Billy Reed: Raise the Twin Spires

Billy Reed has never liked the luxury boxes that obscure the traditional look of the twin spires at Churchill Downs. Now is the time, he suggests, to look at raising them up.

by Billy Reed

Standing on the backstretch last Sunday at Churchill Downs, it was sad to view the desecration at Kentucky’s most famous landmark. I’m not talking about the barns that were ripped asunder by the recent tornadoes. They will be rebuilt after the current meet, and, unless Churchill management does it on the cheap, it will be sturdier and better.

Here's how it used to look at Churchill

No, I’m talking about the irreparable damage done to one of the most iconic tableaus in sport when management decided to dwarf the historic twin spires by building garish towers of luxury suites on either side.

No longer do photographers covering the Kentucky Derby vie for the “money shot” of the winner hitting the wire with the spires in the background. That has been ruined forever by management’s unfortunate – and largely unchallenged – decision to turn the home of the Derby into a casino instead of a racetrack.

Even in the track’s gift shop, many of the souvenir photos depict the track as it used to look instead of how it looks today. The same goes for TV commercials. The producers either favor old footage or airbrush out the twin towers of avarice and aesthetic insensibility so only the twin spires may be seen.

A couple of days after my visit to the backstretch, as fate would have it, a couple of interesting pieces were juxtaposed – I’m sure by accident and not design – on the opinion pages of the Tuesday, June 28, edition of The Courier-Journal.

On the editorial page was a letter from Carl D. Booth Jr. of Radcliff. Obviously a man of discerning taste, he wrote:

“Over the last few years, I have been curious, and a bit distraught, when looking at photos of Churchill Downs. What confounds me the most is how the twin spires are submerged between two other construction edifices.

“Aesthetically, this is an abomination to the iconic image the world has come to recognize as the pinnacle of thoroughbred racing…Surely there is an able – and affordable – architect who can raise our phoenix back from the ashes and elevate the twin spires back to their rightful place.”

Next door on the op-ed page was a piece by Charles A. Birnbaum about the current state of historic preservation. Birnbaum, founder and president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington, D.C., believes that historic preservation is under attack and needs to fight back.

“The modern historic preservation movement needs to take action,” wrote Birnbaum. “The current climate demands that it recast itself, build better and more strategic bridges with the design community, rebrand and broadcast its message, and in the process get back in touch with its real roots.”

Well, now.

Back when Churchill announced its plans to build the twin towers, I immediately began squawking. I pointed out repeatedly that the track was going to ruin one of the most iconic vistas in sport. I pleaded with them to go back to the drawing board and find a better way.

The problem is, I was the lone voice in the wilderness. You couldn’t find the historic preservation folks with a search warrant. Had they gotten as agitated as they did over the possible destruction of the historic facades on Main Street, maybe the desecration of Churchill could have been avoided.

The editorial writers at The Courier-Journal were equally silent. These are the same folks who pilloried Tyler Allen over his 8664 Plan to remove traffic from the riverfront. The same ones who have supported the expansion of Spaghetti Junction while opposing the widening of the one-lane bridge on River Road.

But never was heard a discouraging word when Churchill announced its plans to diminish the twin spires by flanking them with casino-type towers.

What made that really unconscionable was that the preservationists and the C-J editorial writers had a nice peg upon which to hang their hats, should they have chose to do so. When Churchill was granted National Historic Landmark status, it agreed to run all major renovation or reconstruction projects past the board that granted it that status. That’s part of the deal, whether you’re Churchill Downs or Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace.

But Churchill management, acting with the arrogance that has become its trademark, did not live up to its agreement when it announced its plans to build the luxury towers. It ignored the National Historic Landmark commission. It did as it pleased because, well, it could. Instead of treating Churchill as a public trust, as it should, management’s position – then and now – is that, as a privately held corporation, it can do as it damn well pleases.

And so we have the abomination that disturbs Mr. Booth and countless others every time they look at the forlorn twin spires, their majesty diminished by greed disguised as progress.

My only conclusion is that Oaks and Derby tickets have become so much the coin of the realm in our city that nobody will stand up to Churchill Downs for fear of losing their access to choice boxes and social events. Why else would the C-J editorial board and the historic preservationists be so quiet when an atrocity is being committed before their very eyes?

But the purpose here isn’t really to say I told you so. It’s to pick up on a suggestion by Mr. Booth. Maybe, if a bunch of competent architects and designers get together, something can be done to either elevate the spires or take a couple of floors off the tops of the twin towers (not practical or likely, I know, but a fellow can dream, can’t he?)

Heck, maybe Churchill could even take the radical step of consulting specialists in historic preservation. Of course, that might alert the National Historical Landmark Commission to what’s happened at Churchill, which could lead to having the track’s landmark designation revoked. But since the designation obviously means so little to track management, that would be a small price to pay for restoring the twin spires to their grandeur.

In the interest of fairness, I need to point out that the twin luxury towers were built under the previous administration, which was known as much for its callous treatment of Horsemen and the $2 bettor as it was for its desire to build an empire and squeeze every last nickel out of the Oaks and Derby for the benefit of its stockholders.

Unfortunately, current management has seen fit to only expand upon that business model instead of changing it. But current management also has a chance to change its image for the better – if it cares anything about that sort of thing – by heeding Mr. Booth’s suggestion to do something to restore the spires to their accustomed exalted position.

I wouldn’t bet on it, though. The track has The Courier-Journal and the historic preservationists in its pocket, so who’s going to make the noise and apply the pressure? I suppose we are only left to reflect upon how man’s arrogance and avarice can be far more destructive than even a tornado.