Foster Pettit’s posthumous memoir offers interesting history, lessons in good government

November 10, 2015



A big reason Lexington has prospered over the past 40 years is a gutsy decision by politicians and voters in the early 1970s to create a non-partisan merger of city and county governments.

As recounted in Foster Pettit’s posthumous memoir, that process was mostly about people of different political persuasions putting the common good above their self-interest. But it also involved behind-the-scenes intrigue, courtroom fights and a mayoral election so close it was decided by a spider’s web.

“The Spider Election: The Dramatic Story of Lexington’s Closest Mayoral Election” (Amelia Press, $25) is now on sale at Pettit, who was city government’s last mayor and merged government’s first one, finished the manuscript shortly before his death last Nov. 22. He died at age 84 from injuries suffered in a boating accident.

Journalist Al Smith, who wrote the forword, and Pettit’s daughter-in-law, Herald-Leader reporter Linda Blackford, who helped edit the book and wrote an afterward, will sign copies Saturday at the Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort along with one of Pettit’s sons, Gregory, a public relations executive.

Pettit began working on the book in 2011 and interviewed 16 of his political supporters and opponents from that era. He got literary help from Blackford and Neil Chethik, director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, “so it wouldn’t read like a deposition,” Gregory Pettit said.

Pettit2Pettit, who descended from some of Lexington’s most prominent settlers, loved history and a good story. But he also wanted to write this book to remind people how beneficial merged government has been for Lexington, Gregory Pettit said.

The merger improved government services and saved taxpayers money by making their delivery more efficient. It all but eliminated party politics, and the system of 12 district Council members opened opportunities for more leadership diversity.

Lexington was the 19th place in the nation to merge city and county governments, and in the four decades since then that number has risen only to 43, including Louisville-Jefferson County in 2003. Despite the many advantages of merger, few cities and counties are willing to upset the political status-quo.

Lexington had a long history of partisan, machine politics. Then local legislators Bart Peak and Bill McCann got the General Assembly to pass a revolutionary bill in 1970 allowing Lexington and Fayette County voters to decide whether they wanted merged government.

Pettit, a Democratic lawyer, wrote that he and a group of pro-merger men tried to find a candidate to run for mayor in 1971 to pave the way for a referendum. When more than a dozen people turned them down, he agreed to do it on a slate with four City Council candidates.

The slate won, and they found an ally in Robert Stephens, the Fayette County judge, even though merger would cost them all their elected offices. When merger was put to voters in 1973, it won by a 70 percent margin.

But the main story in Pettit’s book is what happened next.

In the election to choose the first mayor of the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government, Pettit was opposed by a popular judge, Jim Amato. On election night, Amato was declared the winner by 112 votes out of more than 40,000 cast.

But while pursuing a recount, Pettit’s campaign lawyer, George Mills, was alerted to an irregularity in the Aylesford precinct. A clerk’s error in loading ballot cards in the voting machine resulted in Pettit’s and Amato’s totals being switched. In reality, the courts determined, Pettit won by 54 votes.

One question for the court, though, was whether the voting machine had been tampered with after the election. Circuit Judge James Park Jr. determined that it had not, and his most conclusive evidence was an undisturbed spider’s web and egg sac inside the machine that any tampering would have destroyed.

When Pettit decided not to run for a second term in 1977, Amato was elected mayor.

Pettit’s tragic death turned this memoir into something of a memorial. I was honored to be among 14 friends, including Amato, asked to write tribute blurbs.

Pettit was a forward-looking statesman, and his low-key, inclusive leadership style set a tone for Lexington’s merged government that continues today.

In contrast to the ideology and partisan politics that have all but paralyzed state and national government, Lexington leaders debate issues on their merits and build sometimes-odd coalitions to get good things done. That may be Pettit’s greatest public legacy, and his book explains some fascinating stories behind how it happened.

Demographics, politics could affect Kentucky’s jobs outlook

November 8, 2015

The creation of more jobs that pay well enough to support a middle-class family was an issue in last week’s election, and it will be a bigger issue in next year’s elections. So it begs the question: what are Kentucky’s job prospects?

The past year has been better than some campaign rhetoric would lead you to believe. Kentucky’s unemployment rate has fallen to the national rate of 5 percent, its best showing since June 2001.

Average weekly earnings have shown strong growth over the past six months — twice the growth rate of a year ago, and more than the national growth rate. The state has regained the 96,000 jobs lost during the recession and added a few more.

The biggest gains in the past year have been in education and health services, which added 7,600 jobs. It will be interesting to see if Governor-elect Matt Bevin’s dislike for the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid expansion and Kynect, which provided health insurance for 400,000 Kentuckians, results in a hiring slowdown or job losses.

Kentucky manufacturing has rebounded, creating 6,500 jobs in the past year. That includes the new Lexus line at Toyota’s assembly plant in Georgetown.

Another growth area has been the hospitality, food service and arts sector, which added 5,600 jobs. Financial services created 3,800 jobs, while all levels of government added 3,700. Professional and business services added 2,300 jobs. Construction added 1,800 jobs — the same number mining and logging lost over the past year.

But there is one big caution for the future: Kentucky’s labor force is declining, mostly because of demographics. This state has a larger proportion of retirement-age people than the national average.

Ron Crouch, who crunches numbers for the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet and is a leading authority on Kentucky demographics, has been warning of this trend for years. He noted that while the working-age population (ages 20 to 64) grew by 18,000 from 2010 to 2014, the 65-and-older population grew four-times faster, to 76,000.

Assuming this trend continues, Kentucky must make sure its working-age population has the education, skills and good health to fill not only the jobs being vacated by Baby Boomers but new ones that must be created for economic growth. That means we can’t afford to have so many working-age Kentuckians “lost” to idleness and disability.

This is especially important because two sectors that for generations provided good-paying jobs to under-educated Kentuckians — coal mining and low-skill manufacturing — are mostly gone and won’t be coming back.

The North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s sent a lot of low-skilled manufacturing jobs overseas and left many Kentucky towns with idle factories. The state’s manufacturing sector is now more high-tech, with large segments in the aerospace and automotive industries, and that requires more skilled workers.

Several uncertainties could affect the growth of manufacturing, from rising energy costs to the new Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, whose details are just now becoming public.

If Bevin and Republicans are successful in passing “right to work” laws — or, as union workers call them, “right to work for less” laws — wage growth could be hurt. Business groups say those laws make states more attractive to businesses that create jobs, but the result is lower average wages.

Kentucky politicians of both parties crow about being “friends” of coal, but the reality is the coal industry will never be very job-friendly again.

State officials reported last week that coal employment has dropped by half since 2011 — from 18,812 jobs to 9,356. But what people forget is that, since it peaked in 1981 at about 48,000 workers, the number of mining jobs has been in steady decline, mostly because of mechanization.

While some job losses in coal have come because of environmental concerns and regulations, the biggest factor by far has been cheap natural gas. Also, Eastern Kentucky’s coal reserves are dwindling, making it more costly to mine and less competitive with coal from other regions.

For Kentucky to prosper in the 21st century, leaders must be aggressive about exploring new economic opportunities rather than protecting dying industries. And they must help create a work force that is better-educated, better-trained, healthier and better-paid than it has been.

As you listen to politicians propose new policies, ask yourself which ones will make it easier to accomplish those goals and which ones will make it harder.

Photos from today’s Governor’s Awards in the Arts ceremony

October 22, 2015
Doug Crowe, a state videographer, lined up winners of the Governor's Awards in the Arts for a group photo after the ceremony Thursday at the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort. Photos by Tom Eblen

Doug Crowe, a state videographer, lined up winners of the Governor’s Awards in the Arts for a group photo after the ceremony Thursday at the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort. Photos by Tom Eblen


Gov. Steve Beshear presented this year’s Governor’s Awards in the Arts at a ceremony Thursday in the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort. This year’s winners were: journalist Al Smith of Lexington, the Milner Award for lifetime service; Bluegrass musician Sam Bush of Bowling Green, National Artist Award; fabric and bead artist Linda Pigman Fifield of Knott County, the Artist Award; Big Ass Solutions of Lexington, Business Award; Creative Diversity Studio of Louisville, Community Arts Award; Centre College music professor Nathan Link of Danville, Education Award; wood carver Willie D. Rascoe of Hopkinsville, Folk Heritage Award; Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau, Government Award; and Kentucky Educational Television personality Dave Shuffett of Nicholasville, Media Award.

Watch a video about each winner by clicking here.

Bluegrass music star Sam Bush, right, chatted with newspaperman Al Smith after the Governor's Awards in the Arts ceremony in the Capitol rotunda Thursday in Frankfort. Bush won the national artist award, while Smith won the Milner Award for his longtime service and advocacy of the arts in Kentucky. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Bluegrass music star Sam Bush, right, chatted with newspaperman Al Smith after the Governor’s Awards in the Arts ceremony.


Minnie Adkins, a folk artist from Eastern Kentucky, made this year's trophies for the Governor's Awards in the Arts. She carves and paints wood sculptures. The blue rooster is her signature piece.

Minnie Adkins, a folk artist from Eastern Kentucky, made this year’s trophies for the Governor’s Awards in the Arts. She carves and paints wood sculptures. The blue rooster is her signature piece.


Kentucky Educational Television personality Dave Shuffett, right, received the media award in the Governor's Awards in the Arts from Gov. Steve Beshear.

Kentucky Educational Television personality Dave Shuffett, right, received the media award in the Governor’s Awards in the Arts from Gov. Steve Beshear.

If we can’t face facts about the Civil War, how can we ever deal with modern issues?

