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

September 3, 2013


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Political dysfunction takes a holiday on Independence weekend in DC

July 9, 2013


After the concert on the Capitol’s West Lawn, fireworks went up over the Washington Monument. Below, the monument was recently sheathed in scaffolding to repair damage from a 2011 earthquake. Photos by Tom Eblen 


WASHINGTON — Watching the annual Capitol Fourth concert and fireworks show from Washington on Kentucky Educational Television has become an Independence Day tradition in my family.

Each year we say, “Wouldn’t that be fun to attend sometime?” So, this year, we did.

My wife booked airline tickets and a hotel room months in advance. Our younger daughter took the train down from New York City and stayed with a college friend who joined us. Then we spent a long weekend soaking up American history and patriotic spirit.

Washington has never been one of my favorite places. President John F. Kennedy described it as a city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency. It has more than its share of people consumed by ambition. This time of year, the heat and humidity can be oppressive.

But the weather wasn’t too bad last week, especially compared to the unceasing rain that drenched Lexington. The city was filled with dressed-down Washingtonians on holiday and tourists like us from across the country and around the world.

Indy2While touring the city, I posted a series of photos on Facebook from such places as the National Postal Museum and the National Building Museum. I labeled a photo of the Capitol the “National Dysfunction Museum.” A friend in California commented that it wasn’t so much a museum of dysfunction as an active laboratory.

We saw little evidence of the current partisan gridlock, but that was probably because the politicians and the lobbyists who call the tunes they dance to were off-duty. I did notice that a Smithsonian gift shop had an ample supply of “Proud to be a Republican” tote bags on the clearance rack, marked 60 percent off.

At the National Portrait Gallery, we looked eye-to-eye at Daniel Boone, who sat for artist Chester Harding shortly before his death in 1820. Inside the ornate Library of Congress, we saw a Gutenberg Bible and the remnants of Thomas Jefferson’s vast book collection.

The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History showed us Henry Clay’s chair, Abraham Lincoln’s watch and the giant Star Spangled Banner that inspired the national anthem. Also behind glass there were Jim Henson’s Kermit the Frog and Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.

Everywhere were monuments, relics and reminders of generations of American leaders who viewed government as a vehicle for solving problems and promoting the common good, rather than as an obstacle to selfishness and corporate power.

The soaring Capitol dome was inspiring. So was the National Cathedral, although the Episcopalian tour guide pointed out that the “national” designation is honorary because America has no state religion.

The Gothic-style cathedral of stone and stained glass, built over the past century, is as impressive as any I have seen in Europe. It also has a key advantage: elevators in the towers. And only in America would cathedral builders have enough sense of humor to include a gargoyle depicting Darth Vader from the movie Star Wars.

The highlight of our trip, of course, was A Capitol Fourth. After spending nearly an hour in a security line, we joined gathering crowds on the mile of green space between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, which had recently been sheathed in scaffolding to repair damage from a 2011 earthquake.

We couldn’t see the concert stage because of all the trees on the Capitol’s West Lawn. But we had a good view of the big screen above the stage, as well as the Washington Monument.

The show was a mix of patriotism and pop culture: 70-something singers Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond; up-and-coming singers from recent TV talent shows; John Williams conducting music from the movie Lincoln and cast members from Broadway’s Motown: The Musical. My wife enjoyed it more than I did.

But as the National Symphony Orchestra launched into Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with accompaniment from an Army artillery squad, a spectacular fireworks display erupted over the Washington Monument.

There was something special about being in the nation’s capital on Independence Day, surrounded by a few hundred thousand of our fellow citizens. Political dysfunction had taken a holiday, and there we were, between the Capitol and a glorious fireworks show, proud to be Americans.


 The view over my left shoulder during “A Capitol Fourth” on the Capitol’s West Lawn.

Al Smith’s new memoir offers good stories, analysis of Kentucky

November 2, 2012

Al Smith’s autobiography, Wordsmith: My Life in Journalism, was the top seller at last year’s Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort. But, as always, Smith had a lot more to say.

