NY photographer explores historic Bluegrass homes in new book

May 24, 2014

140525KyBook0009The walled garden and orchard at Gainesway Farm was added by owner Antony Beck, a longtime friend of photographer Pieter Estersohn.  Beck suggested that Estersohn do the book, Kentucky: Historic Houses and Horse Farms of Bluegrass Country, which has just been published.  Photo by Pieter Estersohn / Courtesy of Monacelli Press


Central Kentucky’s grand mansions and horse farms have been fodder for pretty picture books for more than a century, at least since Thomas A. Knight’s Country Estates of the Bluegrass came out in 1904.

Of the many books I have seen, the best has just been published: Pieter Estersohn’s Kentucky: Historic Houses and Horse Farms of Bluegrass Country (Monacelli Press, $60).

The photographs are stunning, as they should be. Estersohn, 53, is one of America’s top “shelter” magazine photographers. He has shot covers for Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, Southern Accents, Metropolitan Home and many other big magazines. This is his 23rd book.

140525KyBook0008What makes this book especially interesting and authentic are the places Estersohn chose to photograph. There are only a few of the usual suspects, too important to omit: Waveland, Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate.

Many of the other 15 properties are not well-known, even to many Kentuckians, but they are some of the most precious architectural gems of the Bluegrass. That didn’t happen by accident. Estersohn had inside help.

In a telephone interview, Estersohn said he and Antony Beck, owner of Gainesway Farm, have been best friends since they were 19. The New York-based photographer said he and his son, Elio, 10, have been visiting the farm regularly for years.

“It’s sort of like our home away from home,” he said. “It’s just such a magical environment to be on that farm. Antony’s landscaping is amazing.”

Beck suggested the book, and Estersohn quickly agreed. For more than a year, the photographer made quick trips to Kentucky between other jobs, scouting locations and making pictures. The initial focus was on equine culture, but the emphasis soon shifted to the much-loved examples of historic preservation Estersohn found.

“I wanted to find a balance,” Estersohn said, “between some things that were more humble and some things that were more extravagant and some things that were really over the top.”

Beck opened doors for Estersohn, and his key local contact was antiques dealer Gay Reading, owner of The Greentree Tea Room. Reading, who wrote the book’s well-informed introduction, has a curator’s eye and extensive local connections.

“He wanted a variety of styles and periods, and I chose places I thought were special and different,” Reading said. “Unless you’re a friend, you don’t get to see many of these gems. They are places where people are really living.”

140525KyBook0006Estersohn said he was charmed by the houses he photographed, their owners and the houses’ varied stages of restoration. He was especially impressed by Ward Hall in Georgetown, one of the nation’s largest and finest Greek Revival mansions.

Other highlights were Walnut Hall, where Margaret Jewett has preserved the ornate Victorian decorations her grandfather put there in the 1890s, and Elley Villa, an elegant Gothic Revival mansion near the University of Kentucky campus that was condemned before being lovingly restored by James and Martha Birchfield.

“I loved Mary Lou’s place,” Estersohn said of the 1792 farmhouse restored in the 1960s by horsewoman and socialite Mary Lou Whitney. “It’s sort of like a time piece. It’s a very specific expression of decoration, which I think is amazing.”

Other featured properties include Gainesway Farm; the Simpson Farm in Bourbon County, built in 1785 as a pioneer station; Welcome Hall near Versailles; Clay Lancaster’s Warwick estate in Mercer County; Overbrook Farm; the Alexander Moore and Thomas January houses downtown; and Liberty Hall in Frankfort.

Estersohn photographed Botherum as its new owners, garden designer Jon Carloftis and Dale Fisher, were beginning their restoration. And he was moved by the much- damaged Pope Villa, the most significant house designed by America’s first great architect, Benjamin Latrobe.

“For Pope Villa, I hope we can elicit some financial attention so that it can be further renovated,” Estersohn said. “It is a very, very, very important piece of American architecture.”

Estersohn said he photographed the houses with a large-format digital camera. He used mirrors to even out natural light and illuminate dark corners and cavernous rooms.

Each chapter is accompanied by text that is well-researched and tightly written. Inexplicably, though, there is no text with the final chapter to explain the Iroquois Hunt Club.

