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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