September 1, 2015

You have to wonder: With all of the challenges our state and nation faces, why do we still spend so much time arguing about the Civil War? Well, there are a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that Americans have an uncanny ability to believe what they want to believe, regardless of facts. No chapter in our history has been more mythologized than the Southern rebellion that officially ended 150 years ago.

If you want to understand the facts, a good place to start is Ken Burns’ 1990 television series, The Civil War. For five consecutive nights beginning Sept. 7, Kentucky Educational Television will show a high-definition version of that acclaimed series, which has been digitally re-mastered for its 25th anniversary.

I remember when the series first aired — and a record 40 million people watched. I lived in Atlanta, where the Civil War remained an everyday presence. It seemed like the whole city was sleep-deprived that week; people stayed up night after night, mesmerized by a compelling history lesson told simply with narration, old photographs and music.

If you have time to see only one episode of The Civil War this time, make it the first one. I watched the original again this week and was impressed by how well it explained the war’s causes, which generations of myth-making tried to obfuscate.

While there were a few side issues, the Civil War was all about slavery. White supremacy was the Confederacy’s core belief. Read every state’s secession documents. Read the politicians’ speeches. There is no doubt.

The other reason the Civil War still resonates is that deep divisions of race and class in America have never gone away; they have just become more subtle and complex. And each time it feels like our national wound is healing, the scab is torn off.

A white racist slaughters black worshipers in church. A black man assassinates a white deputy sheriff. White police officers shoot unarmed black men. A black man videotapes his murder of two TV journalists. So many white people find it so easy to hate a mixed-race president with a foreign-sounding name.


A participant in a Sons of Confederate Veterans rally at the state Capitol in July takes a “selfie” with the Jefferson Davis statue. Photo by Charles Bertram.

This ugly reality has refocused attention on Confederate symbolism, which has always been racially divisive. In Kentucky, the hottest debate is over the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis placed in the Capitol rotunda in 1936.

Like most Confederate monuments, including the statue of Gen. John Hunt Morgan in front of Lexington’s old courthouse, Davis’ statue was erected decades after the war, largely at taxpayer expense, by a Confederate memorial group as part of a well-organized effort to reinterpret the South’s racist rebellion as a noble “lost cause”.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, both candidates for governor and other prominent Democrats and Republicans have called for moving Davis’ statue from its symbolic place of honor in the Capitol to a museum.

That view was endorsed Monday by 72 historians from 16 Kentucky colleges and universities, who sent a letter to Stumbo and members of the General Assembly.

“The statue is not a neutral evocation of facts, but an act of interpretation that depicts Davis as a hero with an honorable cause,” the letter said. “Virtually no respected professional historians embrace this view — a perspective that minimizes the significance of slavery as a cause of the Civil War, downplays the human suffering of millions, and endows the southern cause with a nobility it does not deserve.”

But a recent Bluegrass Poll found that 73 percent of Kentuckians think the statue should stay in the rotunda. The all-white Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission agreed by a vote of 7-2, but recommended adding a plaque with “educational context.” Myths are stubborn things.

What I find most disturbing about this debate is the willful ignorance of so many white people who insist the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. They ignore the fact that Confederate symbolism has always been a tool of racial intimidation. They remain oblivious to the pain black people feel toward veneration of Confederate heroes.

As the historians’ letter pointed out, this discussion isn’t about “erasing” or “rewriting” history; it is about making history more accurate. It is about no longer honoring people whose actions and beliefs are now considered despicable by a more enlightened and inclusive society.

With so many people so willing to ignore facts about the Civil War’s cause, it is no wonder we have trouble discussing race relations, economic justice, climate change and other issues that now threaten our future.

When willful ignorance and ideology replace facts and logic, it produces the kind of dangerous polarization that America saw in the 1860s — and that we see far too often a century and a half later.

CentrePointe deal looks promising, but city must scrutinize details

August 11, 2015

CentrePointe is bounded by Main, Limestone, Upper and Vine Streets. Photo by Charles Bertram.


At first blush, this deal would appear to have the potential to write a dream ending for Lexington’s biggest downtown development nightmare.

Two young men with finance and development experience and access to big money say they are taking over CentrePointe, the mixed use project that after seven years of false starts is nothing more than a giant hole in the center of the city.

But due diligence is needed, because dreams often don’t come true.

Investor Matt Collins and Atit Jariwala, who heads the New York development firm Bridgeton Holdings, seem to be saying all the right things to try to turn this disaster of a project into a civic asset.

Collins said he and his family aren’t just invested in CentrePointe; they have an agreement to take over the project. (I’m holding my breath until all of the papers are signed.)

Property owner Joe Rosenberg and Dudley Webb, the previous developer, will no longer have control or decision-making roles, Collins said. They will only be minority equity partners, reflecting the current value of their investments.

“We’re calling the shots,” Collins said.

Collins and Jariwala also are thinking about renaming the development, since CentrePointe and its pretentious spelling carries a lot of baggage. Good idea.

The partners said they want to make this project a landmark, an iconic piece of architecture, but one that looks like it belongs in Lexington. Another good idea.

This was one of Webb’s mistakes. He had a chance for great architecture with the design developed by Studio Gang of Chicago and later adapted by Lexington’s EOP Architects. But Webb’s sixth and latest version of CentrePointe’s design was barely better than his first three attempts, which were generic and forgettable.

I hope, though, that Collins and Jariwala won’t limit their vision to a look that mimics Lexington’s historic buildings. To be a landmark, a contemporary structure needs to be contemporary, not a riff on architectural history.

Collins and Jariwala said they plan to stay with plans for an underground garage, hotel, apartments, shops and restaurants. But rather than a commercial office tower, they want a new government center, which the city would lease.

Lexington needs a new government center to replace the old Lafayette Hotel building, which badly needs renovation and would be better suited for a hotel, condos or apartments.

City officials have been exploring the idea of selling the old hotel and constructing a new government center on city-owned land downtown. Would it make sense to lease from a private developer instead? Maybe, if the numbers work.

With Webb essentially out of the picture, there is no political reason not to consider incorporating city hall into this development. But Collins and Jariwala will have to negotiate a long-term lease that makes financial sense for taxpayers.

Mayor Jim Gray and the Urban County Council will have to look closely at those numbers, and at something else: Collins and Jariwala said they may want the city to guarantee $25 million in tax-increment financing bonds to build the garage.

City officials weren’t willing to guarantee those bonds for Webb, viewing the risk as too great. If these men want the city to do it for them, they will have to make a case that they are a better risk and structure a deal that protects taxpayers.

After several years of work in banking and international development, Collins said he moved to Lexington two years ago to attend law school at the University of Kentucky. When he finishes school, Collins said he wants to make his home in Lexington, where his Frankfort-born father, international financier Tim Collins, spent part of his childhood.

I think local ties are important. I agree with Collins’ belief that Lexington has a lot of untapped potential, and that it needs a more vibrant downtown to achieve it. I also agree that a landmark building on the CentrePointe block would be a catalyst.

CentrePointe doesn’t just need new financing — it needs new vision, talent and leadership. I am hopeful that Collins and Jariwala can offer that. But city officials must evaluate this deal and its many complexities with open eyes and a clear head.

The big mistake Lexington leaders made seven years ago when CentrePointe was announced was to take everything Webb said at face value. We can’t afford to make that mistake again.

History will remember this month of seismic social change

June 27, 2015
A Pride flag held by Michael Harrington of Berea is backlit by the sun during the Decision Day Rally, celebrating Friday's marriage equality ruling, at Robert Stephens Courthouse Plaza in Lexington. Photo by Matt Goins

Michael Harrington of Berea holds a pride flag during the Decision Day Rally, celebrating Friday’s marriage equality ruling, at Courthouse Plaza in Lexington. Photo by Matt Goins


Social progress can seem painfully slow. And then, almost out of nowhere, events bring public opinion and the law together to produce head-spinning change.

This month will go down in history as one of those epic tipping points on several issues that have simmered below the surface of American society for generations.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Friday that same-sex couples in all 50 states have a constitutional right to marry. It was a landmark decision against discrimination that followed a seismic shift in public opinion toward gay rights.

Just a few years ago, gay marriage would have seemed unthinkable to most Americans. It was contrary to tradition and conservative religious beliefs, which were reflected in federal and state law.

But when the legal question finally reached the nation’s highest court, there was little doubt about the outcome. The legal arguments against same-sex marriage were almost laughably lame.

Equal protection under the law is one of this nation’s most cherished values. The Supreme Court majority correctly decided that gay people should not have their freedom to marry blocked by other people’s religious beliefs.

It was public opinion, not a court ruling, that swiftly turned the tide on another issue: state-sponsored veneration of the Confederacy, which has disrespected black people and fueled racial tensions since the Civil War.

Protests Tuesday at the South Carolina Capitol in Columbia. Associated Press photo.

Protests Tuesday at the South Carolina Capitol in Columbia. Associated Press photo.

Conservative politicians across the South were tripping over each other last week to call for removing Confederate flags from their state capitols, Confederate emblems from their state flag and license plates and statues of Confederate heroes from places of honor.

It was a stunning reversal. Many of these politicians, and others like them, had resisted this for years. Their predecessors helped erect these symbols, either to memorialize a mythical “Lost Cause” or to express defiance against federal civil rights legislation and court-ordered integration.

Then, suddenly, a heinous crime exposed these excuses and rationalizations for what they really were. A 21-year-old white man murdered nine black worshipers in a Charleston, S.C., church after touting his racism online with pictures of himself holding the Confederate flag.

