Lexington’s under-appreciated Modernist buildings worth a look

140814MidCenMod0002People’s Bank on South Broadway has been vacant for many years and is flanked on either side by an apartment building and a parking garage. Architect Sarah Tate says it is an excellent example of good Modernist architecture that has been altered little over the years. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

Controversy over the demolition of several Mid-Century Modern buildings on the University of Kentucky campus this summer marked a change in Lexington’s conversation about historic preservation.

It made it clear that a building doesn’t have to be more than a century old to be architecturally or historically significant enough to be worth saving.

Architect Sarah Tate was most upset by UK’s destruction of the 1941 Wenner-Gren Laboratory, where early NASA space research was conducted. Its front façade featured elegantly curved walls of brick and glass block.

Tate has spent three decades documenting Modernist commercial structures in Lexington built during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

“There is no doubt that the Modern movement is as extraordinary as any movement in architecture in the history of mankind,” said Tate, who became a registered architect in 1975 and retired five years ago from her firm, Tate Hill Jacobs Architects.

140814MidCenMod0003Modernism was the first architectural movement in centuries that didn’t draw its inspiration from the past. It was the result of wholly original thinking about how buildings should look and how people use them, with an emphasis on clean lines rather than classical forms from antiquity.

“These buildings show how we got where we are now from building Greek temples and office buildings that looked like Greek temples,” Tate said. “They tell a whole lot about the 20th century — how construction methodology changed as materials changed. The Space Age thrust imprinted America’s psyche, and these ’50s and ’60s buildings are the ones that really show that.”

In Lexington, at least, these buildings also reflect the rise of automobile culture and suburban growth — when a horse and university town rapidly expanded with the arrival of new industries and people from elsewhere.

Tate admits that some of these buildings are not great pieces of architecture. “Some of them are awkward,” she said. “Some of them are really bad.”

But others are very well done, said Tate, who hopes to educate people about the Modernist architecture that remains in Lexington in the hope that it can be sensitively reused rather than replaced.

Tate’s favorite Modernist commercial structure in Lexington is People’s Bank on South Broadway, which is almost hidden between an apartment tower and a parking structure beside the Rupp Arena parking lot. It was designed by Lexington architect Charles Bayless and finished in 1961.

Most recognizable for its blue tile walls and zig-zag roof, People’s Bank has been empty for years. But because it didn’t have another occupant after the bank, the building was never altered much.

“It’s just beautifully composed,” Tate said. “It was ahead of its time from the structural engineering aspect. And the detailing is like a jewel.”

Other Tate favorites include the Catalina Motel on New Circle Road, with its huge 1960s neon sign and Roto-Sphere evoking the Space Age; Chapman Printing Co. on Russell Cave Road, which has a curved wall of narrow brick laid “jack on jack” style without overlapping; and a former dairy processing plant on East Second Street.

Another remarkable example is Collins Bowling Center on Southland Drive, whose owners have preserved not only the building’s style but its iconic sign: a giant bowling ball suspended atop three pointed spikes. Tate also loves the clean lines of the bus stop and sign for Gardenside Plaza shopping center on Alexandria Drive.

Other Modernist landmarks in Lexington include the Paul Miller Ford showroom on New Circle Road, whose glass walls rise from the car lot in a dramatic “V” shape; and Lexington architect Ken Miller’s Southern Hills United Methodist Church on Harrodsburg Road, whose copper-roofed sanctuary looks like a space ship.

Tate said many people don’t like Modernist architecture, perhaps because they grew up with it and consider it commonplace — even though it is becoming increasingly rare because of demolition and remodeling.

“But when they understand what it is and how it got that way, they do like it and they can value it,” she said. “It’s hard for people to think of modern buildings as historic. But these tell a story about who we are and how we got where we are.”

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