Carefully organized walking tours make strolling through downtown Lexington informative and invigorating
Once again, downtown Lexington is the place to be and to be seen. Any day or night of the week, café tables line the sidewalks with diners engaged in spirited conversation. Live music drifts slowly out of doorways and across patio floors, only to be caught by the canopy above. People are walking, strolling, meandering and roaming about. And what better time to enjoy Lexington than the fall, with our bright sunny days and the fresh evening air?
While it’s wonderful to simply wander around Lexington’s urban core with no destination in mind, several self-guided walking tours are available to flame that spark of intrigue and broaden our understanding of the city. Below are four different possibilities for an evening stroll before dinner at one of the city’s great downtown restaurants, as an adjunct to catching a show at the Kentucky Theatre, or on a Sunday afternoon when you have guests in town.
So call some friends, pack the kids in a stroller, or set off on two wheels to see more of Lexington – in an up close and personal kind of way. Get out and walk. Have a drink. Sit on a bench. Walk some more. There’s no need to hurry here.
The Lexington Walk
This walking tour is a combination of new and old Lexington, including historic sites, public buildings, and the art and commercial districts. If you’re new to Lexington or have lived here your whole life, you’re sure to learn something about the heart of the Bluegrass.
Length: 2 miles, 33 different sites. Don’t feel like you have to do the entire walk at one time – there’s so much to see you could easily divide the walk into two or three separate jaunts.
Highlights: A walk along West Short Street provides a portal to a middle class neighborhood of the 1880s, and then passes a small collection of antique stores, the children’s museum, and the Lexington Opera House. Saunter past Hopemont (the Hunt-Morgan House) and the Bodley-Bulloock House, where the Confederacy and the Union drew their own Mason-Dixon line as soldiers convalesced in Gratz Park. Other notables include Arts Place (a 1904 Beaux Arts-style building), both First Presbyterian Church and Christ Church Cathedral, and Henry Clay’s law office.
Map: Call the Lexington Visitor’s Center (233-1221) and they will mail you a map, or stop by and pick up one at 401 W. Main Street (in Victorian Square). The map is nicely done, large scale and informative. Now that’s a cheap date.
African American Heritage Trail
This walking tour guides you through downtown Lexington by connecting important historic sites of early African American life. The trail takes you through many parts of downtown, past older homes, interesting shops, renovated office space, restaurants and bars, and the ubiquitous parking lots found in any urban area. Five of the 10 sites are churches.
Length: 3.25 to 4 miles. Walking at a brisk pace, the walk will take you about two hours.
Highlights: Historic Pleasant Green Baptist Church, located at the corner of West Maxwell and Patterson streets, was first organized in 1790 as the African Baptist Church by “Old Captain” Peter Duerett, a slave owned by one of Lexington’s founding fathers, John Maxwell. In 1826, the church’s fourth pastor, Reverend George W. Dupee, was purchased off the auction block for $850 by the minister of the white Baptist church who in turn sold Rev. Dupee back to the black congregation in weekly installments, based on Sunday morning offerings. At one time a large pond, filling the low-lying area between South Upper Street and South Broadway, and sandwiched by Bolivar and Scott Streets, served as a baptismal site for the Pleasant Green Baptist Church. Although now visually cluttered with UK-urban blight, several black and white photos of well-attended baptisms held at this pond allow you to step back in time and feel the water rise above your head.
Cheapside (at the corner of Cheapside and Main Street) was originally the site of a small log schoolhouse built in 1782, and the first building in Lexington built outside of the fort walls. Apparently education in Kentucky has always had a rocky ride. The site was later used for “court days” and served as the largest slave-trading block in the state. Cheapside continues to function as a public square and market (but with a much more ethical purpose), as home to the Lexington Farmers’ Market.
The St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, 251-253 N. Upper St., was built on an old horse stable, where the early members worshipped. Above the present-day sanctuary a small room housed slaves as they moved through the Underground Railroad. Tours of the room can be arranged by calling the church.
Map: A detailed map can be found at www.visitlex.com/afamheritage-trail and at the Lexington Visitors Center.
The LexWalk Audio Tour
Grab your cell phone, iDevice, or mp3 player, and groove to an urban Lexington walk-about. Using your cell phone, you can dial a number and listen to various points of interest in downtown Lexington, or with your smart phone you can hear the tour and see images by linking to a web page. Alternately, you can download a mp3 version to your player.
Length: Less than two miles. Your ear might wear out before your legs do.
Highlights: Choose your technology and start walking. The tour covers 19 points of interest in downtown Lexington, including historic homes and churches, the World Trade Center, and Gratz Park. Move at your own pace. Walk to your own drummer.
Unfortunately, this can really suck the juice from a smart phone (unless you use the app version), and the GPS reception is a bit iffy once in the shadows of tall buildings. In other words, the technology is still trying to catch up with our imaginations. But, it’s free. It’s novel. And one day it might be yesterday’s latest fad.
Audio Downloads: www.visitlex.com/audiotour. A free app is available from the iTunes store.
The Bluegrass Trust for Historic Preservation has developed four different self-guided walks including Gratz Park, the Adaptive Reuse Walking Tour, the Constitution Historic District and Mulberry Hill. The Gratz Park Historic District is bounded by Third and Second streets (to the north and south), and by Bark Alley and Byway (to the west and east). The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning (the former Lexington Public Library) and Morrison Hall (located on the campus of Transylvania University) serve as bookends.
Length: Less than half a mile in length. None of these walks are remotely rigorous, unless an image of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan makes your heart race. But you’re outside, breathing fresh air and not sitting at home watching re-runs.
Highlights: Gratz Park is one of the prettiest and inviting walking tours in downtown Lexington. The park provides the perfect oasis of urban green space for the surrounding homes built in the Federal, Italianate, Greek Revival and Victorian architectural styles. The park itself lies on one of the original outlots of Lexington, as platted by the Virginia Assembly in 1781, and was originally the site of a seminary, later known as Transylvania University.
The walking tour includes 25 different buildings, including the Patterson log cabin (circa 1783 and Lexington’s first mobile home) and The Fountain of Youth – a memorial fountain James Lane Allen bequeathed to the children of Lexington. Three houses on North Mill Street are known as the Goodloe Houses (or the “Three Sisters”), built by Mrs. William Goodloe for her three daughters. Each of the houses utilizes an identical floor plan, but architecturally incorporates different Victorian-style elements. Interestingly, Isaac Murphy (a free black man and perhaps the greatest American jockey of all time) once owned part of the property these houses sit upon.
Maps: Beautiful brochures can be picked up from the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation (253 Market St.) or the Lexington Visitors Center. They are also available online at www.bluegrasstrust.org/resources.html. These walks (with the exception of the Adaptive Reuse Tour) are also available as podcasts from the Bluegrass Trust.
Valerie Askren is the author of “Hike the Bluegrass: Your Guide to Hiking, Walking, and Strolling Across Central Kentucky.”