Many white people defend Confederate symbols as expressions of “Southern heritage.” They view them as honoring the sacrifices of ancestors, most of whom did not own slaves and were fighting out of loyalty to their home states.

But these symbols have always had a different meaning for black people. Confederate leaders considered their ancestors to be less-than-human property, and they went to war to try to keep them enslaved.

Since the Civil War, white supremacists have often used Confederate imagery as a tool for trying to keep black people “in their place.” Celebrating the Confederacy for other reasons does not change that bitter fact.

That doesn’t mean every Confederate relic should be banished to a museum. But government, which serves all people in this increasingly diverse country, should be careful about how and where the Confederate legacy is enshrined.

Should Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ statue be moved from the state Capitol rotunda to a museum? Should statues of Lexington’s most prominent Confederate leaders, John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan, be removed from the old courthouse lawn and Cheapside?

A monument honoring the hundreds of slaves sold on the auction block at Cheapside or whipped on that courthouse lawn now seems more appropriate.

How do we preserve, acknowledge and learn from our complex history, while at the same time honoring values we want to shape our future? It is a delicate balance.

Pope Francis. Photo by Andrew Medichini / Associated Press.

Pope Francis. Photo by Andrew Medichini / Associated Press.

The last major tipping point this month has received less attention, but it was a watershed nonetheless.

Pope Francis issued a strongly worded encyclical to the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics that clearly framed environmental stewardship, climate change and related topics of social justice and economic inequality as moral issues.

But the leader of the world’s largest Christian denomination will have a fight on his hands. His views are well-grounded in Christian theology, but they run counter to the way the world works.

Many powerful people worship a God found in bank vaults rather than Heaven. By shifting the moral conversation from sex to money, Pope Francis has made a lot of people nervous. It will be interesting to see what difference his leadership makes.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Would a better flag boost Kentuckians’ pride in their state?

June 20, 2015



Kentucky needs many things: better health, more education, less poverty, less political corruption, a more-prosperous middle class, a less-polluted environment.

And a better state flag. I have thought that for years, but I’ve always considered flag design a trivial issue in a state with so many bigger challenges.

Ben Sollee changed my mind.

If you don’t know Sollee, he is an enormously talented singer, songwriter and cellist (yes, a cellist) whose unique style of folksy, bluesy, socially conscious music has attracted an international following. He also is a proud Kentuckian.

Ben Sollee. Photo by Tom Eblen

Ben Sollee. Photo by Tom Eblen

Sollee performed in Frankfort this month at the Kentucky Historical Society’s annual Boone Day festivities. I sat on stage and interviewed him between songs about his Kentucky roots and how they influence his art.

Kentuckians have a lot to be proud of, Sollee said, but they don’t express that pride as much as do residents of some other U.S. states and Canadian provinces. He thinks part of the problem is our flag.

“When I travel and I see people in British Columbia or Colorado or California, they are proud of where they’re from,” he said. “And they wear it all over. Everyone’s sporting the state flag, the state image, the state logo.

“We don’t have that in Kentucky,” he added. “Our state flag is not adopted on a cultural level. We need a better state flag!”

Two men wearing antique clothing and shaking hands in the middle of a blue flag, surrounded by goldenrod weed and a lot of words just doesn’t cut it graphically.

The handshake guys make a fine official seal. “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” is a great motto for a commonwealth, which is a more noble thing to be than a mere state. Goldenrod is pretty,  even if it does make me sneeze. But all thrown together, these things make a boring flag.

“Sitting here at the Kentucky History Center, I understand that’s a bit of blasphemy,” Sollee said, although his comments drew loud applause from the audience.

“There’s a lot of heritage behind that flag,” he added. “But there’s a lot of new heritage that’s not being represented by that flag. It’s a bad design, and it doesn’t communicate to a wide swath of people easily.”

I think Sollee is right, and so do flag design experts. Yes, there are experts who study the design, use and cultural significance of flags. They are called “vexillologists” and among the places they hang out is the North American Vexillological Association.

Last year, the association published “guiding principles” for good flag design. Kentucky’s flag violates most of them. It is what vexillologists call an S.O.B. — seal on a bedsheet.

When you see Kentucky’s flag flying at a distance, which is the way we usually see flags, it is blue with a vague golden blob in the middle, virtually indistinguishable from the flags of a half-dozen other states.

What state flags do the vexillologists like? Those of New Mexico, Texas, Maryland, Alaska, Colorado and Arizona, to name a few. They approach the quality of great national flags, such as the United States, Canada, Great Britain and South Africa. Even some cities, such as Chicago and Washington, have flags designed so well that residents embrace them.

With few exceptions, well-designed flags are simple, with two or three basic colors and meaningful symbolism that is easily recognized. They are distinctive, and they avoid seals and writing of any kind.

As Ted Kaye, author of the book Good Flag, Bad Flag, puts it: “A flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.”

When designing a flag, experts recommend starting with a rectangle 1 by 1½ inches. If a design doesn’t work in that small a space, it just doesn’t work.

“We could have a crowd-sourced campaign, which is to say let’s get the in-state artists to submit designs and have a competition,” Sollee suggested. “Let’s create a new piece of art that can be our state flag that we can all get behind and adopt.

“It would do wonders for people outside of Kentucky recognizing and visiting this place,” he said. “It would do wonders to have a banner that we could all wave around. I think it’s a small step that we could make big strides with. Let’s do it!”

Historical Frankfort church, once threatened, is saved for a new role

June 6, 2015
Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.    Photo by Tom Eblen |

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors. Photos by Tom Eblen


FRANKFORT — When Good Shepherd Catholic Church and School moved to a new suburban campus in 2011, many people worried about what would happen to its former site, a downtown landmark since before the Civil War.

First, the old church was in the way of construction for the Franklin County Judicial Center, which took out the school gymnasium next door. In the end, the church wasn’t harmed, but the Judicial Center wrapped it on two sides.

Then there was a lack of maintenance. Water seeped through brick, damaging plaster and endangering the church’s structural integrity. Roof leaks caused sections of the heart-pine floors to rot. A tree sprouted from the bell-tower steeple.

The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation listed Good Shepherd on its 2013 “eleven at the eleventh hour” list of Central Kentucky historic buildings in danger of demolition after plans fell through to convert it into a museum.

“That building has been threatened for years, and there was a lot of concern that we were going to lose it,” said Craig Potts, executive director of the Kentucky Heritage Council and the state’s historic preservation officer.

“I was particularly concerned,” he added. “I was married in that church and live just a few doors down from it.”

Unlike some other recent preservation stories, this one seems headed toward a happy ending. Joe Dunn, an Oldham County developer who specializes in adaptive reuse of old buildings, is finishing a beautiful renovation of the circa 1850 sanctuary.

It has been leased to event venue operator Denise Jerome, who this summer will reopen it as The Lancaster at St. Clair, a place for weddings, receptions, music performances and other gatherings. A public preview is planned 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Aug. 20. Rental information:

The remaining part of the old gymnasium’s lot at the corner of Wapping and St. Clair streets is being converted into a garden-like outdoor event space enclosed by a wrought-iron fence.

After that is finished, Dunn will renovate the school building, which opened in 1923, and lease it for office space.

Dunn and his son, John, were already familiar with downtown Frankfort, having renovated the McClure Building, a 1906 office building, and the Market Square Apartments, a former Odd Fellows lodge built in the 1850s.

When Dunn first looked at the Good Shepherd campus, he was only interested in the school building. But the real estate agent insisted that he walk inside the church.

“I thought, what would I do with a church?” he recalled. “But, being raised Catholic, I thought I should look at it, and, wow! You could just feel the reverence of the place.”

Dunn was captivated by the old sanctuary’s Gothic Revival arches, colorful stained-glass windows, bell tower and working pipe organ.

“I had the same feeling he did when I walked into the space,” said Jerome, who manages several event venues in metro Louisville.

So, in May 2014, Dunn bought the church, school and what was left of the former gymnasium lot. He expects to spend about $500,000 on the church and garden renovation.

Dunn and Jerome named the venue for Father J.M. Lancaster, who came to Frankfort in 1848 to lead a 20-year-old Catholic congregation that was suddenly swelling with immigrants escaping military conscription in Germany and famine in Ireland.

The next year, he paid $5,000 for a small Presbyterian church on Wapping Street, where the congregation worshiped as its members literally built their new church around it. When the new church was finished, the old one was dismantled. Since then, Good Shepherd has played a big role in Frankfort society.

“He has done a good job with the renovation,” Potts said of Dunn. “And I think he has a good idea for its reuse that is going to help all the revitalization efforts already underway downtown. Frankfort is kind of buzzing right now.”

While restoring Good Shepherd was a big job, Dunn said the project has gone more smoothly than many do.

“There was a lot of damage, and I did have to say a few prayers, ‘Is this what you want me to do?'” Dunn said. “But the pieces fell into place pretty easily. Sometimes you feel like there are other hands guiding you.”

Joe Dunn, who is renovating the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort for use as event space, plays a few notes on the organ, which is in good working order. The building was built about 1850.   Photo by Tom Eblen |

Joe Dunn, who is renovating the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church for use as event space, plays a few notes on the organ, which is in good working order.

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.    Photo by Tom Eblen |

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.

The tower bell in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort still works.   Photo by Tom Eblen |

The tower bell in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort still works.

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.    Photo by Tom Eblen |

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space.

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The organ is in good working order. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The organ is in good working order.

The event venue in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, will be named in honore of Father J.M. Lancaster, the first priest there, who was memorialized in a stained-glass window.   Photo by Tom Eblen |

The event venue in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, will be named in honore of Father J.M. Lancaster, the first priest there, who was memorialized in a stained-glass window.

