Alt32 architects find niche making furniture for their buildings

December 8, 2014

141120alt32-TE0023Alt32’s architects designed and used their computer-controlled router to manufacture office furniture and wall panels for the Plantory, a shared workspace facility in the Bread Box building at the corner of West Sixth and Jefferson streets. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

There is a celebrated tradition of architects designing furniture. Think Frank Lloyd Wright’s steel office desks, or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s chrome-and-leather Barcelona chair.

So when a client told Matthew Brooks and Mike Sparkman, principals of the Lexington architecture firm Alt32, it was planning to order a lot of Ikea desks and file units for office space they were designing, “a light bulb went off,” Brooks said.

“Mike and I both have a passion for making things,” he said, noting that they had rented a woodworking shop downtown a year earlier. “It started out as a place for us to work on our own stuff, for our houses and whatever.”

But the more they worked, the more they thought of ways they could create and fabricate fixtures and furniture for buildings they designed. That experimentation also became a passion for Michael Mead, a colleague who died in September.

141120alt32-TE0011It was all part of a creative evolution that Brooks and Sparkman, both 46, had been going through since they bought Lucas/Schwering Architects, a 25-year-old firm where they had worked for more than a decade. In 2012, they rebranded the firm Alt32, after a computer programming code for creating space.

Last year, the firm was hired to re-imagine a former two-car garage off South Ashland Avenue as a Greek restaurant, Athenian Grill. They used their workshop to recycle wood salvaged from the building for trim and fixtures. That led to other ideas, such as how to design and make furniture from birch plywood.

The big opportunity came as part of their work to design space for the Plantory, a shared office facility that was moving to larger quarters in the Bread Box building at the corner of Jefferson and West Sixth streets.

The Plantory serves mostly small, non-profit organizations, so its renovation was a low-budget project. Still, it was big enough to justify Alt32 buying an expensive CNC (computer numeric control) router.

With a CNC, designers use computer software to create intricate designs that can be cut from a variety of materials.

“It can do forms and shapes and geometries that traditional equipment can’t,” Sparkman said.

Alt32 made 64 desks and other furniture for the Plantory using birch plywood. Each desk was cut from a single sheet. Because the pieces were artfully arranged on the plywood before cutting, they left attractive “waste” sheets that could be used as decorative wall panels and stairway enclosures.

“In this case, the only waste is the sawdust,” Sparkman said.

Future products could include light fixtures, signage and even three-dimensional exterior wall panels made out of metal or plastic, which also can be cut on a CNC.

141112alt32-TE0065A“We’re just dipping our toe into the potential,” Brooks said. “But it’s a different kind of business from what our professional services are.”

The primary business they bought with Lucas/Schwering was designing Kentucky schools. That is still the firm’s bread and butter, and they want it to continue to be.

But they see fabrication, which now produces about 10 percent of their revenue and employs three full-time people in the shop, as a growth area that offers interesting ways to add value to their building designs.

For example, they have already made furniture for one school design. The firm designed interior space for Providence Montessori Middle School, which renovated the circa 1840s Florence Crittenton Home, and designed and built all of the school’s furniture.

Brooks and Sparkman said they have several upcoming projects, including new spaces for Crank & Boom ice cream and Lexington Pasta. They’re working on furniture prototypes that might fit the needs of those clients.

They also have thought of developing a line of ready-to-assemble furniture that could be sold online and flat-packed for shipping, as Ikea does.

Brooks and Sparkman said they want to keep their firm focused on Kentucky, and especially Lexington. Most of their non-school work is local, and they and all of the designers and interns in their firm are graduates of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design. They also want to keep Alt32 small enough to be flexible and creative.

“This has opened our eyes to different opportunities for how to manipulate materials,” Brooks said. “If you look at architecture now, it’s all about how do we manipulate all the materials we now have available.”

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Historic homes on tour next weekend in Harrodsburg, Georgetown

November 30, 2014

141122Harrodsburg-TE0004The Burrus/Trisler House is on the 23rd annual Holiday Homes Tour on Dec. 6 from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., sponsored by the Harrodsburg Historical Society.  Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

There’s no place like home for the holidays, especially when it is a grand old Kentucky mansion you don’t have to clean or decorate.

More than a dozen old houses, churches and public buildings in Mercer and Scott counties will be on tour next weekend. Plus, there will be candlelight tours and children’s activities at the circa 1848 Waveland mansion in Lexington.

This is the 23rd year for the Harrodsburg Historical Society’s Holiday Home Tour on Dec. 6. In addition to tours of seven Mercer County properties, there will be a mapped driving tour of the Salvisa community.

The Queen Anne-style Coleman House is owned by former state Rep. Jack Coleman and his wife, Cala. Before he bought it, Coleman didn’t know that his great-grandfather, Clell Coleman, a state auditor and agriculture commissioner, once lived in the 1880 brick-and-shingle mansion.

141125Georgetown-TE0026The Colemans have completed a restoration started by previous owners, adding their own special touches. A former porch was converted into a long, cozy kitchen with flooring salvaged from Lexington tobacco warehouses.

The attic was turned into a Western-themed den honoring Cala Coleman’s grandparents, a cowboy and postmistress in Utah. The oak postal cabinet she used now stands behind a bar.

“Everything is from our families,” Coleman said of the extensive antique collection in the house, which they plan to open next year as a bed-and-breakfast. “We say we’re the keepers of the stuff.”

Mercer County Judge-Executive John Trisler and his wife, Kay, have done extensive work on their Greek Revival farmhouse off Kirkwood Road, which dates to the 1830s and maybe earlier. They added a new kitchen and den on the back, making the elegant old place a more comfortable place to live.

Warwick, the former estate of the renowned architectural historian Clay Lancaster, will be included in the tour. The compound includes the circa 1809 Moses Jones House and two architectural “follies” Lancaster built, a tea house and a guest house based on the ancient Tower of the Winds in Athens, Greece.

Another unique property is Diamond Point, an elaborate Greek Revival structure that has been renovated as Harrodsburg’s welcome center and offices for the chamber of commerce, tourism bureau and two other local agencies.

Other stops are the circa 1850 McGee House on Jackson Pike; the 1881 Salvisa Christian Church; and Old Mud Meeting House, built in 1800 that is one the last remaining pioneer log churches in Central Kentucky.

Maps are available for a self-guided driving tour of other Salvisa-area historic homes that will not be open that day.

141125Georgetown-TE0032On Dec. 7, the Scott County Arts & Cultural Center will have its Tour of Historic Homes, featuring six properties in downtown Georgetown.

The tour is a fundraiser to restore one of Georgetown’s most interesting buildings: a Romanesque Revival jail built in 1892. Plans call for it to become an expansion of the Arts & Cultural Center now located in the adjacent old jailer’s house.

Two of the properties on tour are stately mansions built before the Civil War: the early 1800s Cantrill House beside the Georgetown College campus; and Walnut Hill, a Greek Revival-style mansion built as the summer home of James McHatton, who once owned eight plantations along the Mississippi River.

Beside Walnut Hill is a large, 1888 Italianate villa whose unusual double front door features four busts of big-busted women.

Georgetown’s 1899 City Hall, which like the Scott County Courthouse beside it is one of Central Kentucky’s most elegant old public buildings, will be part of the tour. So will Holy Trinity Church Episcopal, a Gothic Revival structure with a stone façade and red doors that has been in use since 1870.

The best option for parents with young children who want some history with their holidays may be the candlelight tours at Waveland State Historic Site, off Nicholasville Road just south of Man O’ War Boulevard.

In addition to decorations at the circa 1848 Greek Revival mansion, school choirs will perform and Santa will read stories and visit with children.

If you go

Harrodsburg Holiday Home Tour, 1 p.m. – 6 p.m., Dec. 6, $15, or $11 for seniors and groups of 20 or more. Tickets available at tour locations. More information: (859) 734-5985 or Harrodsburghistorical.org.

Scott County Arts & Cultural Center’s Tour of Historic Homes, 1 p.m. – 5 p.m., Dec. 7. $10. Tickets available in advance and at tour locations. More information: (502) 570-8366.

Waveland candlelight tours, 6 p.m. — 9 p.m., Dec. 5-6. $7 adults, $6 seniors, $4 students. Free for age 6 and younger. More information: (859) 272-3611.