“I thought the biggest challenge was going to be enrolling people to have their private residence shot, which is oftentimes the issue shooting for magazines in New York,” Estersohn said. “But I think there was such a regional pride and appreciation. Every single person was enthusiastic and wanted to contribute to the book.”

The photographer said what he enjoyed most about this project was “developing a very intimate experience” with the Bluegrass.

“I really feel like I know the area,” he said. “I can get around there very easily now. I know all the pikes. I know how to say Versailles.”

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


Land-use changes put Woodford County at risk

November 6, 2011

VERSAILLES — There is an old saying about military leaders who fail because they plan for the last war instead of the next one. The Woodford County Planning and Zoning Commission may be about to make a similar mistake.

Commissioners want to remove a decade-old ban on development in the county’s Agriculture/Equine Preserve District, which has some of the world’s best horse farms and richest soil. They also want to consider costly extensions to the Blue Grass Parkway and Falling Springs Boulevard through prime farmland.

These short-sighted moves would encourage the kind of unsustainable development we saw in the last century, rather than the economic strategies that are likely to be successful in the next one.

The proposed changes to Woodford County’s five-year comprehensive plan would chip away at wise land-use policies that have fueled growing agriculture and tourism industries. The changes seem unjustified, contrary to the plan’s goals and objectives and were proposed without public input.

More than 100 citizens filled a courtroom last Thursday for their first — and perhaps only — opportunity to comment on the plan, which was drafted by a four-member commission committee headed by Brian Traugott.

A few people spoke in favor of the changes, including Versailles Mayor Fred Siegelman, Woodford Judge-Executive John Coyle and Brad McLean, chairman of the county’s Economic Development Authority.

Many more people spoke against the changes: average citizens, a prominent businessman, a former governor and a variety of farmers from all over Woodford County.

“What’s being proposed in this plan will hurt our business and economic development, because it is going in the wrong direction,” said Joe Graviss, who owns McDonald’s restaurants and employs about 60 people.

“Why would the county allow the destruction of its most valuable asset?” asked horse farmer Richard Masson.

The World Monuments Fund in 2007 declared Kentucky’s Inner Bluegrass region one of the planet’s most endangered landscapes. Woodford County has some of the best examples of it.

Good land stewardship has helped give Woodford County an enviable quality of life and some of Kentucky’s highest employment and per-capita income rates. There is plenty of residential, commercial and industrial land already set aside to handle anticipated growth for many years.

Rather than open the agriculture preserve to possible development, future rural subdivisions should be banned countywide, several citizens said. Existing rural subdivisions have hurt surrounding farms, marred the landscape and burdened taxpayers with costly infrastructure and support services.

Economic development trends show that the successful communities of the future will be those that guard their beauty and quality of life, not those that encourage sprawl and generic development. Farmland values are skyrocketing nationwide because investors realize that rising transportation costs will make locally grown food more important in the future.

In an interview earlier last week, Traugott insisted that the proposed changes would result in little additional development. But Lexington attorney Bruce Simpson, speaking at the hearing on Masson’s behalf, told commissioners that if they crack the door, developers will hire good lawyers like him to blow it wide open.

As bad as the proposed changes are, the heavy-handed political process seems even worse. Unlike previous plan updates, the public was not allowed input on the draft. The commission’s Web site posted copies of the current plan and new draft, but nothing more to identify or explain the differences.

“Who requested these changes, and why?” Graviss asked. Commissioners declined to answer any questions at the hearing. Citizens were allowed to submit written comments or speak for no more than three minutes. When former Gov. Brereton Jones, a Midway horse farmer who opposes the changes, exceeded his time limit, he became the first of several speakers to be silenced by a honking horn.

“There are some significant questions that need to be answered,” Jones told commissioners, adding that “180 seconds” of comment is a poor substitute for honest analysis, discussion and debate.

Commissioners could approve the changes as soon as Thursday. But if they are smart, they will take this draft back for a rewrite. They should remove the controversial changes, or offer evidence for why they are justified. And they should let the public participate in these important public decisions.

If commissioners and the elected officials who appointed them allow these changes to be rammed through, they risk both Woodford County’s future and their own political skins.