The former Good Shepherd Catholic Church, built in 1850 at the corner of St. Clair and Wapping streets, had suffered water damage from a leaking roof and deteriorating brick walls. The building was surrounded when the Franklin County Justice Center was built.   Photo by Tom Eblen |

The former Good Shepherd Catholic Church, built in 1850 at the corner of St. Clair and Wapping streets, had suffered water damage from a leaking roof and deteriorating brick walls. The building was surrounded when the Franklin County Justice Center was built.

Developer Joe Dunn, who is renovating the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, also bought the nearby parish school building, circa 1920. He plans to renovate it and lease it as office space.   Photo by Tom Eblen |

Developer Joe Dunn also bought the nearby parish school building, circa 1923. He plans to renovate it and lease it as office space.

When candidates talk about prosperity, whose do they mean?

May 10, 2015

Have you ever wondered why Kentucky is always near the bottom when states are ranked by economic health and well-being?

There are several reasons. But one is that many of our politicians are either wealthy business executives who fund their own campaigns or people who suck up to wealthy business executives to fund their campaigns.

Either way, the interests of wealthy business executives are what become priorities, and they have as much in common with the interests of average Kentuckians as, well, night and day.

This is why politicians perpetuate several economic myths, and why many policies that would improve the economy and lives of many Kentuckians are rarely enacted. What are these myths?

To start with, business executives are not “job creators.” In fact, executives often make more money and Wall Street rewards their companies when they cut jobs rather than create them.

The real job creators are average people who buy the goods or services businesses produce. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of all economic activity and indirectly drives much of business capital spending and investment. The more money people have to spend, the more jobs will be created.

Many successful executives also keep wages for everyone but themselves as low as possible to boost “efficiency” and profits. That’s why average people should beware of politicians who are against raising the minimum wage, which has declined in value for decades as executive compensation has soared.

Opponents always argue that raising the minimum wage would do more harm than good, but decades of experience has shown otherwise. Raising the minimum wage also leads to higher pay for other low-wage workers, giving more people more money to spend and boosting the economy.

Beware of politicians who advocate so-called “right to work” laws. These laws aren’t really about protecting anybody’s “right to work”; they are about weakening unions and protecting big employers’ “right” to pay workers as little as possible.

Beware of politicians who rail against government regulation. Sure, you can always find examples of over-regulation. But regulation keeps business executives from cheating and hurting the rest of us and ruining the environment we all share.

It is no coincidence that America’s economy was most prosperous in the decades when average workers’ wages were higher, unions were stronger and government was a watchdog of business instead of a lapdog.

Things started changing in the 1980s with “pro-business” policies and “trickle-down” economic theories that resulted in the highest level of wealth inequality in nearly a century, not to mention the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and a slow, uneven recovery.

Beware of politicians who want to abolish “Obamacare.” They want to take health care away from several hundred thousand Kentuckians with no plan to replace it other than vague promises of “free-market” solutions.

The free market has never provided good health care for low-wage people. Most hospitals and clinics began as charities, not businesses. Almost every other industrialized nation has a health care system run largely by government, delivering better care at less cost than our private insurance-based system.

Beware of politicians who are “friends of coal.” Kentucky will continue mining and burning coal for decades, but coal is the past, not the future. Most coal jobs will never return. Repairing coal’s damage to Kentucky will be a huge, costly challenge, and we don’t need to make the mess any bigger than it already is.

Renewable energy is the future, and the more Kentucky politicians deny climate change and cling to the past to protect coal-industry profits, the further behind this state will fall.

What Kentucky needs are leaders willing to invest in education, entrepreneurship, economic infrastructure beyond just highways and the social services necessary to keep average people healthy and able to work.

We need leaders with enough courage to create a modern tax system that grows with the economy and eliminates special-interest loopholes that sap government of the resources needed to address Kentucky’s many challenges.

As you listen to the candidates for governor seek your vote in the May 19 primary and Nov. 3 general elections, ask yourself this question: When they promise prosperity for Kentucky, whose prosperity are they talking about? Yours or theirs?

Alice Dunnigan’s amazing story, from Ky. segregation to Capitol Hill

February 7, 2015

150208Dunnigan002President John F. Kennedy reaches down to speak with Alice Dunnigan, the Russellville native who became the first black woman to be a widely accredited Washington journalist.   Photo courtesy of Carol McCabe Booker


Alice Allison Dunnigan grew up on a red-clay hill in Logan County, the daughter of a poor sharecropper and a washerwoman.

She, too, would wash clothes and clean houses for white people before working her way through Kentucky State University to realize her first big dream, becoming a school teacher.

But Dunnigan is remembered today for climbing another hill — Capitol Hill — where in the late 1940s she became the first black woman journalist accredited to Congress, the White House and other major assignments in Washington, D.C.

Dunnigan died in 1983 at age 77, but Carol McCabe Booker, a former journalist and lawyer, remembers meeting her once at a party. Dunnigan was a friend of Booker’s husband, Simeon, 96, another pioneering black journalist.

But it wasn’t until two years ago, when the National Association of Black Journalists inducted both Dunnigan and Simeon Booker into its hall of fame, that Booker learned more about this woman’s amazing life story.

She tracked down a rare copy of Dunnigan’s 1974 self-published autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House. It inspired her to edit a new edition of the book, which the University of Georgia Press will publish Feb. 15 as Alone atop the Hill ($26.95).

150208Dunnigan003Booker will be in Kentucky next week to talk about Dunnigan and sign books. She speaks Feb. 17 at the Kentucky Historical Society‘s monthly Food for Thought lunch in Frankfort ($25, or $20 for members; reservations due Feb. 13. Call (502) 564-1792, ext. 4414, or email

The next day, Booker speaks to KSU students. And on Feb. 19, she goes to Dunnigan’s hometown for a free, public event at 2 p.m. in Russellville’s African American Heritage Center, 252 South Morgan Street, sponsored by the Kentucky Human Rights Commission.

Dunnigan tells her compelling story in the clear, direct style that made her an influential voice in black newspapers nationwide when she was Washington bureau chief for the Associated Negro Press news service.

“I thought she deserved the right to tell her story in her own words, in her own voice,” Booker said when we talked by phone last week. “I wanted Alice to have a chance in this new era.”

Dunnigan’s writing needed little editing, Booker said. But she did make one big change: she cut the 670-page autobiography by more than half, leaving out the last chapters that covered her years in government service after she left her poverty-wage journalism job in 1960. The final chapters were not nearly as interesting as the rest of the story, Booker said.

The new book is a fascinating read, filled with anecdotes that show how pervasive discrimination limited possibilities for both blacks and women at the time. Dunnigan always thought her gender was as much of a hindrance as her race.

“That’s why I think the story has wide appeal,” Booker said. “A young woman of any race reading that story can glean some inspiration from it.”

Dunnigan’s motto was, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” She decided at age 13 to become both a teacher and a journalist to “tell people how to improve their lives.” But her parents and husbands from two failed marriages offered little encouragement.

Even after Dunnigan “made it” in Washington, she was barred from some venues, or had to sit with servants at events instead of with other reporters. She endured openly racist congressmen and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s refusal to answer her tough news conference questions about discrimination and civil rights.

Dunnigan, the first black woman elected to the Women’s National Press Club, got access to power because she demanded it. She won respect and dozens of journalism awards for her accuracy, fairness and persistence.

But she never made much money in journalism. Dunnigan often had to pay her own travel expenses to cover stories, and she writes of pawning her watch each Saturday so she would have enough money to eat until her paycheck arrived on Monday.

A year before her death, Dunnigan published her second book, The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Tradition. It is a collection of sketches she wrote in the 1930s to inspire students in the segregated schools where she taught.

“You could say that Alice had one fantastic career as a communicator in three venues — teaching, journalism and government,” Booker said. “It was being a teacher on a broader level.”

150208Dunnigan001Alice Dunnigan, the Russellville native who became the first black woman to be a widely accredited Washington journalist, greets A.B. “Happy” Chandler, the former Kentucky governor, senator and U.S. baseball commissioner.  Photo courtesy of Carol McCabe Booker

Ark park fiasco a wakeup call to aim higher with taxpayer incentives

January 11, 2015



The dispute over tax breaks for a proposed Noah’s Ark theme park is ridiculous on many levels, but it offers a good economic development lesson for Kentucky politicians and taxpayers.

In case you haven’t been following the story, the nonprofit organization Answers in Genesis, which opened the Creation Museum in Boone County in 2007, is trying to build the Ark Encounter attraction in nearby Grant County.

AIG believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible’s creation story that is contrary to both scientific evidence and the views of most Christians. Among other things, AIG’s followers believe the world is only 6,000 years old, and that humans and dinosaurs once lived side-by-side, just as in The Flintstones cartoons.

The Creation Museum drew a lot of tourists — believers and scoffers alike — so AIG announced plans in 2010 to build a big theme park around a 500-foot-long, seven-story-high version of Noah’s Ark.

This time, though, AIG wanted taxpayer subsidies. And it got a lot. But it wants more, even as the project has been scaled back because of fundraising shortfalls.

The city of Williamstown agreed to a 75 percent break on property taxes for 30 years and a $62 million bond issue. The Grant County Industrial Development Authority gave the park $200,000 plus 100 acres of land at a reduced price. The state has promised $11 million in road improvements for the park’s benefit.

The state also agreed to provide $18 million in tourism tax credits, but it withdrew the offer after it became clear that Ark Encounter jobs would go only to people who pass the group’s religious litmus test. You would think state officials could have seen that coming.