 

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‘Lost Lexington’ a reminder of great buildings and people

November 1, 2014

The cover of Lost Lexington explains why Peter Brackney’s new book is so timely: It shows a mothballed old courthouse in desperate need of renovation beside the gigantic crater that has replaced the city’s oldest business district.

141102LostLexington002Brackney, a lawyer and writer of the local history blog Kaintuckeean.com, said the plight of the old Fayette County Courthouse and the CentrePointe boondoggle were big motivations for writing his book.

So was the University of Kentucky’s controversial demolition this summer of several significant mid-century modern buildings on his alma mater’s campus to make way for new construction.

“Everywhere you see a parking lot, something once stood,” Brackney said in an interview. “I think the more you learn about some of these historic structures, the more you appreciate what we have left.”

Brackney focuses on what is gone, and it is an impressive collection of special buildings and places once central to community life. They include elegant mansions, a racetrack, an amusement park, a football stadium, railroad stations and a private garden that early settlers referred to as “paradise.”

Lost Lexington (The History Press, $19.95) includes a forward by Mayor Jim Gray and many photographs. But what makes it most interesting is Brackney’s thorough research into these places and the remarkable people associated with them. I know a lot about Lexington history, but I learned some things.

Brackney begins with Lexington’s best-known preservation story: the 1955 demolition of the 1798 Hart-Bradford House for a parking lot. That act, and fears that the 1814 Hunt-Morgan House across the street would be next, led to creation of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation and the city’s first preservation laws.

“If you looked at the Hart-Bradford House and didn’t know a thing about who lived there, you would think there was nothing special about it, just a nice two-story brick house,” Brackney said.

brackneyBut, as the book explains, that house was built by Henry Clay’s father-in-law, Thomas Hart, a Revolutionary War veteran and influential land speculator. The next resident was John Bradford, Kentucky’s first newspaper publisher and a major civic leader. Clay was married in that house, and Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan may have been, too.

Few people now remember another longtime resident of the house: Laura Clay, an early champion of women’s rights. She learned about the subject the hard way: watching her father, emancipationist Cassius Clay, cheat her mother out of property after their divorce.

Among the several fabulous, long-gone estates featured in the book is Chaumiere des Prairies, where three U.S. presidents were entertained and the traitor Aaron Burr was held under arrest.

Col. David Meade’s estate was famous for its beautifully landscaped gardens. When he died in 1832, a farmer who bought the property destroyed them with grazing livestock, prompting neighbors to post signs about “paradise lost.”

Brackney tells the stories of such 20th century landmarks as the Phoenix Hotel, Union Station, the Southern Railway depot and Joyland Park. Joyland Park was famous for its amusement rides and the huge dance pavilion where Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw and other big band leaders performed.

One interesting story was about how, for 23 years, the afternoon Lexington Leader gave every white kid in town free swimming lessons at Joyland’s public pool. In those segregation days, the newspaper provided free swimming lessons for black children at Douglass Park.

The book tells about two sporting venues that no longer exist: the Kentucky Association racetrack and Stoll Field/McLean Stadium, the home of UK football games and other community events before Commonwealth Stadium replaced it in 1972.

UK’s recent demolitions and the CentrePointe project, which destroyed more than a dozen downtown buildings and 51/2 years later is nothing more than a hole in the ground, were a wakeup call for historic preservation in Lexington.

But Brackney, who lives in Jessamine County, laments that many other communities still haven’t gotten the message. Nicholasville’s oldest Main Street commercial building, built in the early 1800s, was recently demolished.

“While we do have to balance preservation and progress, we have to make sure there’s an understanding that people lived and worked in each of these places; they’re not just bricks and mortar,” he said.

“Drive down Nicholasville Road, drive down Richmond Road, and there’s nothing that separates them from Glendale, Ariz., or any new city,” Brackney added. “There’s nothing that makes them unique. And it’s Lexington’s history and uniqueness that helps make it a great city.”

If you go

Peter Brackney will speak and sign copies of Lost Lexington:

5:30 p.m. Nov. 3: Thomas Hunt-Morgan House, 210 N. Broadway, hosted by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. The event includes a panel discussion about historic preservation in Lexington.

2 p.m. Nov. 9: The Morris Book Shop, 882 E High St.

6 p.m. Nov. 9: Barnes & Noble bookstore, Hamburg Pavilion.

7 p.m. Dec. 2: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington Green.


House-flipping venture turns Victorian disaster into showplace

October 19, 2014

141009Rehab0027

Left to right, Josh Despain, Bennett Clark, Ryan Clark and Michael Hogan spent 16 months renovating a circa 1889 mansion at 515 North Broadway that was filled with trash and animal waste when a lender foreclosed on the previous owner last year. They sat on the front porch  with a photo of the house taken when they bought it.  After a complete renovation, the house is now for sale for $1.2 million. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

The business venture began innocently enough. Four young men with backgrounds in architecture and real estate decided to pool their money, buy an old house, renovate it and try to resell it at a profit.

They looked for a manageable project; perhaps a 1920s bungalow in need of a little updating.

What they ended up with was a three-story, 5,282-square-foot Queen Anne mansion built in 1889 that was such a disaster it made headlines. Over the next 16 months, this house-flipping project almost flipped them.

But the disaster at 515 North Broadway is now a beautiful, completely renovated showplace, listed for sale for $1.2 million. And the four young men have learned some valuable lessons about construction, historic preservation and business.

“This project literally was the epitome of everything: it took longer, was harder and cost more than what we expected it to,” said Josh Despain, a landscape architect.

140118BroadwayHouse0004Despain, architect Michael Hogan and soon-to-be architect Ryan Clark work together at Ross Tarrant Architects. They spend most of their days behind desks.

“We were interested in the idea of getting our hands dirty and doing some construction ourselves,” Hogan said.

And, as young married men hoping to start families, they were looking for some extra money, too. So they teamed up with Clark’s cousin, Bennett Clark, a single real estate agent and builder who had been thinking along the same lines.

They had looked at several old houses when 515 North Broadway made headlines in February 2013. The Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. foreclosed on the previous owner. Authorities put her belongings on the sidewalk, almost stopping traffic as passersby picked through it.

Everything was filthy and covered in animal waste, prompting city health and code enforcement officers to step in. The inside of the house was even worse. The smell sickened almost everyone who stepped inside.

141009Rehab0007But the mansion was well-located, structurally sound and retained a lot of its original character. The lender got a dozen offers, and the four guys bought it for $195,752.

“Until we started taking out the plaster and some of the damaged areas, we didn’t really know what kind of condition it was in,” Hogan said. “But, structurally, we felt really good about it.”

Also salvageable were most of the original windows, including some stained-glass ones, and most of the woodwork and flooring. There was a magnificent staircase that rose three stories through the middle of the house.

But the partners quickly realized that all of the plaster needed to be removed to make way for new insulation, plumbing, electricity and interior walls.

“We saw it as a unique opportunity to build a new house within the shell of an original Victorian,” Hogan said.

Added Bennett Clark: “Our mindset was to make the house modern in the places that you need for a house to be modern, but bring back the formal areas to their original glory.”

141009Rehab0002To save money, the partners did about 60 percent of the labor themselves — mostly demolition, basic carpentry, landscaping, paint scraping and other grunt work. They hired contractors for skilled work such as electricity, plumbing, HVAC, roofing and window restoration.

Bennett Clark, who was the general contractor, made the reconstruction project his full-time job. The other three worked nights, weekends and vacations there.

“Our wives hate this house,” Ryan Clark said, as the other three chimed in about how their own homes were neglected during the project.

Because the house is in a city historic district, the partners had to follow strict guidelines on the exterior renovation. They weren’t expecting any special treatment, either: the city’s rule book pictures their house on the cover.

But they said it turned out to be a pleasant experience.

“If you’re just up front with them from the get-go and you’re not trying to hide anything, they’re super easy to work with,” Despain said.

The partners’ challenge now is selling the house for enough to recoup their investment and make a profit. Although expensive, the price is within the range of similar downtown mansions, many of which have had less extensive renovations.

So, do they plan to do this again? They think so, but not anytime soon. Since beginning the work in mid-2013, the three married guys have all had their first children. They expect to have less free time in the near future for construction.

