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Places in Lexington to know: From prohibition arrests to Charlie Chaplin visit the Old March Hotel has a historical past
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Places in Lexington to know: From prohibition arrests to Charlie Chaplin visit the Old March Hotel has a historical past

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Main Street is pictured through downtown Lexington in December 2018. Rumors persist of tunnels underneath Main Street. Although mostly disproved by historical documentation, many residents still believe these tunnels exist due to evidence of bricked up passages facing Main Street in many older buildings.

LEXINGTON — Strolling in uptown Lexington, it is easy to walk by the three-story building sitting at the corner of West First Avenue and South Main Street without realizing the historical significance of the Old March Hotel.

“I would say as far as the Lexington Historical District, the March Hotel is one of our more iconic structures that is still surviving... It has a fascinating history, some of which we have through newspaper articles, but I am willing to bet there are a ton of people that have their own history and tidbits of information,” said Caitlin Williams, curator of the Davidson County Historical Museum.

Although the current structure was built around 1910, there is documentation that Mrs. J.E. March was the proprietor of a two-story, wooden frame hotel with a wrap-around porch. After a fire that destroyed most of the original hotel, it was replaced with a three-story brick building with a covered terrace at the entrance.

In later years the portico was removed to make room to widen Main Street and install sidewalks in uptown Lexington.

During its 100-year history, the building was used to house a variety of businesses. In 1929 the south end storefront on Main Street served as the Union Bus Station, and the police station was on the First Avenue side. The Lexington Woman’s Club rented a room at March Hotel, hired a librarian and opened the first public library in Lexington in December 1924.

Over the years, the building housed various retail shops, such as Parker-Miller Jewelers, the March Café, Naples Italian Grille and JoJo’s Ice Cream.

Besides its value as a historic structure, the Old March Hotel has contributed to the background and folklore of Lexington.

In 1922, during the national prohibition on alcohol, hotel manager J.W. Kepley was convicted of selling whisky and conduction a “disorderly house.” In the court hearing, undercover detectives provided witness testimony that Kepley and other employees were selling liquor to guests. Kepley was fined $1,000 and was sentenced to four months labor repairing roads.

In 1918, famed silent film actor Charlie Chaplin stayed briefly at the hotel in Lexington while on a national speaking tour promoting liberty bonds sold during World War I.

An article from The Dispatch at the time described the visit:

“There was no hint of the funny walk, the funny mustache and the fancy little tricks that has (sic) endeared him to every boy’s heart in the land in the appearance of Mr. Chaplin here. Of course, the small boys crowded until it took the assistance of police officers for him to get from the hotel to speakers stand, but he favored them only by a funny toss of the hat.”

There have also been many rumors surrounding the March Hotel, including that Elvis Presley stayed there when he played a Civitan-sponsored concert at the YMCA gymnasium in 1956. In actuality the famous singer stayed at the former New Lexington Hotel, which was across the street from what is now the Lexington Police Department.

Another rumor that has swirled around the Old March Hotel for years is that it was a landing site that was part of an underground ring that used a warren of secret tunnels underneath Main Street to transport alcohol.

Bob Sink, a lifelong resident of Lexington, was the superintendent of the Lexington Gas Department for over 25 years. He said that he has been in almost every building in uptown Lexington as well as under most of the roads on Main Street.

“We plowed up Main Street from Fifth Avenue all the way through town and then came back through and replaced the sidewalks. I have replaced a lot of gas lines (in uptown), but I never saw any tunnels. I’m not saying they are not there, I just haven’t seen or heard of them,” Sink said.

Although mostly disproved by historical documentation, many residents still believe these tunnels exist due to evidence of bricked up passages facing Main Street in many older buildings, including the March Hotel.

The most widely accepted belief is these “passages” were either coal chutes from the old houses that used to sit on the property or former exterior entrances which were closed when the city widened Main Street and installed sidewalks in uptown.

Over 100 years later, the former hotel is still being used as a commercial business, serving as home to Rustic Roots restaurant.

“The building has seen changes over time and has looked differently over the years,” Williams said, “but it still remains an important historic building in Lexington.”

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