So, two months shy of his 86th birthday, Smith will be back at this year’s book fair on Nov. 10 with another memoir, Kentucky Cured: Fifty Years in Kentucky Journalism (History Press, 219 pp., $19.99.)

This book hits some highlights of the personal-transformation story Smith told in his autobiography — professional redemption after overcoming alcoholism and marrying the right woman — but it says a lot more about Kentucky than it does about Al Smith.

Kentucky Cured is a collection of new and updated essays, some of which first appeared in the Herald-Leader or The Courier-Journal of Louisville. Most are reflections on some of Kentucky’s most fascinating public figures of the second half of the 20th century.

Smith got to know them all, and many more, during his varied career. The Tennessee native published newspapers in Russellville, London and several smaller towns; was the founder and host for three decades of Kentucky Educational Television’s Comment on Kentucky show; ran the Appalachian Regional Commission under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan; and, late in life, helped start the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

Stories in this book involve many familiar names: Albert B. “Happy” Chandler, Bert Combs, Louie Nunn, Earl Clements, John Ed Pearce, Ed Prichard, Edward “Ned” Breathitt, Robert Penn Warren, Lyman Johnson, Georgia Powers, Larry Forgy, Gatewood Galbraith, Lucille Little, Mike Mullins, Leonard and Lillian Press, and the crafty politician/educators who transformed Kentucky’s state “teacher colleges” into dynamic regional universities.

Smith is a gifted writer of tight prose, a storyteller with a good ear for a quote or a telling anecdote. But more than that, he is a keen observer and analyst who understands the historical and cultural forces that make Kentucky tick.

Smith has been a friend and mentor for 35 years, since his stepdaughter and I were college classmates. He always has been my model of an engaged community journalist — a reporter of facts, yes, but also someone who seeks to help citizens understand and improve the place where they live.

In this regard, Smith has reminds me of the late historian Thomas D. Clark, another man of letters who adopted Kentucky as his beloved home but was always frustrated because so many of his fellow citizens were willing to settle for mediocrity or worse.

Consider the final paragraph of Smith’s essay Why Clements and Prichard Still Matter. It asks a question as relevant now as when it appeared in the Herald-Leader’s Opinions and Ideas section three years ago:

“In a state like Kentucky, leadership often falls to political hacks or fresh faces with painless promises, which fail. Clements and Prichard mattered because they knew the game before they got on the field and played it courageously, with a vision that had lasting, positive consequences. Where is the courage, where is the vision for Kentucky today?”

Smith’s passion and hope for his adopted state shine through in Kentucky Cured. Perhaps that is why, two decades after many other men of accomplishment would have retired to a life of leisure, Al Smith is still producing journalism that is well worth reading.

At 90, Len Press reflects on his creation: KET

November 19, 2011

This is a month to celebrate two Kentucky media giants. Al Smith just published his memoir, Wordsmith: My Life in Journalism, and Leonard Press celebrated his 90th birthday.

Smith, 84, might be the better known of the two. That is because the former publisher of several small Kentucky newspapers spent more than three decades as the founding host of Comment on Kentucky, Kentucky Educational Television’s weekly public affairs program.

But without Len Press, there might not be a Comment on Kentucky program — or a KET network.

KET is now known as one of the most innovative and admired public television networks, producing hundreds of hours of programming and other instructional materials that are used across the nation.

But Press recalled in an interview at his Lexington home last week that when he started lobbying state officials in 1958 to create a statewide educational TV network, “The whole idea was novel.”

In the early 1950s, Kentucky was a disconnected state of isolated communities and some of the nation’s poorest schools. Press and his wife, Lillian, were living in their native New England, where they had earned graduate degrees in communications from Boston University.

The Presses had never been to Kentucky, much less thought of moving here. But after intense recruiting by the head of the University of Kentucky’s Radio Department, Press agreed to come to Lexington to teach for a year. One year.