The partners said they learned that to be successful in the renovation business, it must be your business, not a hobby you do in your spare time. A property must be chosen wisely, and the cost of purchase and renovation carefully calculated.

“It was the first project we had done together, so we wanted to make sure we did it right,” Hogan said. “Not only were we trying to make money, but we were really trying to learn a lot about historic preservation. It turned out really well.”

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Lexington’s under-appreciated Modernist buildings worth a look

August 16, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘What’s behind the wall’ beside Jefferson Street restaurants?

July 27, 2014

140722Apiary

This rendering shows what the Apiary will look like when finished this fall. The catering company and event space is in the Jefferson Street restaurant district on the site of a special-effects company’s building that burned in July 2008. Photo: EOP Architects. 

 

Nobody paid much attention to the old industrial building on Jefferson Street until July 17, 2008, when a spectacular two-alarm fire gutted Star Light & Magic, a theatrical special effects company.

Jefferson Street is a much busier place now, having blossomed into a popular restaurant district, so a lot of people are watching and wondering about the construction going on there behind an elegant wall of brick, stone and wrought iron.

For nearly two years, the first phase of the project has been a commercial kitchen for Apiary Fine Catering & Events. When finished in October, the facility also will include The Apiary, an event space designed for an urban infill setting.

The Apiary is owned by Cooper Vaughan, 39, a graduate of Transylvania University and Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in London. Before moving back to his hometown in 2006, Vaughan was a chef at Blackberry Farm, the luxury resort in Tennessee.

140710Apiary0010

Cooper Vaughan

Working in partnership with his parents, Neal and Derek Vaughan of Lexington’s G.F. Vaughan Tobacco Co., he hopes to create a unique 15,500-square-foot food and beverage destination. And, as the name implies, Vaughan said he also wants it to be a hive of activity, a gathering place for people interested in food, wine and cooking.

“We want to be a place other chefs can use when they don’t have the facilities,” he said. “That’s the sort of energy we want around here.”

The Vaughans’ vision for the Apiary included special architecture and landscaping, a place with modern lines but a warm, timeless feel. To achieve that, they hired three top-notch local professionals: architect Brent Bruner, garden designer Jon Carloftis and interior designer Matthew Carter.

The Apiary’s biggest venue will be the 2,000 square-foot Orangery room, which has a 10-foot by 30-foot skylight and 18-foot-tall windows designed to match antique French shutters. When finished, the room will contain orange, lemon and pear trees. There also will be a 1,000-square-foot Winter Room, an intimate tasting room beside the kitchen and a French limestone terrace that can accommodate a big tent.

Salvage materials are a big part of the design. Reclaimed brick, wood flooring and beams came from old tobacco warehouses. Stone was salvaged from a farm that belongs to Vaughan’s uncle. Pavers were once part of a barn at Hamburg Place horse farm. Massive pine doors came from Argentina, and two antique stone fountains in the courtyard are from Europe.

The brick and stone courtyard walls are accented with custom wrought iron created by artists Matthew and Karine Maynard of Maynard Studios in Lawrenceburg.

“They wanted it to have a substantial feel that at the same time is modern and fits into an urban setting,” said Bruner, a principal at EOP Architects. “The level of craftsmanship they wanted is not what you see a lot these days.”

Good planning allowed Carloftis to get a head start on the landscaping so it wouldn’t look new when the Apiary opens. It includes a “green” wall of plantings in the courtyard and a well-established pear tree cultivated espalier-style.

140710Apiary0015

Brent Bruner of EOP Architects

Since the kitchen opened, Vaughan has given rent-free office space to Seedleaf, a Lexington nonprofit. Seedleaf works to increase the supply of affordable, nutritious and sustainably produced local food for people at risk of hunger in Central Kentucky. It sponsors community gardens, restaurant composting programs and classes that teach cooking and food-preservation skills.

The outdoor event spaces will include raised-bed vegetable and herb gardens designed by Carloftis and cared for by Seedleaf. Ryan Koch, Seedleaf’s founder and director, said they will both supply Apiary with food and subtly educate guests.

“It will be a unique opportunity to show how beautiful perennial herbs and some vegetables can be and how important local food is,” Koch said. “If we can help Apiary buy less food off the truck and get more out of their yard, I think people enjoying the space will appreciate that.”

The Seedleaf gardens and other landscaping will be irrigated with rainwater collected in a 12,000-gallon underground storage tank.

Vaughan declined to say how much his family is investing in the Apiary.

The designers’ goal with the building and grounds is to create indoor and outdoor spaces that gradually reveal themselves to visitors as they walk through. Vaughan hopes guests will notice something new each time they come.

“One thing we’ve been able to achieve is that not any one element screams,” he said. “A great event always has these elements of surprise. What’s behind the wall?”

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Book chronicles Lexington’s early ‘contemporary’ homebuilder

July 13, 2014

140709Isenhour0001This house,built on Breckenwood Drive in 1958, shows characteristics of Richard Isenhour’s contemporary homes: native Kentucky stone, lots of glass, cathedral ceilings, exposed post-and-beam construction and an effort to integrate indoor and outdoor spaces.

 

Richard Isenhour was a chemical engineer at Dupont in the late 1940s when he questioned his career choice in a letter to the Lexington woman who he would marry.

“The kind of job I’d like would be one that’s creative and always changing, where I can see what I’m accomplishing,” he wrote Lenora Henry. “I’d like to work on things I can improve.”

The Isenhours moved to Lexington in 1952, and he took up the occupation of his father-in-law, homebuilder A.R. Henry. Before long, Isenhour began looking for ways to improve his houses with modern styles and materials, as well as new ideas about how a house should function.

Richard Isenhour

Richard Isenhour

Isenhour went on to earn an architecture degree at the University of Kentucky and design and build nearly 100 unique homes in Lexington between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s. Now locally famous, these “Isenhour houses” were some of the first contemporary-style homes built in Lexington.

Larry Isenhour, a retired architect and one of the Isenhours’ four children, has just written a handsome, well-illustrated book documenting his father’s work: The Houses of Richard B. Isenhour: Mid-Century Modern in Kentucky(Butler Books, $45) He will sign copies at 2 p.m., July 19, at The Morris Book Shop. Information about other book events: Greenschemedesign.com.

Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and later Modernist architects, as well as by contemporary homes he saw in magazines and on family vacations, Isenhour experimented. This was at a time when people from all over the country were moving to Lexington to work at IBM and UK’s new College of Medicine.

His first bold design was for his own family’s 1956 home on Blueberry Lane. It helped Isenhour find clients who wanted something different than a traditional brick box with shutters.

140709Isenhour0008Isenhour’s designs featured post-and-beam construction and open floor plans. They had exposed wooden beams, cathedral ceilings and walls of glass and local limestone. On building lots, he preserved as many trees as possible. His houses seem more spacious than their modest sizes, and they are as much about utility as style.

“Isenhour’s best work is full of light, creating an inspirational sense of the blending of outdoors and indoors,” Lexington architect Graham Pohl writes in the book’s forward.

Jan and Phyllis Hasbrouck, a physician and nurse, came to Lexington in 1962 for his internship. They had grown up in Ithaca, N.Y., admiring contemporary architecture, so when they were ready to build a home, they asked Isenhour to design it.

“I’ve loved every bit of it — the glass, the stone, the openness,” said Phyllis Hasbrouck, who has lived there since 1967. “I feel closed in when I’m in a regular home now where the ceilings are low.”

Larry Isenhour

Larry Isenhour

But Isenhour houses were not for everyone. The book reproduces a 1968 letter a Lexington bank officer sent to one Isenhour client, declining his loan application. “We have difficulty in making the maximum loan on contemporary style homes because they are usually custom designed for a limited market,” the letter said.

Larry Isenhour, who lives in a contemporary home of his own design, began working on the book soon after his father’s death in 2006, collecting old drawings, photos and documents. His goal was to create a chronological catalog of his father’s best work to show how it evolved.

“I worked in almost all of them, either as a kid picking up wood or drawing the plans,” he said. But he never interviewed his father about the thought processes behind his designs — and wishes now that he had. Isenhour also had never written a book. Fortunately, his got help from his wife, Jan, a writer and retired director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

Only one of the 98 Isenhour houses has been demolished. Most have been well cared for, expanded and updated as tastes and technologies changed. They have been especially sought-after in recent years with the renewed popularity of Mid-Century Modern style.