Kentucky politicians should never have agreed to these incentives in the first place. And you have to wonder: Would they have done the same for a Wiccan World theme park? Buddha Land? Six Flags over Islam?

AIG has threatened to sue, and it has rented billboards around Kentucky and in New York’s Times Square to wage a holy war of words against what founder Ken Ham calls “secularists” and “intolerant liberal friends” who object to his ministry feeding at the public trough.

The sad thing is, AIG might have a case. It doesn’t help that in 2013, the General Assembly foolishly passed a conservative feel-good law that protects religious groups from vague “burdens” imposed by state government.

So don’t be surprised if AIG — a tax-exempt group with more than $19 million in annual revenue and enough extra cash to rent a billboard in Times Square — argues in court that it is “burdened” by being denied millions more in taxpayer subsidies.

The ark park mess is a symptom of a bigger problem with Kentucky’s economic development strategy. Despite recent reforms, officials aim too low too often. Rather than focusing on high-paying jobs that will move Kentucky forward, they are often happy to subsidize jobs that don’t even pay a living wage.

It is an unfortunate reality that state and local governments must sometimes throw money at corporations to bring jobs to their areas. It has become quite a racket, as companies play cities and states off one another, demanding more and more concessions that shift the burden of public services to everybody else.

Sometimes, such as with the Toyota plant in Georgetown, incentives are good investments. But Kentucky has shelled out money for far more clunkers.

The ark park is a great example of a clunker. It would create mostly low-wage service jobs while reinforcing the stereotype of Kentucky as a state of ignorant people hostile to science.

Think about it this way: For every low-wage job the ark park would create, how many high-wage jobs would be lost because science and technology companies simply write off Kentucky?

But economic development incentives are only part of the problem. Kentucky’s antiquated tax code no longer grows with the economy, and it is riddled with special-interest loopholes that leave far too little public money to meet today’s needs, much less make smart investments for the future.

The ark park fiasco should be a wake-up call for Kentucky politicians to raise their standards.

This state will never become prosperous by spending public money to create low-wage jobs and reinforce negative stereotypes. Prosperity will come only through strategic, long-term investments in high-wage jobs, education, infrastructure, a healthy population, a cleaner environment and a better quality of life.

Everybody say amen.

Before vacation season ends, experience wonders close to home

August 12, 2014

140731Maker'sMark0168This art glass installation in the ceiling of a barrel warehouse is the newest visitor attraction at the Maker’s Mark distillery in Marion County. Below, Ward Hall in Georgetown is a Greek Revival masterpiece. Photos by Tom Eblen 


There’s a chill in the air this week. Schools are back in session. Fall is beginning to arrive.

But if you want to stretch vacation season a little longer, here’s an idea: Find time to visit some Central Kentucky wonders. You know, the places tourists come from around the world to see but locals often forget about.

Here are a few suggestions. For more details on many of them, go to, the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website.

Horses. This may be the horse capital of the world, but when did you last see one? Spend a day at the Kentucky Horse Park ( or visit a Thoroughbred farm. Several farms welcome visitors who schedule in advance. Or you can do like out-of-towners do and book a horse farm bus tour.

Keeneland Race Course is the best place to see Thoroughbreds in action. The park-like grounds are open year-around. The yearling sales are Sept. 8-21. The fall racing meet is Oct. 3-25. More information:

Bourbon. More than 90 percent of this globally popular whiskey is made within a short drive of Lexington. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is becoming a major tourist draw. My favorite distilleries to visit include Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Wild Turkey and Four Roses near Lawrenceburg, Maker’s Mark near Lebanon and Woodford Reserve near Versailles. More information:

Country roads. Some of my favorite places to enjoy Central Kentucky’s beauty are the country roads that connect the region like a vast spider’s web. These are perfect for scenic drives. I like to go by bicycle, but it takes experience to know which roads are safe and comfortable for cycling. The Bluegrass Cycling Club has well-managed group rides each week. Check the calendar:

Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.comArchitecture and history. This was a rich agricultural region before the Civil War, and remnants of that era can be seen in Central Kentucky’s grand mansions. Architectural styles include Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Gothic Revival.

Many historic homes are still private residences, but some of the best are open for tours. Among them: Ward Hall in Georgetown, White Hall in Madison County and these in Lexington: Waveland, the Hunt-Morgan House, the Mary Todd Lincoln House and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. Other must-sees: Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County and the Old Capitol in Frankfort.

Nature. Perhaps the least-known attractions in Central Kentucky are natural areas, but they can be spectacularly beautiful. I especially love the Palisades region of the Kentucky River, which stretches from Boonesboro to Frankfort.

Lexington’s Raven Run park is the most-visited natural area in the Palisades region. Others include Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve (, Floracliff Nature Sanctuary ( and Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary, all of which have more-limited public access.

Julian Campbell, a botanist and authority on native Kentucky plants, has begun leading monthly hikes to promote awareness and conservation of natural areas. More information: or email

But you don’t have to go hiking in the woods to see Central Kentucky’s oldest and most magnificent natural specimens.

A unique feature of the Bluegrass landscape is huge burr and chinkapin oak, blue ash and kingnut hickory trees, some of which are thought to be 300-500 years old. Tom Kimmerer, a forest scientist, has launched a non-profit organization to study how to better care for these “venerable” trees, as he calls them. More information:

Because Lexington has literally grown up around these old trees, they can be found in some strange places.

Recent brush-trimming has highlighted a magnificent burr oak that Kimmerer is conserving for Ball Homes beside a new subdivision at Harrodsburg Road and Military Pike. In the 1990s, a parking structure for medical offices was built around another huge oak tree, near the corner of Harrodsburg and Mason Headley roads.

Other notable examples can be found in front of an Avis car rental office on South Broadway; on the lawns of Sullivan University and the mansion at Griffin Gate; and scattered among new buildings along Sir Barton Way in Hamburg.

Here’s an idea: as you drive around on your weekly errands, start an ancient tree scavenger hunt! Anything to make the lazy days of summer last a little longer.

140807Gainesway0018This burr oak tree on Gainesway Farm is likely several hundred years old. 

Scholars, curators get close look at early Kentucky art history

July 12, 2014

140709MESDA0279Robert Leath, chief curator at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., held a drawer from an early Kentucky chest so he and students in MESDA’s Summer Institute could see the interior construction. The chest is part of an exhibit of early Frankfort-made furniture now on display at the Governor’s Mansion. Photos by Tom Eblen


FRANKFORT — Most people think early Kentucky was only a place of log cabins and coonskin caps. They don’t imagine that Kentuckians two centuries ago were producing great paintings, fine silverware and inlaid furniture as elegant as anything coming out of Philadelphia or New York.

Last week, 10 up-and-coming scholars and museum curators got a traveling lesson in Kentucky’s rich history of visual art and craftsmanship.

The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., brought its prestigious Summer Institute to Kentucky for the first time. Students, faculty and guests got an intensive five-day tour of Central Kentucky landmarks and some of the state’s most valuable public and private collections.

“These are going to be the museum and institution leaders of the near future, and they have the potential to bring a lot of attention to Kentucky,” said Mack Cox of Madison County, a leading collector and scholar of early Kentucky furniture, paintings and long rifles. “We’re way behind (other states) in understanding and rediscovering our decorative arts past.”

I caught up with the group Wednesday morning at the Governor’s Mansion, where Cox was giving MESDA students and faculty an animated tour of an exhibit of pieces made by Frankfort artists between 1790 and 1820. They ranged from the sophisticated cabinetmaker William Lowry to convicts at the old state penitentiary, who made simple but elegant chairs.

“What you’re seeing, Kentuckians largely don’t know about,” Cox told the group, noting that such utilitarian objects as long rifles and powder horns were sometimes turned into beautiful works of art with elaborate engraving and metalwork.

The exhibit, part of the mansion’s 100th anniversary celebration, includes pieces from the Kentucky Historical Society, the Speed Museum in Louisville and the private collections of Cox, Mel Hankla of Jamestown and Tom Meng and Clifton Anderson of Lexington.

(The exhibit is free and open to the public during mansion tour hours through Aug. 26. For more information about the mansion and centennial events, such as a cocktail reception July 25, go to:

As Cox described each piece and the research that went into figuring out who made it and when, the students took photos and used little flashlights to examine details.

140709MESDA0137From Frankfort, the group traveled to Lexington for a tour of African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street, which has been restored in recent years. Its 5,000 graves include those of black Civil War soldiers and famous jockeys and trainers.

The group visited the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s Hunt-Morgan House and Pope Villa, two of Lexington’s most significant early 1800s mansions, and then went to Madison County to see White Hall, home of the fiery emancipationist Cassius M. Clay.

Other stops during the week included the William Whitley House in Stanford; the Old Capitol and Liberty Hall in Frankfort; Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County; the National Underground Railroad Museum in Maysville; Hopewell Museum and Cane Ridge Meeting House in Bourbon County and the Filson Historical Society and Locus Grove mansion in Louisville.

Before their trip, the students spent two weeks attending classes. When they return to North Carolina, they must finish Kentucky-related research projects and papers. Graduate-level course credit is awarded through the University of Virginia.

In his talk to the group, Cox pointed out stylistic traits of several significant Kentucky portrait painters of the early 1800s, including William Edward West. Because some of their paintings have been misattributed over the years to Matthew Jouett, the state’s best-known early portraitist, many Kentuckians don’t know how much talent was working here at the time, he said.

Catherine Carlisle, an art history graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hopes her summer project will shed new light on one of those little-known Kentucky artists, Alexander Bradford.

“I’m thrilled to be able to see so many examples of the beautiful, beautiful portraits that were coming out of Kentucky, and so early,” she said.

