 1900.  The final cost was $255,168.69.[vi]

First Trail, February 1900   <Lexington History Museum>

On February 14, 1900, following a week-long trial the first verdict was rendered in the new courthouse.  The suit was against Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company for $7,000 by the Phoenix National Bank, Browen, Scott & Frazer and J. Waller Rodes.  Northwestern was represented by Breckinridge & Shelby and the plaintiff by Judge Mat Walton and Bronston & Allen.  The plaintiffs were assignees of a life insurance policy on late Judge J. R. Jewell.  The jury found for the insurance company after finding that Jewell had taken out the policies without disclosing his terminal illness.[vii]

1907 Sanborn Map   <LPL>

Frontal view of Courthouse, circa 1900   <Ambrose>

Another frontal view   <Ambrose>

Courthouse Square, 1907

Will Lockett Trial:

On February 4, 1920, a ten-year old white girl was killed at South Elkhorn, in southern Fayette County.  The police arrested Will Lockett, a black World War One veteran, who quickly confessed.  Given the nature of the charges, Lockett for his safety was transferred to the State Penitentiary, in Frankfort.  He was returned to Lexington for his trail on February 9, 1920, which was also Court Day.

Expecting trouble, Governor Edwin P. Morrow dispatched Adjutant General James M. Deweese, of the Kentucky National Guard.  The guard roped off the promenade around the courthouse.  They set up a machine gun on the front steps.  A large crowd numbering several thousand gathered around the courthouse.

As the trial was underway, at 9:28 am, the mob estimated at around one hundred separated from the crowd and attempted to storm the Main Street entrance.  The mob was led by a man with a rope, who intended to lynch Lockett.

 The solders responded first by firing in the air and then into the mob, with rifle and machine gun fire.  Adjutant  Deweese stated “no shots were fired until the crowd had reached the machine guns.  I backed twenty steps, grappled with two of the leaders, striking one over the head with my pistol.  The volley which stopped the rush was not fired a second too soon.”   Several members of the lynch mob also fired upon the soldiers.  Six members of the mob were killed and twenty wounded.  In addition, two patrolmen were also serious wounded.  The firing lasted less than 10 seconds[3].

Meanwhile, inside the courtroom the trial was interrupted by the shots, but the deputies maintained order.  One man entered the courtroom, shouting “judge you’d better let them have this man.  They coming up here and they’ll kill a lot of men.”  He was ejected.  The trial took only thirty-five minutes, including the interruption by gun fire.  The jury[4] sentenced him to die in the electric chair.

The crowd quickly fled, but failed to disburse and began looting stores around the courthouse.  A number of pawn shops were looted of weapons.

At 3:00 pm, a special train arrived over the Louisville & Nashville Railroad from Camp Taylor, at Louisville.  The train carried 400 federal soldiers.  As a precaution, the train was preceded by a few minutes by another locomotive.  The Federal commander declared martial law (which lasted two weeks).  This was the first time a southern state used force to stop a lynch mob.

Lockett was executed on March 11, 1920.[viii]

Martial Law Notice

Whereas, a state of lawlessness exists in the county of Fayette, State of Kentucky, with which the State authorities are unable to cope, and

Whereas, the Governor of the said State of Kentucky has asked for the aid of the United States in restoring and maintaining order in the said county of Fayette

Now, therefore, I, Brigadier General Francis C. Marshall, U. S. Army, commanding the United State troops in the said county, do hereby declare a state of martial law in the said county, and do assume all functions, both civil and military of said county.

All Citizens are warned to respect and obey my orders and those of my subordinates.