At least four of the houses are now owned by architects. One is Tom Fielder, who got to know Isenhour and his work when he was an architecture student at UK.

When Fielder moved back to Lexington in 1990, he wanted his three children to attend Glendover Elementary School. So he drove around that neighborhood, which has the largest concentration of Isenhour houses, until he found one for sale. Then he called his real estate agent and asked her to put in a contract on it.

“She said, ‘I can’t do a contract on a house when you haven’t even seen the inside,'” he recalled. “I knew that Dick had designed the house and it was next to Glendover school. That’s all the information I needed to know.”

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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: governorsmansion.ky.gov.)

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.”

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Yes, I wrote this column while sitting on my porch

July 8, 2014

When I traveled the upper South for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution years ago, I noticed a lot of statues of Confederate soldiers on courthouse lawns. I always thought Willis H. Carrier would have been a better choice to memorialize.

After all, the inventor of air conditioning helped make the region comfortable and prosperous, turning the Sleepy South into the Sun Belt. But Carrier’s invention had a drawback, too. Southerners started building houses without porches.

I have lived most of my life in houses built since 1950. One had a patio. Another had a breezeway between the house and garage. Another had a “decorative” front porch too narrow to be of any use.

A couple of my houses had decks. The large deck I built on the back of my 1950s Atlanta home was especially nice. But decks are inferior to porches. There is no roof, and deck railings are rarely as elegant as porch columns and balusters.

porchMy current house was built in 1907. It has a long, wide front porch and a large screened-in back porch, both equipped with ceiling fans. For most of three seasons each year, they are my favorite places to sit and relax. And on cool, low-humidity weekends like this past one, they can be little corners of heaven.

Front porches and back porches are very different places.

My front porch is a public extension of the living room. There is a spring-cushioned swing and two antique rocking chairs I bought cheap from people who thought, as my wife did when I brought them home, that they were worn out.

Both came with caned bottoms and seats that had seen better days. One was re-caned for me by a friend who is an excellent craftsman, in addition to being a retired physician and Air Force general. The other chair may be beyond hope, as the wooden frame looks as bad as the splintered seat and back. It is reserved for skinny visitors.

Old porch rockers have a design feature that makes them superior to those now sold at places such as Home Depot and Cracker Barrel: the back rails are steam-bent just above the seat. As President John F. Kennedy famously discovered, this bend tilts the back to the optimum angle for comfort, whether you are trying to run the world or simply watch it go by.

Front porches are all about watching the world. They are places for getting to know those who live around you, as well as for keeping the neighborhood safe and secure by providing what the urban analyst Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street”.

I have a tradition with a fellow journalist who lives at the end of my street. About once a week, around 6 p.m., one or the other of us will hear the familiar “ding” of an iPhone text message. “Beer on porch?”

On either my porch or his, we discuss life and solve the world’s problems. An award-winning poet recently moved in around the corner, and I have invited him to join us. That should elevate the conversation a notch or two.

Rather than a living room, my back porch is more like an outdoor den, shielded from neighbors and screened from mosquitoes. Becky and I each have a pillowed wicker chair, and there is a dining table barely big enough for two. It is where we go to escape the world rather than to engage or watch it.

We read the newspaper on the back porch most mornings and have dinner there many evenings. It is a great place to relax, if we can ignore the fact that the back yard needs weeding, pruning or watering. Chores should never be visible from a porch.

My porches are cozy places to watch a rain shower, if the wind isn’t blowing too hard. They are ideal for listening to birds and tree frogs — and enjoying the aroma of roasting peanuts from the nearby Jif peanut butter factory.

During this past winter-from-hell, I got a surprise one morning when I looked out at the back porch. The wind had been so strong overnight that an inch of fine snow had been sifted through the screens, covering wicker chairs and all.

So, after I shoveled my sidewalk and front steps, I shoveled my screened-in porch, thinking how funny that would seem come July.


CentrePointe evolution shows benefits of design conversation

May 19, 2014

CentrePointeNowDeveloper’s rendering of the current design for CentrePointe, as seen from corner of Vine and Limestone Streets. Below, the original design rendering unveiled in March 2008.

 

As CentrePointe developer Dudley Webb continues blasting and digging the biggest hole in Lexington history, he has unveiled yet another new design for what he plans to build on top of it.

The city’s Court House Area Design Review Board last week approved what was, by my count, the seventh major CentrePointe redesign in six years. The consensus of the board’s two architects and other design professionals I spoke with is that this design, while still lacking in some respects, is far better than the version it replaced.

centrepointe1Unlike the monolithic tower Webb initially proposed, CentrePointe has evolved into a complex of buildings that fits into downtown without overwhelming it. The new design accomplishes the developer’s goals while respecting the city’s existing fabric and enhancing pedestrian activity.

CentrePointe will be a great addition to downtown — if Webb can get it built.

There are a couple of reasons why CentrePointe’s design has continued evolving. One is that the mix of tenants and uses has changed several times as Webb struggled to put together an ambitious, $394 million project in a difficult economic climate.

As currently proposed, CentrePointe would contain a 10-12 story office building, a 205-room Marriott hotel, a 110-unit Marriott extended-stay hotel, 90 apartments, several luxury condos, a Jeff Ruby Steakhouse, a Starbuck’s coffee shop and several retail stores at street level.

Another reason for CentrePointe’s evolution is that Lexingtonians and their elected and appointed leaders have become more sophisticated about the role design plays in downtown revitalization and economic development. Copying ostentatious towers in Atlanta or Austin is no longer good enough.

Like beauty, good architecture is often in the eye of the beholder. But there are generally accepted principles for good and bad architecture and urban design. That is why the review board process has been valuable in improving CentrePointe, and why city officials should keep pushing for “design excellence” guidelines for future downtown construction.

 

 

 


Celebrate 250th birthday of architect who shaped early Kentucky

April 26, 2014

130826PopeVilla0046The main parlor rooms of Pope Villa, which has been owned by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation since a 1987 fire. Benjamin Latrobe designed the house for U.S. Sen. John Pope. It was finished in 1813 but drastically altered in the years since.  Center, an 1804 of Latrobe by Charles Wilson Peale. Bottom, the Pope Villa exterior.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Thursday marks the 250th birthday of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, America’s first professional architect of renown and a man who left a lasting impression on Kentucky.

Latrobe, who is best known for his work in the nation’s capitol, had eight Kentucky commissions between 1802 and 1817, six of which were in Lexington and five of which were built. His designs influenced many Kentucky architects and builders, including Gideon Shryock and John McMurtry, setting the tone for much of the state’s most iconic architecture.

Only one of Latrobe’s Kentucky buildings survives, but it is among his most significant: Pope Villa in Lexington. The house will be open for free tours Thursday evening as the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which is slowly working to restore it, throws a birthday party for Latrobe and marks the beginning of National Preservation Month.

Latrobe was born in England in 1764 to a British father and American mother. He came to America in 1796 and died in New Orleans in 1820 after an illustrious career. Early on, his neo-classical designs caught the attention of Thomas Jefferson. Latrobe’s work in Washington included the U.S. Capitol and White House porticos.

Patrick Snadon, a professor in the University of Cincinnati’s School of Architecture and Interior Design, has studied Latrobe’s Kentucky work, which he detailed in a chapter of the 2012 book, Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852.

Most of Latrobe’s Kentucky projects were the result of his friendships with Rep. Henry Clay and Sen. John Pope. Snadon thinks Latrobe, the nation’s most avant-garde architect of the time, found the Kentuckians willing clients for his ideas.

140501Latrobe0002Latrobe’s first project in the state, in 1803, was the First Kentucky Bank in Lexington, on Main Street just east of Wrenn Alley. It was demolished before the Civil War.

In 1807, Latrobe was asked to design First Presbyterian Church, which then was on Broadway at Second Street, where Broadway Christian Church now stands. But by the time Latrobe’s detailed plans arrived, the church had already been built using a design that may or may not have followed his initial proposal. That building was demolished in 1857.