While some of the students had never been to Kentucky, and knew little about its artistic heritage, it was a homecoming for Grant Quertermous, the assistant curator at James Madison’s Montpelier estate near Orange, Va. He is from Paducah.

“I really wanted to do this one,” he said. “It has been great to give everyone exposure to Kentucky.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:

Expert to speak March 19 about iconic Kentucky long rifles

March 11, 2014

140307KyRifles0002Two of the finely crafted Kentucky long rifles and a powder horn that were part of the Kentucky Treasures exhibit last weekend at the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s Antiques & Garden Show. Below, Mel Hankla.  Photos by Tom Eblen


The Kentucky long rifle has been an icon for two centuries, thanks in part to the myth and folklore that grew up around the taming of America’s early Western frontier.

But recently, the best surviving examples of these weapons have been attracting attention for another reason: They are impressive works of art and craftsmanship.

“For art collectors, this represents a new frontier,” said Mel Hankla of Grayson, who has been researching Kentucky rifles for more than three decades.

He will give a lecture about them at noon on March 19 at the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort. Admission is $25, or $20 for Kentucky Historical Society members. Reservations must be made by March 14; call (502) 564-1792, ext. 4414.

140307KyRifles0001Most of the long-barreled flintlocks that pioneers and settlers brought into Kentucky during the last half of the 18th century were made in southeastern Pennsylvania, where German gunsmiths pioneered the technology. They were called “Kentucky rifles” because that was where they were used.

But Hankla’s research has focused the fact that some of finest of these rifles were actually made in Kentucky, between about 1790 and 1840.

Hankla, 56, is a broker in early Americana and an actor who portrays pioneers George Rogers Clark and Simon Kenton in the Kentucky Humanities Council’s Chautauqua series. He also starred in Michael Breeding’s film, Cassius Marcellus Clay: An Audacious American, on Kentucky Educational Television last year.

Hankla has always been fascinated by firearms and Kentucky’s pioneer era. As a graduate student, he learned how to make black-powder guns. Since then, he has investigated the handful of gunsmiths who made long rifles, tracing their development and movement into Kentucky from Virginia and North Carolina.

“It is an art form that is unknown even to most experienced collectors,” said Bob Noe, a major collector of early Kentucky furniture whose pieces are now at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. “Mel has pioneered this work.”

“These are decorative arts,” said Mack Cox, another major collector of early Kentucky furniture and paintings who owns several rifles. “This artistic tradition is important to Kentucky culture, and more Kentuckians should know about it.”

Cox said Kentucky rifles are especially impressive as art objects because gunsmiths had to master many different skills, from steel-making to wood-carving to brass, gold and silver inlay work.

Kentucky rifles were essential tools of survival for frontiersmen. They also became status symbols; a man’s most valued possession.

There were families of Kentucky gunsmiths: Rudolph Mauck and his sons, Henry Peter Mauck and Daniel Mock; Conrad Humble and his brother, Michael, who made Daniel Boone’s rifle; William Young and his son, Jacob; and William Bryan, a founder of Bryan’s Station, and his son, Daniel, who owned Waveland.

Only two guns signed by Daniel Bryan, who was Boone’s nephew, are known to exist, Hankla said. Other Bryan-style guns are unsigned because the family had a large shop with as many as 25 gunsmiths, each making a different part of rifles, much like a modern assembly line.

Hankla has studied geography, genealogy and similarities in rifle design to figure out how gunsmiths were related and who may have apprenticed with whom.

As with the gunsmiths, families sometimes fabricated the elaborate scrimshawed cattle horns that were used to store gunpowder. The most famous family of powder-horn makers was the Tansels of Scott County.

At the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s Antiques & Garden Show last weekend, Hankla showed perhaps the largest display of fine Kentucky rifles ever assembled: 18 guns and 12 powder horns borrowed from eight collections.

Hankla said there are probably fewer than 50 surviving examples of early, fancy Kentucky-made rifles. At least two of those in his display last weekend had histories as impressive as their craftsmanship.

One was the state-owned rifle that Jacob Young made about 1800 for pioneer leader William Whitley. An eyewitness says Whitley used it to kill the Indian chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames during the War of 1812. Whitley also died in that battle. His horse, rifle and carved powder horn were returned to his widow, Esther, who was said to have been as good a shot as he was.

Thomas Simpson, who likely was Jacob Young’s teacher, made a rifle for Col. Gasper Mansker in 1791 that may have been the result of a boast Simpson made in the Kentucky Gazette the year before. He wrote the newspaper that he could make a rifle as fine as any man in the United States. Hankla now owns it.

The Chickasaw chief Piomingo was so impressed with Mansker’s rifle that he wrote Gen. James Robertson, the Indian agent and founder of Nashville, asking if the U.S. government would have Simpson make him one in return for his peace efforts. When Piomingo died in 1799, that rifle was buried with him.

50 years ago, March on Frankfort pushed Kentucky toward change

February 1, 2014

 march3The March on Frankfort crowd, estimated at 10,000, stretched from the Capitol steps down Capitol Avenue on March 5, 1964. Associated Press photos


This is the story of a black woman from Louisville and a white man from Lexington who helped bring 10,000 people to Frankfort to change Kentucky forever.

The March on Frankfort on March 5, 1964, featured the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; Jackie Robinson, who had broken major-league baseball’s color barrier; and the popular folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary.

The 10,000 people who marched to the Capitol steps that cold, wet day were demanding state legislation to keep blacks from being discriminated against in restaurants, hotels and other public accommodations.

March organizers knew that Kentucky lawmakers needed public pressure to force them to do the right thing, which has so often been the case.

To mark the 50th anniversary of what became one of the nation’s most significant civil rights protests, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights and other groups plan a re-enactment on March 5. (For more information:

The March on Frankfort was the brainchild of the late Frank Stanley Jr., editor of The Louisville Defender, a black newspaper. He recruited King, Robinson and Peter, Paul and Mary to draw national attention to the event, while a network of civil rights and religious leaders throughout Kentucky raised an army of people to march behind them.

march2Georgia Davis Powers was office manager for the march’s organizing committee, Allied Organization for Civil Rights. She came to the role with experience, having organized volunteers for Lt. Gov. Wilson Wyatt’s losing bid for the U.S. Senate in 1962 and Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt’s successful campaign for governor in 1963.

But Powers, now 90, told me recently that she began her personal campaign against discrimination many years earlier. Because her factory-worker father was talented enough to get “a white man’s job,” she grew up in Louisville’s black middle class.

“I had a little white girlfriend who was my age, 8 years old, and we wanted to go to school together, but we couldn’t,” she said. “When you are discriminated against, it does something to your psyche and you never get over it.”

Powers’ job on the day of the march was to pick up King and Robinson at Louisville’s airport and bring them to Frankfort. Her brother, who worked at a funeral, got a limousine, and they arranged for a police escort.

“Jackie Robinson rode up front with my brother, and Dr. King got in the back seat with me because I needed to brief him on the bill, where it stood and what I thought the possibilities were,” Powers said. “That was the first time I’d met him.”

She marched a few steps behind King that day and sat beside the stage as he, Robinson and others made remarks to the rain-soaked crowd.

Breathitt wasn’t at the march, although his 15-year-old daughter, Mary Frances, was among the marchers. A reporter told Powers the governor was in his office. “Since he won’t come out,” she told other march leaders, “we’ll go see him.”

So when the benediction had been said and the crowd began dispersing, Powers led King, Robinson, Stanley and a few others inside the Capitol. She knocked on the governor’s door.

The civil rights leaders had a cordial meeting with Breathitt and posed for photographs. But Powers said he was non-committal, explaining that as a new governor he needed to build rapport with legislators.

“He said, ‘I’ll do what I can,'” she recalled. “But the bill failed.”

When the General Assembly met next, in 1966, Kentucky became the first Southern state to enact a civil rights law. Breathitt backed the law. Others instrumental in its passage included Rep. Foster Pettit, who would later become the first mayor of Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, and John Y. Brown Sr., father of the future governor.

A key organizer of white participation in the March on Frankfort was Joe Graves of Lexington, whose background could not have been more different than Powers’.

Graves’ great-grandfather was the younger brother of Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in 19th century America. The industrialist later became a philanthropist, leaving a legacy of public library buildings in communities across the nation. Graves’ father owned Graves-Cox, a popular store where well-dressed Lexington men bought their clothes.

Like Powers, Graves said his fight against discrimination began in childhood.

When Graves was 9, illness confined him to a wheelchair. The Carnegie family owned almost all of scenic Cumberland Island off the Georgia coast, and he spent time there with relatives. The family hired a black boy his age named William to be a companion.

Graves, 83, recalled in an interview last week how he and William were playing in his aunt’s yard one day at lunchtime, and he called out to her asking if William could stay for lunch. William said, “Joe, I can’t do that. I’m going home for lunch.”

“My aunt couldn’t have heard what he said,” Graves recalled. “But she said, ‘I’m sure William’s mother is expecting him home for lunch.’ I knew something was strange.”

In 1957, while working in his family’s clothing store, Graves persuaded his father to promote a black stock clerk to a sales position so he wouldn’t leave for a better-paying job. The man became the first black clerk in a major Lexington store, and he was so good at it that commissions tripled his previous salary, Graves said.

Three years after, Graves was on the first Lexington Human Rights Commission, negotiating desegregation of the city’s movie theaters. On the day of the March on Frankfort, he was co-chair of Kentuckians for Public Accommodations.

For both Powers and Graves, the March on Frankfort was the beginning of political careers with an emphasis on civil rights.

