Kentucky Historical Society recognizes individuals, organizations for contributions to the field of history
SOMERSET, KENTUCKY (May 26, 2023) — The City of Somerset will receive a Kentucky History Award for education and preservation Saturday, June 3, at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort for its renovation of The Virginia, downtown Somerset’s century-old theater.
The Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) will recognize 25 individuals and organizations for their contributions to the field of history at the annual Kentucky History Awards Celebration, which serves as a kick-off to Kentucky History Day. This year’s history award winners represent communities from across Kentucky in categories that include a range of disciplines from education to publication, along with special awards named after some of the Commonwealth’s greatest historians.
“The Commonwealth is fortunate to have over 370 history-related organizations,” KHS Executive Director Scott Alvey said. “From history museums, historic sites and parks to historical societies and Kentucky historians, they play a fundamental role in understanding what it means to be a Kentuckian. The annual Kentucky History Awards recognizes outstanding work done in Kentucky history and the community of public historians who help us see the unfolding story of our past.”
Nominated by Somerset-Pulaski County Economic Development Authority (SPEDA) President and CEO Chris Girdler, the award recognizes the City of Somerset’s outstanding achievement in promoting the value of Kentucky history through education and preservation by renovating The Virginia.
In his nomination, Girdler tells the story of The Virginia’s past — its contributions to the local economy from the 1920s until 1994 when a historic winter storm crippled the building’s roof and forced its closure — as well as the valiant efforts of the Downtown Somerset Development Corporation (DSDC) and later the City of Somerset to ensure The Virginia had a future.
DSDC was responsible for purchasing the building, replacing its roof, and clearing out two decades of decaying debris during the late 1990s and early 2000s. But multiple efforts to raise capital and grant funding for The Virginia’s revitalization never materialized. In 2020, as part of his campaign to revitalize downtown, Somerset Mayor Alan Keck approached DSDC with a proposal: Deed the building to the city for $1 with the promise that the city will make the investment to renovate it into a live performance venue and operate it as such. If the building was not open by its 100th anniversary in 2022, it would revert back to DSDC’s ownership.
In April 2021, Somerset City Council passed a $13 million municipal bond initiative that included $2 million to renovate The Virginia and convert it into a live performance venue. Construction began immediately and the rest, as they say, is history.
Much of the building’s shell was preserved during construction. Its interior brick walls were left mostly untouched, where the outline of the building’s original balcony can still be seen. And the new marquee was designed to resemble the original that lit up East Mount Vernon Street nearly a century ago.
The Virginia reopened to the public in June 2022 with much fanfare, just in time for its 100th anniversary. In its first year, the venue has hosted sell-out crowds to some of country and Americana music’s rising stars, celebrated the holidays with live performances of Miracle on 34th Street, and has been home to state and national conferences. Its new monthly Classic Movie Night series honors the building’s history as a cinema by showing some of its most well-attended films during the last century, like Gone With the Wind and The Godfather.
The project team included Deco Architects Inc. of Somerset, general contractor D.W. Wilburn and three City of Somerset team members — Chief of Staff Jeffrey Edwards, Communications Director Julie Harris and Housing Development Director/Human Resources Consultant Daisha Lile, who Keck would tap to also serve as The Virginia’s executive director. Lile handles all day-to-day management of the facility, leading a team of three to execute venue rentals, live music and performance events, book artists and promote the venue.
Lile said it has been an honor to lead The Virginia, a place the community has rallied around for so long.
“I was so proud to be tasked with leading this venue because I knew how much it meant to our community — everyone has been so proud of it,” Lile said. “From the beginning of this project, building a venue for everyone that honored the past while looking to the future was of utmost importance for all of us. In every decision we made, from paint color to floor material to sign and art installation, we considered whether we were staying true to The Virginia’s story — and to be recognized for that with this award is such an honor.”
Girdler wrote in his nomination that The Virginia’s rebirth has been a stellar example of the tourism and economic benefits of investing in historic preservation and downtown revitalization.
“But there is the community benefit as well, and it may be the most important: In Somerset, no project has garnered more universal support than saving The Virginia,” Girdler wrote. “It brought a dying building and downtown back to life and a community together for a common cause and placed incalculable value on Somerset’s history. … By revitalizing The Virginia, this governmental body has made an impact in Somerset and the southeastern Kentucky region that will be felt for generations.”
Keck said he knew reopening this beloved theater was going to be the project of a lifetime, but it has exceeded his greatest expectations. “Every time I walk through the building, I think about how we’ve come full circle not just with The Virginia, but as a community,” Keck said. “We’ve experienced the renaissance of our downtown, historic growth, a resurgence of community pride and The Virginia is the final piece that connects it all. I love watching people enjoy this space, celebrating life, and I believe our community’s forefathers would be proud of the way we’ve protected this piece of history and are carrying it forward for the next generation. We are so honored to receive this award from the Kentucky Historical Society recognizing our passion for this project and our community.”