Latrobe designed three projects for Clay. The first was his Ashland mansion, 1811-1814. It was demolished after Clay’s death in 1852 and rebuilt on the same foundation by Clay’s son, James, and his architect, Thomas Lewinski.

Clay’s influence led to Latrobe being asked in 1812 to design the Transylvania University building in what is now Gratz Park. But his plan was too big and costly, so trustees hired Lexington architect Matthew Kennedy instead. That building burned in 1829 and Transylvania moved north to its current location.

Clay asked Latrobe in 1813 to design several townhouses, shops and tenements for property he owned at the northwest corner of Short and Market Streets. Parlay Social and Dudley’s on Short are now located in late 1800s buildings there that replaced Latrobe’s structures.

140501Latrobe0001Latrobe asked to design Kentucky’s second state capitol when the first one burned in 1813. But when another project kept him from traveling to Kentucky, that job, too, went to Kennedy. Pope asked Latrobe in 1817 to design an armory for Frankfort, but it was never built.

Also in 1817, Latrobe designed a house in Newport for Gen. James Taylor. It was completed in 1819, but burned in 1842.

Pope Villa is perhaps the most significant house Latrobe designed. That is because Pope and his wife, Eliza, gave the architect freedom to express his radical ideas for what a “rational” American house should look like.

“Altogether, the Pope Villa is theoretically and spatially the most sophisticated house designed in federal-period America,” Snadon wrote.

Pope Villa was a perfect square with service rooms on the first floor and main rooms on the second floor, which had a domed center rotunda with a skylight. It had full-length, three-panel windows upstairs that were widely copied in other Greek Revival houses in 1800s Kentucky.

When Pope wasn’t re-elected to the Senate in 1813, he and his wife sold their new house. Later owners did everything they could to obliterate Latrobe’s unique design. The remodeling included addition of a back wing and center hall, two then-common design elements that Latrobe hated.

Pope Villa was divided into apartments in the early 1900s. The Blue Grass Trust acquired the building in 1987 after a fire did considerable damage. Restoration according to Latrobe’s original drawings has been slow, both because of a lack of money and uncertainty about Pope Villa’s future use.

One idea at a brainstorming session last November was to use the reconstruction-in-progress interior as gallery space for contemporary art. An initial installation is planned this fall by the Lexington Art League. Details are still being worked out.

“It’s going to be the first foray into the next step for the Pope Villa.” said Sheila Ferrell, the Trust’s executive director.


Lexington brothers, classmate win international design contest

April 14, 2014

MTCA rendering of the design for a mobile rural health care clinic for Southeast Asia. The design won Building Trust International’s Moved to Care competition. Below, designers Patrick Morgan, left, Simon Morgan, center, and Jhanéa “Jha D” Williams. Photos provided

 

The email from London looked genuine, but it arrived before dawn on April 1.

“Everybody we told thought it was an April Fool’s joke,” said Patrick Morgan, a young architect from Lexington. “I don’t think Jha D believed me. She just wanted to go back to sleep when I called her at 6:30 in the morning.”

The email was from Building Trust International, a London-based charity that works to improve life in developing countries with good shelter design. It told Morgan that he, his brother, Simon, and his architecture school classmate, Jhanéa “Jha D” Williams, had won the organization’s fifth international design competition, to create a mobile health clinic for use in Southeast Asia.

Their design was chosen from among more than 200 entries by student and professional architects. The best student entry won a small cash prize. “Our prize is that it actually gets built and used,” Simon said.

There were nine professional runners-up in the competition, from India, South Korea, Australia, Italy, Denmark, Ireland and Malaysia.

“It’s still a shock that we won,” Patrick said.

Patrick, 26, has a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and works for Interface Studio Architects in Philadelphia. Simon, 24, has a master’s in public health from Columbia University and works for a firm in Washington, D.C., analyzing health policy.

The brothers have been interested in design and construction since they were boys, helping their parents, John Morgan and Linda Carroll, restore historic houses in downtown Lexington.

“That was quite a bit of it,” Patrick said with a laugh. “Having a wheelbarrow in my hands at 6 months old.”

For their Eagle Scout service projects, they built a patio and landscaping at St. Paul Catholic Church.

As an architect with the Lexington firm Thought Space, Patrick designed the interior of an early 1800s cottage his parents restored on East Third Street. It is beside the offices of their company, Morgan Worldwide, a consulting firm that specializes in reducing the environmental impact of mining.

MTCteamPatrick said he saw Building Trust International’s Moved to Care competition advertised on an architecture blog and suggested developing an entry with his brother and Williams, who works for the architecture and planning firm Sasaki Associates in Boston.

“This sounded perfect for what Simon and I wanted to do together,” he said. “We had always been thinking about trying to work together on projects that would combine our skill sets.”

The idea is that health care services and education can be more effectively delivered in rural areas by bringing small clinics to people rather than asking them to travel to clinics for medical treatment, vaccinations and hygiene education.

“We had been talking about doing something like this for two years,” Simon said. “I studied in South Africa as an undergraduate, and I thought something like this was a much better way to deliver care.”

Patrick said several things about their design seemed to impress the judges. It is easily portable, folding out from a standard tractor-trailer bed. It uses a lot of color, which makes the clinic look welcoming and provides visual clues for usage in a region where dozens of languages are spoken. The design also allows outdoor deck space to be customized for each location.

“The idea is they would fold down from the trailer, but then the community could come in to use their knowledge to build the sun shading and the railings,” Patrick said. “So the local community would feel involved with it.”

Patrick and Simon said they hope to stay connected to the project as it is built and put to use in Cambodia in a pilot project late this year.

“We definitely want to get to Cambodia and stay as involved as possible,” Patrick said. “We’ll get to test the ideas we had in the design and see how they work in the real world, and then be able to tweak it for future models. The idea is that this won’t just be one clinic, but over time they will build more and more of them.”

The Morgan brothers hope to do many more projects together, combining aspects of public health and innovative design.

“It’s just really nice that the first time Simon and I worked together, doing something we plan on doing for a long time, that we were able to win,” Patrick said. “It shows that our ideas meld together nicely.”

 


1910 Coal & Feed Co. building redone as corporate headquarters

February 24, 2014

140218BCWood0016Brian C. Wood, founder and CEO of BC Wood Properties, stands in the lobby of the company’s headquarters as Jeannette Crank works behind the front desk and a meeting is conducted in a second-floor conference room. Wood said the renovated circa 1910 Elmendorf Coal & Feed Co. building has been a perfect space for the business. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

A couple of years ago, Brian Wood, the founder and CEO of BC Wood Properties, took the company’s president, King Offutt, down West Fourth Street to show him where Transylvania University, his alma mater, was building new athletic fields.

That part of town was beginning to see dramatic change, including conversion of the huge Eastern State Hospital property into a new campus for Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

While driving around, they turned down Henry Street, a byway that connects to West Third Street. It runs along railroad tracks and old grain elevators near Newtown Pike.

Then they saw it: a hulk of a brick building. It had been built in 1910 by the legendary millionaire horseman James Ben Ali Haggin to house his Elmendorf Coal & Feed Co. Since then, though, it had suffered at least two fires and years of vacancy.

“We had been looking for a building for a couple of years” to house the growing company’s headquarters, Offutt said. “We wanted a building with character.”

140218BCWood0032At the time, the company worked out of Eastland Shopping Center, one of more than 30 retail properties with 5.5 million square feet of space that BC Wood Properties now owns and manages in eight states.

“It was love at first sight,” Wood said of the three-story building. “A diamond in the rough.”

After they looked around the outside and in a few windows, Offutt reached for his cellphone and called the owner. “We want to buy your building,” he said.

Considerable work and a couple of million dollars later, BC Wood Properties has one of the coolest office spaces in Lexington: foot-thick, exposed brick walls; warm wood everywhere, including massive hewn posts and beams; big windows that fill the space with natural light.

The company’s in-house construction experts did most of the renovation. Local craftsmen made long trestle tables for shared conference space between offices and custom metal signs.

140218BCWood0025A huge wooden sliding door was preserved on one wall. Casual seating around the building includes old wooden pews bought on eBay from a Wisconsin church. The façade along Henry Street preserves the painted sign for another long-ago tenant, Central Kentucky Blue Grass Seed Co.

“It works really well,” Offutt said of the building. “It’s certainly improved morale among our employees. They love the building and coming to work in it.”