In 1967, Powers became the first black and the first sixth woman elected to the Kentucky Senate. During 21 years in office, she sponsored much legislation furthering rights for minorities, women and children.

Powers helped lead civil rights marches in several Southern cities. She became a close confidante of King and was with him in Memphis in April 1968 when he was killed. In 1989, the autobiography of King’s top lieutenant, Ralph David Abernathy, disclosed that Powers and King also were lovers.

Graves would go on to be a Lexington councilman and work for the election of the city’s first black councilman, Harry Sykes. Graves served in both the state House and Senate in the 1970s.

“As I took that march,” Graves recalled of that day 50 years ago, “I kept thinking of all the people (King) helped and was trying to help.”

Toward the end of our conversation last week, Graves’ voice choked as he told me how he has written instructions for his funeral. He has asked for a mixed-race choir to sing at the service, he said, “and one of the hymns has to be, We Shall Overcome.”



The march headliners were the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., center, and baseball great Jackie Robinson, left. Associated Press photo.


King was the featured speaker on the cold, rainy day. Herald-Leader photo.


Gov. Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt, right, met with, left to right, Frank Stanley Jr., Jackie Robinson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  Photo by Bob Daugherty/Associated Press

Click here to see a gallery with these and other photos from the 1964 march.



Honored to be honored at Arts Day in the General Assembly

January 28, 2014

14012ArtsDay0011Governor’s Arts Award winners stood in the back of the Senate Chamber (above) and the front of the House chamber to be honored by their legislators Tuesday during Arts Day in Kentucky. Photos by Tom Eblen

You know it’s a cold day in Frankfort when a journalist is applauded by the Kentucky General Assembly. But I had that honor today as one of nine recipients of the 2013 Governor’s Awards in the Arts.

Gov. Steve Beshear presented the awards in the Capitol rotunda last Oct. 29, and our legislators gave us shout-outs and certificates today on the House and Senate floors. I was humbled by the honor of this year’s Media Award. Thanks to the Kentucky Arts Council, Gov. Steve Beshear and to state legislators for all of their kind attention today.

The honorees are:

Milner Award
Oakley and Eva Farris

Artist Award
Laura Ross

Business Award
21c Museum Hotel

Community Arts Award
International Bluegrass Music Museum

Education Award
Lexington Children’s Theatre

Folk Heritage Award
Edward White

Government Award
Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea

Media Award
Tom Eblen

National Award
Actors Theatre of Louisville

14012ArtsDay0016The bluegrass band Kentucky Wild Horse performed at a reception in the Capitol for Arts Day. Left to right are: Don Rogers, Jessie Wells, Roddy Puckett (hidden) and John Harrod. 

Author’s talks will focus on making cities more walkable

January 13, 2014

Urban planners, who in the decades after World War II helped redesign America’s cities and towns around the automobile, have been trying to warn people ever since then that they really screwed up.

Finally, most people are beginning to agree, says Jeff Speck, a veteran city planner and author of the 2012 book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time.

Health professionals cite car culture as a big reason an epidemic in obesity and related physical problems. Economists note that suburban sprawl has become costly to taxpayers because all of the new infrastructure rarely pays for itself. Plus, a lack of public transportation in many areas has put costly burdens of car ownership and maintenance on the working poor.

bookcoverThe environmental movement has had an anti-urban bent since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau. But that has changed dramatically.

“And all of a sudden environmentalists discovered that if you live in a city your footprint is much lighter than if you live in sprawl,” Speck said. “In fact, cities are a solution to our environmental crises, both locally and globally.”

Most of all, Speck says, average citizens, from young adults to their empty-nester parents, have embraced cities again. Across the country, home values in walkable, urban neighborhoods are rising much faster than those in the kinds of car-dependent suburbs that have dominated American development since the 1950s.

“Walkable cities actually save us money, make us money and are poised to thrive in the next couple of decades while unwalkable places aren’t,” Speck said in a telephone interview last week from his home in Washington, D.C.

Speck will be talking about these trends — and giving advice to community leaders about how to make their towns more walkable — at a lecture and workshop this week in Frankfort.

Speck will give a lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Grand Theatre on St. Clair Mall, with a book signing to follow. Tickets are $10. On Friday, he will lead a two-hour workshop, beginning at 9 a.m., at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Auditorium, 200 Mero St. Admission is $25.

His visit is part of a conference sponsored by the Kentucky Heritage Council in conjunction with the annual winter meeting of the Kentucky Main Street Program, which works to improve life in the historic centers of the state’s towns and cities. Conference registration, including both of Speck’s sessions, is $100. More information:

Most people don’t need convincing about the importance of walkability, he said, but they do need help with strategies for making it happen.

speckSpeck’s book notes that many communities made walking more difficult because they were being designed for other considerations. For example, many streets and intersections are oversized to accommodate the largest-possible emergency vehicles. Fewer but bigger schools and parks have been built because they are easier for officials to maintain and show off than the alternative, which often would be easier for citizens to get to and use.

“The twin gods of smooth traffic and ample parking” took the life out of many once-thriving downtowns, Speck writes, turning them into places that are “easy to get to but not worth arriving at.”

Speck writes that there are four criteria for successful pedestrian areas: walking must be safe, comfortable, interesting and useful. By useful, he means that necessities of daily life — shopping, restaurants and workplaces — must be close and arranged so they can be easily accessed by walking.

Speck’s book outlines 10 steps for city walkability. Those include mixed-use neighborhoods, good mass transit, well-designed and affordable parking facilities, ample trees and bicycle-friendly streets.

The biggest challenge many American cities and towns will face in coming years will be retrofitting mid- and late-20th century suburbs to make them more accessible for aging Baby Boomers and the working poor.

“We’ve laid the groundwork for a major social crisis,” he said.

The best hope is often restoring traditional downtowns and making new developments better for walking, biking and mass transit. That will require changing many ingrained rules and attitudes about traffic and street design.

“Most traffic engineers are really nice people,” Speck said. “But they will wreck your city.”  

Watch Jeff Speck’s TED Talk on walkable cities:

New film marks centennial of Kentucky Governor’s Mansion

January 11, 2014


Gov. Steve Beshear and his wife, Jane, are shown on a video monitor in circa 1914 formal attire Jan. 5 during filming of a re-creation of the gala ball that opened the then-new Governor’s Mansion 100 years ago this month.  Members of Lexington Vintage Dance performed ballroom dances from the period. Photo by Tom Eblen 


FRANKFORT — The Governor’s Mansion turns a century old this month, and preservationists have organized a bipartisan celebration to raise money to help keep “the people’s house” in good shape for another hundred years or more.

Events begin this week with the premiere of a film about the mansion’s role as both a temporary home for governors and a venue for public hospitality and economic development. The film is narrated by ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, a Kentucky native.

A symposium about the mansion is planned Jan. 22. There will be a reception March 5 after festivities marking the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 march on Frankfort. And a Centennial Gala ball is planned June 7. For details and event tickets, go to:

The documentary, Kentucky Governor’s Mansion: A Century of Reflection, was produced by Lexington filmmaker Michael Breeding and paid for by Marion Forcht of Corbin and the Forcht Group. It premieres Jan. 15 at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort and Jan. 16 at the Kentucky Theatre in Lexington.

140105GovsMansion0022“I wanted the film to tell the inside story of what has gone on in that mansion over the years,” Breeding said. “There’s a lot of history and stories, and part of it is a restoration story.”

The film opens with a re-enactment of the ball Gov. James McCreary gave Jan. 20, 1914 to open the mansion. That scene was filmed last Sunday evening with a cast of amateur actors in period attire. They included Gov. Steve Beshear, his wife, Jane, and members of Lexington Vintage Dance.

The Beshears seemed to have as much fun as everyone else, dressing up in vintage clothing to “party” in front of cameras. “I guess it’s OK to be seen having makeup put on now that I don’t have to run for re-election,” the second-term governor joked.

The film includes interviews with the Beshears and 30 other former governors, their family members and mansion staff. The full interviews will be preserved at the Kentucky History Center.

I sat in on part of the interview with Steve Collins and Marla Collins Webb, children of Martha Layne Collins, Kentucky’s first and only female governor, 1983-87.

“We all worked together as a family,” Steve Collins said, noting that his father, dentist Bill Collins, handled his duties as Kentucky’s “first man” with good humor and hosted “varmint” dinners for outdoorsmen. “They even roasted a raccoon one time,” Collins recalled.

One memorable event was a lavish but secretive dinner Gov. Collins gave in 1986 for Toyota executives when she was trying to get the assembly plant for Georgetown. The secret got out to everyone in Frankfort when the event concluded with a fireworks show.

140112GovMansion-Stock0022McCreary, for whom McCreary County is named, was the first of 24 governors who have lived in the mansion. He also was the last to use a horse and buggy. The film recalls that his successor, Augustus O. Stanley, preferred a newfangled automobile. But the mansion’s location on a steep bluff east of the Capitol proved problematic.

One Sunday morning as the Stanleys were getting ready for church, a staff member brought the sedan to the mansion’s back door and left it running unattended. Within minutes, the car rolled backward over the cliff.

Stanley is said to have walked out, looked down at what was left of his car and stoically said, “There’s another $1,500 gone to hell.”

Mansion construction began in 1912 after the General Assembly appropriated $75,000 to replace the previous governor’s home, built in downtown Frankfort in 1798. Five years ago, the old mansion got a $1.5 million, privately financed renovation and is now used as a state guest house.

Architect brothers C.C. and E.A. Weber of Fort Thomas designed the new mansion in the Beaux-Arts style, mimicking the Petit Trianon villa at Versailles (France, not Kentucky). Clad in Bowling Green limestone, the 18,428-square-foot mansion came in $20,000 over budget, so landscaping was postponed for years to save money.

