Kentucky Millwork had to race against time to complete this landmark renovation and an addition to Churchill Downs’ stately clubhouse.


Respect for the rich tradition of horse racing at Churchill Downs includes tributes to famous jockeys of the past.

The stakes are high enough on nearly any job a woodworker takes on. But just imagine renovating a national treasure such as the clubhouse at the storied Churchill Downs racetrack, home to the most famous horse race in the world, the Kentucky Derby. The most expansive undertaking in the racetrack’s long history, this project involved demolishing 220,000 square feet of the clubhouse, restoring existing areas and adding new features that not only preserved heritage and tradition, but at the same time upgraded and took the facility into the future. Such was the task for Kentucky Millwork and its partner on this project, Louisville Lumber and Millwork.

Much of the strategy Churchill Down’s designers had developed was geared toward modernizing and turning the clubhouse into a full-service meeting, convention and special events facility that would draw business throughout the year, not only during the racing season. Additionally, the racing corporation sought to include the casual visitor by featuring educational displays of racing memorabilia, as well as comfortable elegance for all guests, not just the well-heeled. Throughout the project, the primary idea was to ensure the new architecture would fit well with the existing structures, while golden-stained maple was selected as a contrast to the dark mahogany used in the past.

In an unusual arrangement, Kentucky Millwork teamed with its neighbors, Louisville Lumber and Millwork, to each handle specific elements of the beautiful woodwork that now graces the finished clubhouse. Kentucky Millwork has been involved in several past millwork projects that involved restoration, including a new hotel in downtown Louisville that was built by combining four old buildings together, maintaining many old windows and doors and re-using old wood material in the process. But Partner Mike Bell says this type of work is an exception rather than the norm.

“Almost all of our work (99 percent) is commercial,” he explains. “My estimation is that restoration would be annually less than 5 percent.”

According to Bell, one of the challenges they face on restoration projects in general is engineering the use of existing parts and pieces with newly milled products. “It was possible for us to do the engineering required,” he says, “but to get the folks with the purse strings to understand the processes and complications that arise and the associated costs involved was a tremendous challenge.”

The comfortable Silks Bar allows the “Sport of Kings” to be enjoyed by everyone.

An additional unique challenge encountered on the Churchill Downs project was working around the racetrack’s busy schedule. The scheduled training of horses, meetings and the live racing calendar could not be interrupted by construction noise. So construction teams would sometimes need to break down a setup and return to it after an event. These abbreviated sessions added to an already truncated time frame.

“Everything had to be 100 percent complete before the running of the Kentucky Derby the second year into the project,” Bell explains. “For the first Derby, held after the beginning of the new additions, the first floor spaces needed to be complete, and a small part (restrooms, etc.) of the second floor was to be ready for the temporary concessions setup. A tremendous amount of man-hours from many trades went into the project. And with an aggressive schedule, job coordination was a major issue.”

So does this restoration work allow for profit? Or is it mostly a labor of love? Bell explains, “Since we have bills to pay and payroll to meet, we need to look at all jobs as profit sources. Over the years we have been fortunate enough to provide custom millwork for many prestigious projects, including the borders on the flooring in the White House Oval Office. We enjoy participating in historic restorations and new monumental projects, but we cannot treat these projects as a hobby and still expect to expend the resources they require to maintain the level of excellence they deserve.”

And how does Bell price this type of work?

“With the new products we incorporate into older structures, we estimate our shop labor and material consistent with our operational method of estimating,” he says. “When handling existing units that need to be rebuilt and restored, we typically do this work on a time-and-material basis. There are too many unknowns and variables with rehab work, especially installation. If the contractor, owner or developer acknowledges our unique capabilities with this type of work, they need to agree to compensate us according to pre-established shop rates, material markups and determined project engineering time. It is absolutely essential that a high level of trust underlines and underscores the working relationship of all of the players with this type of work.”

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