Look at what they’ve gone and done to the Downs.
Somewhere on high, Joseph Baldez caught a peek at what they have done to his handiwork. His head in his hands, he can’t look again.
Shaking in disbelief, patting Baldez on the shoulder in consolation, is Jim Bolus.
Standing nearby, bereft and speechless, is Credo Harris.
That somewhere where the trio mourns is a respectful place, where the tradition of Churchill Downs is honored. If only those currently in charge of the world’s most famous thoroughbred race track cared as much.
Now passed away, Bolus was a local journalist who loved the Kentucky Derby more than most. His talent and that affection manifested in several well-researched books and a spate of reverential essays chronicling Derbyana. (“Those Twin Spires,” a chapter in Bolus’ “Derby Dreams” [Pelican Publishing 1996], serves as source for history presented here.)
In 1895, Baldez was a 25-year-old draftsman with the architectural firm D.X. Murphy & Brother, known today as Luckett & Farley. He felt his design for the new grandstand at Churchill Downs lacked something. So, according to an account by John Rogers in a 1954 Louisville Times article, “He drew two windowed spires to top the roof.”
The Twin Spires.
In 1925, WHAS radio director Credo Harris climbed into one of those famous cupolas, broadcasting the Derby for the first time to millions.
In 1994, attorney Tom Meeker was new at his job as Churchill Downs’ president. In October, he instigated the lighting of the track’s signature symbols. Turning the switch was 82-year-old Helen Gray, the daughter of Joseph Baldez.
Now look at what they’ve gone and done.
Churchill Downs’ massive renovation is complete. Lost with it is a sense of history, intimacy and the feel of yesteryear’s Derby Days. Gone also, the stature of those spires that serve as a symbol of this town’s gentility. Twins that represent the race, the facility, the city, the commonwealth, horse racing itself.
Bury the rag deep in your face, now is the time for your tears.
From the parking lot side where the entrance gates are located, Churchill Downs now looks like a two-headed, pencil-necked geek after years of weightlifting on an all-steroids diet. The Incredible Bulk. From the backside, those twin spires, once significant and glorious, now seem but filigreed afterthoughts, incidental ornamentation to dueling behemoths with towering decks and balconies that dwarf the spires left and right.
The renovation was designed and engineered by Luckett & Farley. In 1995, that firm’s president, Dennis DeWitt, told Bolus that the “original grandstand structure (including the twin spires) was ‘sacred ground.’” He called the twin spires, “the real area of focus.” Of the haphazard manner of previous additions, he said the reason it was done that way “was to keep the grandstand and twin spires sacred and leave it as it was.”
Churchill Downs’ signature, stretch-long roof line, highlighted by those spires, is no more. Call the change an extreme makeover. Call it progress. Call it necessary for the Downs to suck every last penny of profit from the marrow of its constituency.
Just don’t call it tradition.
One guy’s opinion is that Churchill Downs itself is the culprit for this tragedy, not Luckett & Farley. L&F’s executive vice president, Rob Diamond, headed the project. More than once during an interview last week, he lamented how concerned he was that the enormous project “would impact the twin spires.” He emphasized that the project required 350,000 added square feet of building to the Downs’ “same footprint.”
“We were aware we’d be hugging up on the twin spires.”
The sad reality is the inspiring view of those iconic spires fell prey to Churchill Downs’ corporata uber alles mentality. The prevailing perspective of those I interviewed last Wednesday at the track is that the additions look not like the world’s most storied racetrack, but like casinos. Which is what folks believe Churchill wants anyway.
Inside, the clubhouse is gorgeous, the facilities accommodating. The Turf Club is suitably sumptuous. Service personnel are gracious as long as you haven’t snuck into some regal lounge without proper credentials.
But an intangible quite dear has been lost. Gone in the name of modernization is something sacred. Until now Churchill Downs, was a daguerreotype in sepia. In its bricked nooks and crannies, you could hear Matt Winn asking, “Citation or Coaltown?” Or swear you saw ol’ Roscoe Goose in the corner holding court.
Once hallowed ground for the sport of kings, Churchill Downs is now a hollow vessel awaiting slot machines.