The building had a modern metal addition on the back, which Wood turned into an employee gym and basketball court. The company pays for a fitness trainer to come in three times a week to work with employees, and the benefit has proven popular, he said.

Preserving the building’s industrial character was their approach to the renovation, Wood said.

“We wanted to keep the essential historical nature, and not try to turn it into something it’s not,” Wood said, noting that is a key principle of the company itself.

Wood started BC Wood Properties 20 years ago and has focused on a specific niche: modest shopping centers in high-traffic locations where middle-class people shop regularly for things they need to live. He said the strategy has worked well: its properties remained more than 90 percent leased throughout the economic slump.

It also helps that the company handles all management, construction and maintenance in-house, rather than outsourcing it, to ensure that properties stay in good shape. That requires a strong team, Wood said, which includes a full-time staff of 18 in Lexington and another 14 employees elsewhere.

Last year, the company raised a $43 million private equity fund for acquisitions, about one-third of it from local investors. That allowed it to purchase 11 shopping centers in five states last year, Wood said.

Wood and Offutt are both 41-year-old Lexington natives, and they said they enjoy being part of the revitalization of Lexington’s northwest end.

“This building reflects who we are,” Wood said. “We didn’t want a high-rise presence. We enjoy being on Henry Street beside grain bins and Blue Stallion Brewery. This is us.”

Added Offutt: “This area is going to change so much in the next five years, it’s going to be fun to watch.”

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Freed slave left his mark on Lexington; his son went even further

February 15, 2014

140212Tandys0002Henry Tandy and Albert Byrd, two black bricklayers in Lexington during the late 1800s and early 1900s, formed a partnership that did the brick work on many notable local buildings. Tandy & Byrd’s biggest job was the Fayette County Courthouse. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

 

Henry A. Tandy was one of many newly freed slaves who moved to Lexington at the end of the Civil War. He would leave marks on this city that are still visible, and his son would do the same in New York.

Tandy was born in Kentucky, but it isn’t known exactly when or where. He came to Lexington in 1865 at about age 15 and made a name for himself as a craftsman, business executive and entrepreneur.

After two years as a photographer’s assistant, Tandy went to work in 1867 as a laborer for G.D. Wilgus, one of Lexington’s largest building contractors. Within a few years he was a skilled bricklayer and a foreman, according to architectural historian Rebecca Lawin McCarley, who researched his life and wrote about it in 2006 for the journal Kentucky Places & Spaces.

HenryTandy

Henry A. Tandy

Tandy saved money and, after marrying Emma Brice in 1874, bought his first real estate from George Kinkead, an anti-slavery lawyer whose mansion is now the Living Arts & Science Center. Tandy built the only two-story brick house in Kinkeadtown, a black settlement now part of the East End.

By the time their son, Vertner, was born in 1885, the Tandys had sold their home in Kinkeadtown for a profit and moved in with her parents at 642 West Main Street. Tandy is thought to have built the brick house there, and he lived in it for the rest of his life.

In the 1880s, Tandy began buying investment lots around town. He built and rented some of the best houses in Lexington’s “black” neighborhoods at the time.

Among the Wilgus projects that Tandy worked on were the Opera House, St. Paul Catholic Church and First Presbyterian Church. When Wilgus’ health deteriorated in the 1880s, Tandy took over many of his duties. It was then unheard of for a black man to run a white man’s business.

When Wilgus died in 1893, Tandy and another black bricklayer, Albert Byrd, formed their own company, Tandy & Byrd. It became one of Lexington’s largest brick contractors, with as many as 50 workers.

Tandy & Byrd’s biggest project was the old Fayette County Court House. Others that remain standing include the First National Bank building on Short Street, Miller Hall at the University of Kentucky and the Merrick Lodge Building, where The Jax restaurant is now at Short and Limestone streets.

Tandy & Byrd also built the annex for the Protestant Infirmary at East Short Street and Elm Tree Lane. The infirmary was the forerunner of Good Samaritan Hospital. Until recently, the annex housed Hurst Office Furniture.

Tandy & Byrd constructed the Ades Dry Goods building on East Main Street, which now houses Thomas & King’s offices and Portofino restaurant. The partners did a lot of brick work for Combs Lumber Co., which built many turn-of-the-century Lexington homes (including mine).

Tandy was one of 49 people profiled in W.D. Johnson’s 1897 book, Biographical Sketches of Prominent Negro Men and Women of Kentucky.

“Opportunity came to him, and he seized it,” Johnson wrote of Tandy. “Through his indefatigable efforts a large force of Negro laborers have found steady employment, and thereby obtained comfortable homes for their families.”

Tandy was prominent in the black community, with leadership roles in the “colored” YMCA, the A.M.E. Church, black fraternal organizations and the Colored Fair Association, which organized Kentucky’s largest annual exposition for blacks. He was active in the National Negro Business League and spoke at its national convention in 1902.

Byrd died in 1909, and Tandy retired in 1911 after finishing Roark and Sullivan halls at Eastern Kentucky University. But he continued dabbling in real estate and got into the livery and undertaking business. Tandy died in 1918, and he has one of the biggest monuments at Cove Haven Cemetery.

Although Tandy got little formal education, he made sure his son did.

Vertner Woodson Tandy

Vertner Woodson Tandy

Vertner Woodson Tandy studied under Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He finished his studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he was one of seven founders of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first black college fraternity. He was the first black to pass the military commissioning exam, and he eventually became a major in the New York National Guard.

Tandy would become New York’s first black registered architect, and the first black member of the American Institute of Architects. Among many buildings he designed was St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem and two mansions for America’s first black woman millionaire, the hair-care products pioneer Madam C.J. Walker.

The Villa Lewaro mansion Tandy designed for Walker in exclusive Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y., was restored in the 1990s by Harold Doley, the first black to buy an individual seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

Tandy designed one building in Lexington that still stands: Webster Hall, which housed teachers at Chandler Normal School for blacks on Georgetown Street, which he had attended.

Vertner Tandy died in 1949 at age 64. A state historical marker honoring him stands beside the family home on West Main Street, which is now used for offices.

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Warwick: historic Kentucky home meets a scholar’s imagination

January 18, 2014

140116Warwick0041

Clay Lancaster lived in the circa 1809 Moses Jones house at his Warwick estate. The small but elegant house was built by a successful merchant along the Kentucky River in Mercer County. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

SALVISA — Warwick, the 205-year-old brick cottage that architectural historian Clay Lancaster restored and embellished with “folly” structures from his rich imagination, will be open Sunday afternoon for a rare public tour.

The open house is being given by the non-profit Warwick Foundation, which Lancaster created before his death in 2000 to care for the property and promote his many interests, which included historic preservation and cross-cultural understanding.

140116Warwick0053In additions to tours of his home, drawings gallery and two “folly” buildings, visitors can buy copies of some of the more than two dozen books Lancaster wrote. They include everything from scholarly tomes to illustrated children’s books on subjects ranging from early Kentucky architecture to Asian philosophy.

The event is the first of several the foundation plans this year to help more people appreciate Warwick and Lancaster’s brilliant legacy as a scholar, writer, artist and Renaissance man.

“He had so many interests,” said Paul Holbrook, the foundation’s president and a friend of Lancaster. “He was driven by his interests.”

Lancaster was born in Lexington in 1917 and grew up in the Bell Court neighborhood, where his father built two homes. They sparked Lancaster’s interest in bungalow architecture, which led to his book The American Bungalow (1985).

He studied at the University of Kentucky before moving to New York, where he taught at Columbia University, Vassar College and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also was curator of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

140116Warwick0083Lancaster wrote about architecture in Brooklyn and on Massachusetts’ Nantucket Island, where he restored an 1829 house and lived for several years. He became an influential advocate for historic preservation, both in the Northeast and in Kentucky.

The New York Times said his book, Old Brooklyn Heights: New York’s First Suburb, “provided the historical and intellectual ammunition for the successful argument in 1965 that Brooklyn Heights should become the city’s first historic district.”

Lancaster is best known in Kentucky for his photographs and research documenting antebellum homes. His meticulous scholarship added immeasurably to public knowledge of and efforts to preserve Kentucky’s outstanding early architecture. His books on the subject are the authoritative reference works: Ante Bellum Houses of the Bluegrass (1961), Vestiges of the Venerable City(1978) and Antebellum Architecture of Kentucky (1991).