The mansion, decorated with a rotating collection of borrowed fine art, is one of only a few state governors’ homes regularly open for public tours. Because more than 12,000 people visit each year, the mansion gets a lot of wear and tear.

The first major renovation began in 1982 during Gov. John Y. Brown Jr.’s administration after a fire marshal declared the place unsafe. Phyllis George Brown raised private money for much of the work and elegant furnishings, as Glenna Fletcher did 25 years later when the mansion needed another updating.

Jane Beshear and David Buchta, state curator of historic properties, thought the centennial was a good opportunity to both celebrate the mansion and raise money for an endowment to help with upkeep. Their goal is to raise $1 million for the non-profit Kentucky Executive Mansions Foundation before the Beshears move out.

Mike Duncan and Terry McBrayer, Kentuckians who have held top jobs in the national Republican and Democratic parties, co-chair the Mansion Centennial Celebration Committee.

Among its fundraising efforts is the “county seats” project. Each county is being asked to give at least $1,000 toward 120 new ballroom dining chairs that are being made by student artisans at Berea College. So far, Buchta said, nearly half the state’s counties have agreed to contribute.

“This is so much more than the governor’s house,” said Ann Evans, the mansion’s executive director. “It has become an important tool for economic development, tourism and just making people feel welcome in Kentucky.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


A beautiful state, forever challenged to live up to its potential

September 28, 2013

Indian Fort Mountain, Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen

The view from Indian Fort Mountain near Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen


Every state is unique. So what makes Kentucky so special?

To begin to answer that question, you must go back to 1750, when the first land-hungry white Virginians crossed the Appalachian mountains to see what was on the other side. What they found created quite a buzz.

John Filson, who published the first book about Kentucky in 1784, boasted that it was “the new Eden … like the land of promise, flowing with milk and honey.” A frontier preacher is said to have explained heaven to his flock as “a Kentucky of a place.”

Of course, this was long before strip mining and strip malls.

Still, people continue to be awed by Kentucky’s beauty: lush mountains, rolling meadows, scenic rivers, vast limestone caves and manicured horse farms.

Kentucky’s fertile land has always made it an agriculture powerhouse. The Bluegrass region’s karst geology and calcium-rich soil is the foundation for two signature industries: strong-boned horses and pure water for bourbon whiskey.

Originally, Kentucky was considered the West. When the Civil War came, this citadel of slavery remained in the Union. Once the Union won, many Kentuckians sided with the Confederacy. Go figure.

But Kentucky has often been a paradox. For example, 95 percent of all bourbon whiskey (and, really, all that’s worth drinking) is made in Kentucky. Yet, you can’t legally buy it in more than one-third of the state’s 120 counties. Of course, that doesn’t mean a lot of it isn’t consumed there.

Kentuckians love to eat, too, from spicy Western Kentucky barbecue to the delicately flavored cucumber spread of Louisville known as benedictine. Ask people on the other side of the world what they know about Kentucky and they are likely to reply: “Ah, Kentucky Fried Chicken!”

Kentuckians tend to be friendly, independent, fun-loving, stubborn and resistant to change. The local cultures we have created vary widely from the Cumberland mountains to the Jackson Purchase. The common denominator seems to be a passion for basketball.

Unless we are from one of the state’s larger cities, Kentuckians tend to identify themselves by their native county. And we have more and smaller counties than almost any state.

But we still love our little towns. We have given many of them colorful names, such as Red Bird, Hi Hat, Cutshin, Mousie and Fancy Farm. Occasionally, imagination has failed us and we have copied the names of European cities, but we have insisted on pronouncing them differently.

During its first decades of statehood, Kentucky was often a national leader and innovator. But the state seems never to have fully recovered from the Civil War and the human slavery that caused it. For a century and a half, Kentucky’s progress has always seemed like three steps forward, two steps back.

Still, some of us think Kentucky is capable of being a national leader rather than a persistent laggard. Kentuckians are hard workers, blessed with a central location, abundant resources and a beautiful place to live — when we don’t insist on messing it up.

The name Kentucky is derived from languages of the American Indian tribes we took this land from, but nobody is sure what it really meant. Some say it meant “dark and bloody ground.” Others say, “the land of tomorrow.” While a lot has happened to support the first theory, I choose to believe the second.

Now, would somebody please pass the barbecue and freshen my bourbon? We have a lot of work to do after dinner.


KET, architects ask public to rank Kentucky’s best buildings

September 3, 2013


Kentucky’s Old Capitol in Frankfort, designed by Kentucky architect Gideon Shryock and built in the late 1820s, is a Greek Revival masterpiece that has a self-supported double stone staircase and a dome that floods the interior with light. It was Kentucky’s Capitol from 1830 until 1910. Photos by Tom Eblen


Kentucky has such beautiful natural landscape that the built environment often gets short shrift. Kentucky Educational Television and the American Institute of Architects Kentucky hope to change that.

The two organizations asked the public in April to nominate buildings for two lists, “50 of the Best Kentucky Buildings” and “10 Buildings that Changed Louisville.” The list of 50 was compiled from more than 300 suggestions.

KET and AIAK are asking the public to vote online ( before the end of September to rank those 50 buildings. A professional jury will choose the “10 Buildings that Changed Louisville.” The rankings are to be announced in mid-November.

These sorts of lists are subjective, but compiling them is fun, because it offers a chance to step back and reflect.

The 50 finalists represent a good cross-section of style, function and location. They include most of the iconic buildings you would expect, such as the State Capitol, Churchill Downs’ Twin Spires and Federal Hill (My Old Kentucky Home). Others are not so familiar, such as the Begley Chapel, a modernist masterpiece at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia.

Not all of the finalists are specific buildings. One is Lexington’s Calumet Farm, which in the 1920s set the style for Bluegrass horse farms’ elegant blend of natural and built environments.

Before you go online to vote, let me tell you about five buildings I like and voted for — plus one that didn’t make the list, but should have.

The State Capitol is magnificent, with lots of marble columns and a dome reminiscent of the U.S. Capitol. But I have always been charmed by the Old Capitol, which was used from 1830 until it was replaced by the current one in 1910.

The Old Capitol is a Greek Revival jewel box of Kentucky River limestone. It was the first building designed by Kentuckian Gideon Shryock, who was then in his mid-20s and had studied under the famous architect William Strickland.

The windowless front façade looks like a Greek temple, with Ionic columns and a triangular pediment. As with many great buildings, the best stuff is inside: a dome that fills the interior with light and twin self-supported staircases made of stone. They create one of Kentucky’s most magical spaces.

Another of my favorites isn’t a building, but the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial on a hillside overlooking Frankfort. It honors the state’s 125,000 Vietnam War veterans and pays special tribute to the 1,103 who died there.

What makes the memorial unique is that it is a giant sundial — a large, granite plaza carved with the name of each fallen soldier. A 14-foot steel gnomon casts a shadow on each name the day he or she died.

The memorial was designed by Lexington architect Helm Roberts. Two years before he died in 2010, Roberts gave me a tour of the memorial and explained how he figured out the mathematical calculations to make it work. The result is literally a moving tribute to fallen warriors.

My last three favorites on the list are a dormitory and homes designed by two of America’s most famous architects.

Centre Family Dwelling at Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill was designed by Micajah Burnett and built between 1824 and 1834 of locally quarried limestone. The largest building at the Mercer County village housed as many as 100 of the celibate Shakers until the religious sect’s last members died around 1910. The building’s symmetry and use of space, light and materials make it a masterpiece of elegantly simple Shaker design.

The Jesse Zeigler house in Frankfort is the only building in Kentucky designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps the most influential architect of the 20th century. He created it in 1910 for a Presbyterian minister he met on a voyage to Europe.

The modestly sized, four-bedroom house has the strong horizontal lines of Wright’s “prairie” style and is a forerunner of today’s open floor plans. Leaded-glass windows and Roman brick on the fireplace came from Wright’s Chicago studio. It is now the home of Ed and Sue Stodola.

My final favorite may be one of the most architecturally significant houses in America, despite a history of abuse. Pope Villa in Lexington was designed in 1811 for Sen. John Pope by Benjamin Latrobe, America’s first great architect. His most famous work includes parts of the U.S. Capitol.

Latrobe used Pope’s commission to express his ideas about how a “rational house” in America should be designed. It is a perfect square with a dome in the center, service areas on the first floor and the main rooms on the second.

Latrobe’s design was so radically different than most American mansions of the 19th century that succeeding owners did everything they could to alter it to look more conventional. Pope Villa was eventually divided into student apartments, and it was heavily damaged by fire in 1987.

The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation acquired Pope Villa after the fire and has slowly been working to return it to its original glory. The Trust is seeking National Landmark status for the building, which could make it easier to raise restoration money.

One building that didn’t make the top-50 list, but should have, is the Miller House in Lexington. It is not much to look at from the outside, but inside, the use of volume, space and light is amazing.

The Miller House was completed in 1992 for Robert and Penny Miller. It was designed by José Oubrerie, a protégé of the modernist French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, who went by the name Le Corbusier.

After Robert Miller’s death, the 21-acre property was sold for development and the house was vandalized. The damage was repaired, and the house has recently been for sale. Unfortunately, surrounding development has compromised much of the view out its glass walls.

In many ways, the Miller House is the late 20th-century equivalent of Pope Villa: a radical rethinking of home design that people either love or hate. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that is what makes best buildings rankings so interesting.

Click on each photo to see larger image and read caption: