Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Double Loss

About 2:15 a.m. the morning of August 1st, a sheriff's deputy standing outside the jail heard the noise, a long rumbling sound that seemed to end with a sigh.  He sent someone to check out the noise and they discovered, a block away, that one of Lexington's old buildings, located on Main Street in the National Register Commercial Historic District downtown, had partially collapsed.   Built in 1890, the building had most recently been the home of Riley's Irish Pub & Grill, a business that was known as much for its beautiful architecture and the vibrantly welcoming personality of its owner, Katherine VanAmburg, as it was for its delicious food.  People met there for lunch or supper or just to talk and all of them were greeted by Katherine saying in her faintly Southern accent, "Welcome to Riley's!  Have a seat anywhere you'd like!"  Katherine's family had been in Lexington even longer than the building had, having come here in 1835 to build houses, raise families, and own businesses that included the famous Pony Express.

In recent months, both the building and Katherine had fallen on hard times.  Katherine had cancer and recovered, then had a stroke, and then the cancer returned.  In May, a hole had formed in the outside wall of the pub after hard rains and the building was declared unsafe.  Employees hurried to remove what they could of the building's contents, moved to a new location at 12th and Franklin Streets, and the building was left vacant.  The plan was to move back into the Main Street building after repairs were made.  But the insurance company dragged their feet on authorizing those repairs, and the plans to return to the historic building ended when it collapsed in the wee hours of the morning August 1st.

When the sun rose that morning,
 the extent of the damage was heartbreaking.

 The pub's iconic leaded glass keyhole window lay shattered in the street.

A set of shelves balanced on the edge of the collapse, 
stacks of plates unbroken.

More heartbreak was to come.  
Shortly before 8 a.m., we learned that Katherine had passed away.
Becky Morton, the pub's manager, said sadly, 
"Katherine has left and she took the building with her."
It seems both terribly sad and at the same time 
somehow absolutely right that we lost two Lexington icons in one day.

The city decided that the rest of the building must come down.  
The fire department showed up to hose down the debris after the Department of Natural Resources said the site most likely contained asbestos.  The track hoe started its terrible work.
 The back of the building had been mostly intact after the collapse, and when the track hoe started to tear that down, it peeled away the front wall first.  For a moment we could see inside the building, the bathroom doors with the Lads and Lassies signs on them, boxes of Katherine's family history stacked at the top of the steps where they'd been left behind the day of the move, a coat rack on the wall.  Then the machine clawed it all down to the ground.  A group of us watching, including Riley's employees, burst into tears.

After the machines finished the awful business of bringing the building to the ground, only the stained glass window at the front of the building remained.

Two Riley's employees and I scrambled over the debris picking out Katherine's belongings until the city arrived to fence off the area and we were told to leave.  We found almost 200 photographs Katherine had taken, a serving plate, and three of the six boxes of her family history.  The back bar, original to the building, many of Katherine's possessions, and some pub fixtures are buried in the rubble now. The city's Public Works department salvaged the frame of the keyhole window, two corbels, and the large stained glass window and have them in storage.  It's unclear if further salvage will be allowed.

At Katherine's memorial service on Friday, Reverend Liz Deveney often spoke of Katherine VanAmburg and the Riley's Pub in the same sentence.  She told us how she arrived here from Austin, Texas used to big city ways and that it was Katherine who first extended a welcome to her and who taught her to "sit down, sit all the way down" and be present in the moment.  Reverend Liz told us that hospitality knows no physical space, and although the building is gone, Katherine's warm welcome can live on in the pub's new location or wherever we are as we welcome each other as family.

NOTE:  All photos are mine with the exception of the first one, which Katherine took some years ago. More photos can be seen at the Facebook page for Riley's Irish Pub & Grill.  You are welcome to use my photos but please give credit or link back to either this post or the Riley's page.  Thank you.


  1. I am so sorry about your community's loss! The people and the places become part of the fabric and this is too, too much at once for the people of Lexington. My condolences for the family and friends.

    So many "main street"- style architecture buildings from the 19th century are incredibly fragile. Many communities struggle with the often expensive repairs to these buildings. I'm glad that the windows were at least partially salvaged, but what a tragedy of preservation that help for this building came too late.

    1. Thanks, Laura. Very well said.

    2. Even apart from the double loss, buildings today just are soulless. I don't know why architecture has devolved into boxes of surpassing ugliness.

    3. "Boxes of surpassing ugliness"--that is certainly an apt description!

  2. Oh, this is so sad. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Thanks, Lottie. It really is sad.

  3. I am so sorry! Not only to lose the building but Katherine too, how sad that is! She sounds like someone I would have loved to have known. There are a few "Katherine's" in the small town where we live. And this is a gentle reminder to love and cherish them while they are with us. For surely they bless and touch the souls of all whom they meet and how we will miss them when their time comes.

    I too love these old buildings and houses, their beauty, style but also the craftsmanship that went into building them. My husband and I are currently renovating a Queen Anne built in 1898 and that house was built to stand for generations. According to the laws of physics, it should have collapsed as well years ago due to severe neglect and abuse. That it didn't is a testament to just how well it was built. It makes me ill that because the insurance company dragged their feet for so long that this building had to be demolished. Why cannot some people see the value in these old buildings? For surely such as they, will never come again.

    If there are enough folks that are interested, I would push for being allowed to go in and salvage as much as you possibly can. My husband and I have been a part of a salvage team so we know it is doable and it can be done safely, but the biggest enemy is time. If you have a General Contractor that would be willing to head up a team of folks, your city might be more agreeable to this. Its worth a try and at least it would give some of the materials that are left a chance to live on in another structure.

    1. "Such as they, will never come again." That rings so true. Buildings aren't constructed like this anymore, either in strength or in beauty. It's heartbreaking that we lost the pub because of the insurance company. I do blame them. A structural engineer was consulted and the money for the deductible was there, but the insurance company wouldn't authorize it. They care more for the bottom line. The carelessness of the company that was brought in to demolish the rest of the building was sickening as well. They destroyed two smaller stained glass windows and a cast iron upright, among other things.

      We've been told that we are not, under any circumstances, to go inside the chain link fence that's around the debris pile now. There are legal issues as well as safety ones. I'm sick at heart thinking of what's left in there that could be salvaged: the back bar, which is original to the building, we can see in the debris and it has very little damage; the original tile floor, which was yellow, tan, and blue; the beadboard wainscoting and trim on the "shared" wall with the building next to it; some tin ceiling panels and trim; not to mention Katherine's personal belongings.