When a friend, architectural historian and retired Herald-Leader reporter Bettye Lee Mastin, notified Lancaster in 1978 that the Warwick property he had long admired was for sale, he bought it and moved back to Kentucky.

The property along the Kentucky River in Mercer County includes a brick cottage of superb craftsmanship built by Moses Jones, a pioneer entrepreneur, between 1809-1811. The house’s elaborately carved woodwork includes basket-weave patterns on the mantels that were inspired by Jones’ 9-year captivity as a child among the Chickasaw tribe in Tennessee.

Lancaster meticulously restored the Moses Jones house and added a wing for his bedroom, kitchen and library. He furnished it with Kentucky antiques, as well as art and furniture from Asia, a place he never visited but studied and wrote about in such books as The Japanese Influence in America (1983) and The Breadth and Depth of East and West (1995).

Lancaster was a vegan, a yoga enthusiast and a convert to Buddhism who, nevertheless, delighted his many friends each year with whimsical Christmas cards he illustrated.

Thanks to a windfall from the sale of farmland inherited from his father, Lancaster built two architectural “follies,” fanciful structures he had delighted in drawing since childhood. The first was Warwick Pavilion, a small, elegant Georgian tea room connected to a stockroom for books he wrote and published.

The second folly is a three-story, octagonal guest house, modeled after the 1st Century BC Tower of Winds in Athens, Greece. No more than 25 feet at its widest point, the tower is a masterpiece of compact design with three bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen, studio, winding staircase and elegant, elliptical parlor.

The guest house, meticulously built by Calvin Shewmaker and other local craftsmen, is now used for visiting scholars, including UK’s annual Clay Lancaster Scholar.

“It’s such an interesting collection of buildings and a lovely setting,” Holbrook said. “We’re trying to figure out how to get more people there to see it.”

If you go

Warwick Foundation open house and book sale

When: Noon — 4 p.m. Jan. 19.
Where: Warwick is on Oregon Road about six miles off U.S. 127 near Salvisa.
More information: (859) 494-2852, Warwickfoundation.org

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Clay Lancaster’s Warwick open Sunday for a rare tour

January 14, 2014

Warwick1Clay Lancaster’s Warwick estate. Photo by Helm Roberts/Warwick Foundation.

 

There is a special place in Central Kentucky that I have wanted to visit for years. I will finally get a chance Sunday, and so can you.

Warwick, on Oregon Road in Mercer County, is an estate near the Kentucky River where Moses Jones built a brick house in 1809. In more recent years, it was the home of Lexington native Clay Lancaster, a noted architectural historian, prolific author and all-around Renaissance man.

Lancaster (1917-2000) spent much of his career in New York City, but he moved back to Kentucky in 1978 when a friend, former Herald-Leader reporter Bettye Lee Mastin, let him know that Warwick was for sale.

Lancaster had always loved Warwick, and he bought it, restored it and moved there.

Lancaster

Clay Lancaster at Warwick’s Guest House.

Warwick has Lancaster’s library, as well as two “follies” he built: the Tea Pavilion, which has 18th-century architectural features and a large banquet table, and the Guest House, a three-story octagonal structure modeled after the first-century B.C. Tower of Winds in Athens, Greece.

Lancaster wrote more than 20 books and 150 articles, from scholarly tomes to children’s books. His books include, Old Brooklyn Heights: New York’s First Suburb, which the New York Times said “provided the historical and intellectual ammunition for the successful argument in 1965 that Brooklyn Heights should become the city’s first historic district.”

Lancaster is best known in Kentucky for his photographs and research documenting antebellum homes in the Bluegrass. His scholarship added immeasurably to public knowledge and efforts to preserve Central Kentucky’s pre-Civil War architecture.

I never got to meet Lancaster, but I have read several of his books. I use them frequently as reference, especially these three: Ante Bellum Houses of the Bluegrass (1961), Vestiges of the Venerable City (1978) and Antebellum Architecture of Kentucky (1991)

Lancaster grew up in Lexington’s Bell Court neighborhood, where his father built two homes. They helped spark Lancaster’s interest in that era of residential architecture, which led to his book The American Bungalow (1985).

In 2007, James Birchfield at the University of Kentucky put together Clay Lancaster’s Kentucky, a book of Lancaster’s photos of historic Kentucky homes, many of which are no longer standing.

Lancaster’s wide-ranging scholarship included 19th- and 20th-century architecture in Kentucky, New York and Massachusetts. His other enthusiasm was art and ideas from the Far East. His 1983 book, The Japanese Influence in America, remains a classic. He taught about art and architecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Columbia University, Vassar College, UK, the University of Louisville and Transylvania University.

After Lancaster’s death, the Warwick Foundation was formed to manage Warwick and perpetuate his legacy of education, cross-cultural understanding and advocacy for historic preservation.

The foundation will open Warwick for a free open house, tour and book sale from noon until 4 p.m. Sunday. Warwick has rarely been open to the public in recent years, but foundation members hope to change that with several events in 2014.

Warwick is on Oregon Road, about six miles off U.S. 127 near Salvisa. For more information about Sunday’s event, email jkl@qx.net or call (859) 494-2852. For more information about Warwick, go to Warwickfoundation.org.

 

 


Don’t approve CentrePointe without good design, proof of financing

October 8, 2013

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 CentrePointe version 6.1, which will be up for approval Wednesday before Lexington’s Court House Area Design Review Board. Rendering by CMMI/Atlanta.

 

If there is one thing Lexington officials should keep in mind over the next few weeks, it is this: there are far worse things you can have in the center of your city than a grassy field.

Developer Dudley Webb will be back before the Court House Area Design Review Board on Wednesday seeking final design approval for his long-stalled CentrePointe project. Webb must convince the board that his proposed development of offices, apartments, restaurants, shops and a hotel is compatible with the surrounding area.

In Webb’s last appearance, Aug. 21, a divided board reluctantly gave partial approval to his latest design — CentrePointe version 6.0 — but wanted more work on some elements. The board’s reluctance stemmed from the fact that CentrePointe 6.0 was a big step backward from the previous, well-designed version.

In response to the board’s concerns, Webb last week unveiled his design “tweaks” as he calls them. But CentrePointe version 6.1 is another step backward. It reminds me of the uninspired stuff that was being built around Atlanta when I lived there in the 1980s and 1990s.

What the board must decide is whether CentrePointe 6.1 is good enough to meet the city’s criteria. Board members should base their decision on a careful evaluation of the design, not pressure from a developer citing the urgency of his own deadlines.

Throughout this process, Webb has made claims about urgency that amounted to nothing. The board was too quick to allow demolition of the block five years ago. Despite all of Webb’s promises, CentrePointe remains an empty field.

At the Aug. 21 meeting, Webb said he needed the board’s quick approval because he risked losing a big office tenant if he didn’t begin construction in October. We are more than a week into October, but Webb has not shown the evidence of financing he needs to get building permits.

One recent development is unlikely to inspire confidence among board members.

EOP Architects, the Lexington firm that designed the excellent CentrePointe 5.0 and presented CentrePointe 6.0 on Webb’s behalf at the last meeting, has quit the project and filed a lien against the property, claiming its fees have not been paid.

You have to wonder at what point city officials — from review board appointees to the mayor and members of the Urban County Council — need to start asking themselves this question: is CentrePointe real or a mirage? That question is important for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, the city asked for state tax-increment financing for public improvements related to CentrePointe. The state is likely to allow Lexington only so much TIF financing authority. While CentrePointe has languished, other downtown projects have emerged that would seem to have much more economic development potential. Is CentrePointe still a horse the city wants to hitch its cart to?

And there is the larger issue of financial viability. Remember the unidentified financier who supposedly promised Webb money but died without leaving a will? If Webb has secured more solid financial support since then, he has yet to prove it.

The biggest risk of CentrePointe is not that it ends up being ugly, but that it ends up being ugly and unfinished. The next-biggest risk is that Webb is allowed to begin construction, runs short of money and then forces the city to make further concessions to keep the project from being abandoned.

Before city officials issue Webb permits to do anything on that grassy field, they should demand two things: show us good design, and show us the money.