After a few months, though, Press knew enough about the emerging technology of television to imagine what it could do to improve education in Kentucky. His vision became KET, and that one-year commitment will soon be 60 years long.

While Press was absorbed in building KET, Lillian Press created her own impressive record of service. She organized and directed several major state initiatives, including the Governor’s Scholars Program for talented high school seniors, the Regional Mental Health Board and Comprehensive Care Centers. At age 87, she remains active in The Women’s Network, which she started in 2000 to get more women involved in the political process.

It took Len Press more than a decade to raise the political and financial commitments to launch KET. But the network’s value has been apparent since the day it went on the air in 1968. “So many people have told me how KET changed their lives,” Press said.

Because educational television was a novel concept when KET began, the young staff Press assembled did a lot of experimenting. “What they didn’t know, they made up for in enthusiasm,” he said. “They made it happen, with a lot of help from our partners around the state.”

Over the years, as many public TV stations began creating entertainment programming for national distribution, KET remained focused on education — and Kentucky.

KET now makes more instructional programming than any other state TV network. One course first created by KET’s Sid Webb — to help people earn high school equivalency degrees — is in its fourth generation and is used across the nation and in several other countries, Press said.

KET has helped unite Kentuckians with shows about the state’s arts, history and culture. Another major emphasis has been public affairs: covering General Assembly sessions, hosting election debates and producing widely watched programs such as Bill Goodman’s Kentucky Tonight and Comment on Kentucky, now hosted by Ferrell Wellman.

Televising the General Assembly “did a great deal for their deportment and dress code,” Press said. Comment on Kentucky has occasionally drawn the ire of powerful politicians, Press said, but the network has always been able to maintain its independence and credibility.

Press said he marvels at the progress KET has made under three succeeding directors since he retired in 1992. The network has been able to expand offerings through digital television and the Internet, despite budget and staff cutbacks.

Press said he is proud that KET has continued to be a force for educating Kentuckians and making them more knowledgeable participants in public affairs.

“The technology changes, but the premise of KET has not changed,” said Press, whose vision and determination made it all possible. “Does it work for the teachers? Does it work for the students? Does it work for Kentucky?”

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‘Kentucky – An American Story’ debuts May 24 on KET

May 5, 2011

A documentary film about Kentucky’s history — directed by an Academy Award-winning filmmaker, written by a UK history professor and narrated by actress Ashley Judd — premieres at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 24 on Kentucky Educational Television.

Kentucky – An American Story, looks at connections between the state and the rest of America, as well as how Kentucky’s history made it the place it is today. The film was directed by Kentucky native Paul Wagner and written by UK history Prof. Daniel Smith. It includes commentary by UK history Profs. Ron Eller and Tracy Campbell, journalist Al Smith and writers Silas House and Erik Reece.

In late 2009, I sat in on the writer’s interviews with Smith and former state Sen. Georgia Powers, a civil rights legend from Louisville. You can read my column about it here. I can’t wait to see this film, as I suspect it will be very good.

Watch KET in coming weeks for CCS interviews

April 8, 2010

Bill Goodman of Kentucky Educational Television interviews Jeremy Gutsche, founder of and one of the speakers at the Creative Cities Summit in Lexington this week.  Goodman also interviewed speakers Rebecca Ryan of Next Generation Consulting; Ben Self of Lexington, a founding partner of Blue State Digital; and Charles Landry, author of The Art of City Making. The interviews will be shown in coming weeks on Goodman’s One to One show on KET.  Also, KET’s Renee Shaw will interview speaker Bill Strickland, founder of Pittsburgh’s Manchester Bidwell Corp. for her show Connections.  The schedules haven’t been set, but check back soon on

A Kentucky TV treasure is threatened

June 13, 2008

This state doesn’t lead the nation in many aspects of education.

But Kentucky Educational Television has, over the past 40 years, been one of America’s most innovative and admired public TV systems.