F. C. Marshall, Brigadier General U. S. Army

Lexington, KY., Feb. 9, 1920

In January 1930, a proposal was prepared to add a fourth floor to the courthouse for a new jail.  The plans were prepared by Gratz & Miller, local architects, with an estimated cost of $174,300.  The proposal was not carried out.[ix]

On April 28, 1930, a fire started when one of the elevator motors overheated.   The fire spread to an oil drum, which then set the elevator shaft on fire.  The fire was quickly contained, with the only damage to the elevator shaft and from smoke to the upper floors.[x]

In February 1951, the Fiscal Court reviewed a plan on replacing the courthouse, with a combination county offices, courtrooms and county jail on the corner of Cheapside and Short Streets, with a two-deck parking lot on Short and Upper Streets.[xi]

Records Vault <Lafayette Studios>

Interior Renovations:

In 1960-1961, the interior of the courthouse was extensively renovated, to provide more courtrooms and offices.  These renovations included the removal of the interior “Y” stairs, enclosing the space for two elevators, bathrooms and heating ducts.  The third floor was divided into two floors, with additional courtrooms and offices added to the new fourth floor.  The dome was closed off with a concrete floor, with the space used for heating and air conditions units.  The general contractor was Cravens & Cravens.  Work began in August 1960 and was finished in November 1961.  The renovations cost $740,000.[xii]

During construction, the old St. Joseph Hospital was used as a temporary courthouse.

In 1983, the building was added to the Register of Historic Places.

The last trial held ended on February 7, 2002.  During October 2003, the Lexington History Center opened the next year in the old courthouse.[xiii]

Judge Swope  <Lafayette Studio>

During 2012, the courthouse was closed to the public due to lead paint and asbestos found in the upper floors.  Proposals are under consideration to restore the courthouse to the original design.


[1] The company was also building the new Lexington Brewery, on Main Street.

[2] During the summer months, the dynamos were turned off to saving money.  The elevators were operated from city power during this period.

[3] Today, bullet holes still remain on the front steps.

[4] The jury included John G. Stoll (foreman), J. A. Crosby, John G. Cramer, William C. McDowell, W. S. Burrier, Thomas Rhorer, T. A. Hinton, James H. Curry, Henry C. Downing, George T. Hukle, Frank Battaile and R. L. Henderson.


[i] Lexington Leader, September 15, 1897, page 8, column 3.

[ii] Lexington Herald, October 13, 1897, page 5, column 3.

[iii] Lexington Leader, January 19, 1898, page 1, columns 1-2, January 20, 1898, page 1, columns 1-2, March 6, 1898, page 1, column6 and March 12, 1898, page 5, columns 3-4 and Lexington Herald, March 1, 1898, page 2, column 3.

[iv] Lexington Herald, July 20, 1898, page 3, column 1, September 6, 1898, page 2, column 1 and May 21, 1899, page 5, column 2 and Lexington Leader, September 4, 1898, page 9, columns 1-6.

[v] Lexington Herald, May 21, 1899, page 5, column 2.

[vi] Wright, page 118, Coleman, page 32, Coleman (Squire’s), page 71 and Lexington Leader, February 11, 1920, page 12, column 2.

[vii] Lexington Herald, February 14, 1900, page 5, column 1.

[viii] Wright, John D., Jr., "Lexington's Suppression of the 1920 Will Lockett Lynch Mob," Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 1986, Issue 3, Volume 84, pages 263-279, Coleman, pages 33-35, Lexington Leader, February 6, 1920, page 1, column 6, February 8, 1920, page 1, column 8, February 9, 1920, page 1, column 1-2, page 2, column 1, page 8, columns 3-4 and page 10, column 1 and February 11, 1920, page 11, column 8 and Lexington Herald, February 5, 1920, page 1, column 7-8, February 9, 1920, page 1, column 1 and March 10, 1920, page 1, column 8.

[ix] Lexington Leader, January 30, 1930, page 1, columns 2-4.

[x] Lexington Leader, April 28, 1930, page 1, column 3.

[xi] Lexington Leader, February 28, 1951, page 12, column 5.

[xii] Wright, pages 117-118 and Lexington Herald-Leader, August 28, 1960, page 52, columns 1-7, November 12, 1961, page 12, columns 1-3 and January 14, 1962.

[xiii] Millard, James K., “Secrets of the Old Courthouse,” Smiley Pete Publishing, August 06, 2010.


William M. Ambrose, Bluegrass Court Houses, Limestone Press, Lexington, 2013.