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

September 3, 2013

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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 (KET.org/topbuildings) 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.

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Kroger on Euclid a chance for Lexington to do urban infill right

July 20, 2013

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A recent rendering of the design for the exterior of the new Kroger store on Euclid Avenue, incorporating ideas from architect Graham Pohl.  Photo provided

 

The design of a new grocery is usually of little interest beyond its neighborhood. But the Kroger reconstruction on Euclid Avenue offers some important lessons for Lexington as the city focuses more on urban infill and redevelopment.

Kroger has had this Chevy Chase grocery for decades, a suburban-style box behind a wrap-around parking lot. As the neighborhoods surrounding it have become more dense, the store has become more crowded.

While new, small markets such as Town Branch and Shorty’s have filled an important niche, this Kroger is the only supermarket close to Lexington’s increasingly popular intown neighborhoods. Residents there want more shopping options without having to drive to the suburbs.

Kroger plans to spend $19 million building a new store on the site, plus four adjacent quarter-acre lots it acquired. The grocery’s size will increase from 38,000 square feet to 65,000, although some of that new space will be basement storage. In addition to a surface lot, there will be a ramp and parking on the roof.

A larger store requires a zoning change, which has been approved by the Planning Commission and will go before Council on Aug. 13.

Kroger’s initial design was uninspiring — a plain, suburban-style box oriented toward a parking lot rather than the street, as are most buildings in that neighborhood, most of which was developed during the first four decades of the 20th century.

Architect Graham Pohl of the firm Pohl Rosa Pohl offered to donate his services to Kroger to help improve the exterior design to make it more compatible. He also wanted the store to be more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, since that is the way many of Kroger’s customers get there.

“My passion is good design, and I wanted a building that responded to the urban setting and looked like it had been designed, not a building that looked like an afterthought,” said Pohl, who has lived and worked in the neighborhood — and shopped at that Kroger — since 1980.

Pohl said Kroger has been very receptive to his ideas for improving the store’s design. “I have seen a real effort on their part to do the right thing,” he said.

Pohl attributes much of that to city leadership. Mayor Jim Gray has made it clear to Kroger and other developers that infill projects must be well-designed and appropriate to their surroundings.

That is the first important lesson: When city officials and residents make it clear that mediocre design is no longer good enough for Lexington, developers will respond. If a city wants design excellence, it must insist on it.

Pohl, who said he was paid nothing for his work, showed me recent versions of the Kroger design that are dramatically better than the initial ones, in both function and appearance. If Kroger follows through, the store will be better-looking, more compatible with the neighborhood and a more pleasant place to shop.

FortKrogerBut some of the store’s neighbors still aren’t happy, and they are opposing the zoning change. Driving through the neighborhood last Thursday, I saw three yellow yard signs that said, “No to Fort Kroger.”

Opponents say the new store is too big for the site and will create traffic congestion. Pohl thinks some of their fears are exaggerated, but he said city officials should continue to work with Kroger to address several issues. Those include outdoor lighting, pedestrian and cyclist safety, the addition of a bus shelter and limits on when delivery trucks can idle at the loading docks.

City officials should work with Kroger on sensible compromises to make this bigger grocery succeed. Still, it is unlikely every neighbor will be satisfied.

We say it all the time in Lexington, to the point that it has become a cliché: we need to grow up, not out, if we want to preserve our unique rural landscape from more suburban sprawl.

That kind of growth means more infill and redevelopment, and that often means increasing population density. People in Lexington have never been comfortable with increasing density, but that must change.

The Euclid Avenue Kroger project is an excellent opportunity for Lexington to learn more about good urban design and increasing density, and to figure out how to do it right.

 


UK’s Modernist buildings worth a second look — and worth saving

April 28, 2013

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Holmes Hall on Euclid Avenue was built by the University of Kentucky in 1956-1958 and designed by Ernst V. Johnson. Its most distinguishing feature is a covered walkway of stone, brick and concrete canopy. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

When local architects started emailing me about preliminary plans to demolish several Modernist-style buildings on the University of Kentucky campus, my first reaction was to roll my eyes.

Like many people, I have always struggled to appreciate, much less like, a lot of mid-20th century architecture. It seems so plain, boxy, cold and, in the hands of some architects, just plain ugly.

To try to understand why so many professionals consider these buildings important and worth saving, I decided to take a closer look and learn more about them.

Nearly 30 percent of UK’s structures date from the 1950s and 1960s, and many academic buildings and residence halls have been neglected for years. To his credit, UK President Eli Capilouto is trying to catch up, initiating construction and renovation projects all over campus.

Initial plans included demolishing as many as seven of the 13 campus buildings designed between the 1930s and 1950s by noted Lexington architect Ernst V. Johnson: Jewell (1938), Holmes (1956) and Donovan (1955) residence halls, the Engineering Quadrangle (1938), the Wenner-Gren Aeronautical Research Laboratory (1941), the Funkhouser Biological Science Building (1942) and the Mineral Industries Building (1951).

The wrecking ball may also be aimed at the Kirwan-Blanding residential complex (1967), designed by Edward Durrell Stone. He was one of America’s best-known and most prolific Modernist architects, and his work has always been widely loved — and hated.

“It’s easy to see why most people don’t turn on to it,” said Graham Pohl, a Lexington architect with Pohl Rosa Pohl.

130423UKDorms-TE0065Modernism was the first architectural style in centuries that didn’t reference the past. Modernism began in Europe nearly a century ago, but didn’t catch on in this country until after World War II. Then it was everywhere.

“People felt free to be expressive and experiment with forms and new materials that felt right to them,” Pohl said. “It was a product of economic growth and national optimism about the future.”

But Pohl acknowledges that the style was widely abused. When so-called Urban Renewal reshaped America’s cities into concrete jungles built around the automobile, it included a lot of slap-dash architecture that was called “modern.”

“One of the reasons people don’t like Modernism is that it has been used as an excuse to do shoddy work,” Pohl said. “It’s more difficult to do good Modernism than good traditional work.”

Pohl said most of the buildings UK has considered tearing down are anything but shoddy. As an example, he cited Holmes Hall, an International-style building with an elegant stone and concrete stair-step canopy and interesting brick work.

Johnson’s buildings all have elegant brick work, perhaps because he was the son of a Swedish mason and worked his way through Yale as a union bricklayer.

“It’s more than decorative,” Pohl said of Johnson’s brick patterns on Holmes Hall. “It speaks to aspects of the building and the relationship between walls and openings. There’s a lot about that building that suggests someone thought deeply about it.”

Pohl also likes Stone’s Kirwan-Blanding complex, with its 23-story towers surrounded by smaller buildings arranged in a park-like setting. He likes the relationship of the vertical towers to the “incredibly elegant” horizontal canopies that connect the buildings.

“A lot of people see those forms as being part of their parents’ generation and they intentionally don’t want to relate to them,” said Pohl, adding that these buildings have much more architectural merit than anything that is likely to replace them in this era of budget-cutting austerity.

I grew up around the corner from Holmes Hall, on the block where UK is now building a massive dormitory complex. I have always admired Holmes Hall’s stair- step canopy, if not the rest of the building.

130423UKDorms-TE0137But I never liked Kirwan-Blanding — until, that is, I went to photograph it for this column on a beautiful evening last week. The moon was rising between the towers, which were bathed in the glow of the setting sun. Students were all around the buildings, studying among the trees and flowers or throwing Frisbees and footballs. I appreciated those buildings for the first time.

Architecture, like art, is often subjective, said Sarah Tate, an architect and founder of the Lexington firm Tate Hill Jacobs. She greatly admires Johnson’s work, for example, yet has never liked Stone’s. But that is not the point, she emphasized.

“Architecture is a reflection of history and culture, and that campus is a little museum of modern architecture,” Tate said. “Johnson’s buildings give us an architectural handbook of the influences that got us from the late 19th century to the late 20th century. I don’t think (UK officials) know what they have here.

“These mid-century buildings are part of our DNA,” she added. “You don’t want to take them all away. They are important links in our history and culture.”

Sasaki Associates, the Boston planning firm that UK hired to develop a new campus master plan, recently recommended as its first scenario renovating and reusing these historic Modernist buildings. UK officials should take that advice.

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