KET produces more hours of programming and creates more instructional materials than almost anyone else.

“Around the country, everyone wants to grow up to be KET,” said Mac Wall, the executive director.

But that could change, if Kentucky isn’t careful.

State budget cuts have hit KET especially hard. About $2.4 million was sliced from KET’s appropriation for the coming year. Changes in state employee benefits have given many of KET’s veteran staff members little choice but to retire. About a fifth of KET’s 220 employees will be gone by December, including 10 who were laid off last week.

Among the biggest hits: Half of KET’s 12 program producers are leaving.

“These are really invaluable human assets that they are going to be losing,” said Leonard Press, KET’s founding executive director, who retired in 1992. “The loss of what they could have done for Kentucky will never be recovered. Time lost is tragic.”

It’s too early to say what all of this will mean to KET consumers in schools and living rooms across the state. Network executives are working on a plan that will be presented to the agency’s governing board in October.

State funding accounts for 52 percent of KET’s $25.5 million annual budget. The rest comes from fund-raising (17 percent), federal money (15 percent), grants and other revenue (16 percent).

“We will be helped a lot by new technology and what that will bring in terms of efficiencies,” said Shae Hopkins, KET’s deputy director. “But it still takes a producer to find a story and tell that story.”

What is happening at KET has set off alarms across the Public Broadcasting System.

“I’m deeply concerned about the impact these budget cuts may have,” said Paula Kerger, who has toured KET twice since becoming PBS’s president two years ago.

“If the long-term consequences of these cuts are not carefully considered, I worry they may diminish the impressive gains KET has made — especially in serving the state’s children. If further cuts are made, it would be a great loss not only to Kentucky, but also to public broadcasting as a whole.”

More than TV shows

I remember when KET first went on the air in September 1968. Cardinal Valley Elementary got several big black-and-white TVs on carts that teachers wheeled into class. If Mrs. Dawson timed our fourth-grade class just right — and if she could get the rabbit-ear antenna adjusted just so — we could watch a dowdy lady on KET’s one channel do science experiments.

Believe it or not, at the time, that was impressive.

Of course, that was years before Sesame Street helped teach my daughters to count and spell, Reading Rainbow fueled their love of books and Inspector Morse and Prime Suspect hooked me on British detective dramas.

Most Kentuckians know KET through those shows, and some of the 1,200 hours of original programming the staff creates each year: Kentucky Life, Comment on Kentucky, Kentucky Tonight, On to One, gavel-to-gavel coverage of the General Assembly and documentaries such as Where the River Bends: A History of Northern Kentucky.

KET has aggressively explored Kentucky’s history, celebrated its culture and created the kind of public affairs programs that commercial TV news has all but abandoned.

“Local production is the most expensive programming you can put on the air,” Wall said. “But it’s also the most important, the most relevant.”

What’s on your TV is only the beginning of KET.

In addition to the KET1 and KET2 channels, the network operates a channel just for schools and a new digital Kentucky Channel.

KET’s new EncycloMedia is a comprehensive online service with thousands of videos, photos, quizzes and lesson plans that Kentucky teachers can download and use. KET produces for-credit college courses, educational content for state prisoners and professional development materials for teachers.

KET developed study materials that have helped more than 1 million adults nationwide — including more than 20,000 in Kentucky — earn their high-school equivalency degrees. The staff will soon begin a $6 million project to update those materials to reflect changes being made in GED tests in 2012.

New Equipment

Ironically, KET’s loss of staff and experience comes as the network is installing millions of dollars worth of new digital equipment, bought with money appropriated by previous legislative sessions.

“We’re now able to do the things that Len Press envisioned 40 years ago, but the technology and the capacity didn’t exist then,” Wall said.

KET will have the equipment, but it will have a smaller staff with less experience left to use it.

Times are tight, and Kentucky leaders face difficult decisions about how to raise and spend taxpayers’ money.

Can this state still afford to maintain a first-class educational resource like KET?

It can’t afford not to.