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

September 3, 2013


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In case you missed Comment on Kentucky …

June 21, 2010

I was on Kentucky Educational Television’s Comment on Kentucky program Friday night, discussing a couple of recent column subjects: The Friedell Committee for Health System Transformation and the Commerce Lexington/Greater Louisville Inc. trip to Pittsburgh. Host Ferrell Wellman’s other guests were Ryan Alessi of Insight’s cn2 and syndicated columnist Don McNay. There also was plenty of talk about politics and the latest antics of Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul. If you missed the show this weekend, you can watch it online by clicking here.

Television highlights Kentucky, for good and ill

February 24, 2009

This seems to be Kentucky month on the small screen. If you didn’t like Diane Sawyer’s view, KET has something completely different.

Our Kentucky, an hour-long video valentine to the state’s scenic beauty, debuts on KET1 Saturday at 8 p.m. as part of the network’s annual on-air fundraiser. In tone and content, it couldn’t be more different from Sawyer’s report on systemic poverty in Appalachia for ABC’s news magazine 20/20.

It’s coincidence that these TV programs came out within two weeks of each other. In many ways, they represent the two sides of Kentucky’s coin — both begging us to scratch below the surface.

In Our Kentucky, KET’s videographers visited Kentucky’s most beautiful places, bathed in golden sunlight and rendered in high-definition splendor. We see panorama after panorama, set to majestic music and evocative narration by Nick Clooney.

There are fawns grazing in mountain meadows at sunrise, geese flying in formation framed by the setting sun, egrets swimming in misty cypress swamps. The camera lingers on such places as Chained Rock in Bell County, Natural Bridge in Powell County and Pennyrile State Forest in Christian County.

We see historic homes, foals romping across manicured Bluegrass pastures and the awe-inspiring cathedrals of Covington. There’s the 21st century skyline of Louisville, the 19th century skyline of Augusta and distilleries as noted for their quaint charm as for their fine bourbon.

It’s an idyllic view of Kentucky — true, as far as it goes.

Sawyer’s documentary, A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains, follows the lives of several poor children and young people in Eastern Kentucky. They’re shown trying to survive in a seemingly hopeless environment of poverty, drug abuse and a lack of enough good food, healthcare, education and economic opportunity. The report is true, as far as it goes.

The documentary attracted 10.9 million viewers nationwide when it aired Feb. 13 — the biggest 20/20 audience in more than four years. As expected, it drew fire from some Kentuckians who saw it as nothing more than a rehash of old stereotypes. After all, Sawyer could have found plenty of poor people on the cab ride out of New York to catch her plane.

Some complained that the program and a brief ABC News followup didn’t do enough to highlight progress and the efforts Kentuckians have made to help their less-fortunate neighbors.

Others, however, have responded with introspection, asking what more Kentuckians could do. Some of the most thoughtful reaction I have seen has been on WYMT-TV in Hazard, which could teach many big-city stations a thing or two about public-service broadcasting.

Appalachian scholar Ron Eller of the University of Kentucky, who appeared briefly in the documentary, wishes Sawyer, a Kentucky native, had focused more on the root causes of Eastern Kentucky’s problems and why so many efforts to solve them have failed.

“On the other hand, I think the program was quite successful at drawing attention to the persistence of poverty and social inequity in the Commonwealth,” he said.

National attention is helpful, Eller said. Ultimately, though, Kentuckians must create the modern economy, honest government and adequate infrastructure needed to lift Appalachia.

I missed Sawyer’s documentary when it first aired, so I watched it online Monday evening, immediately after viewing a preview DVD of Our Kentucky. In an odd way, watching them together made both more thought-provoking.

You won’t see any strip mines in Our Kentucky, no scalped mountaintops, factory hog farms or polluted streams. The Bluegrass meadows aren’t bordered by strip malls, big-box stores, McMansion cul-de-sacs or sprawling developments of cookie-cutter homes.

“The aspects of pride we have in who we are and where we live are often at odds with the way of life we have chosen for ourselves,” Eller noted. “But out of that strong sense of place could come actions to protect that land and the quality of life.”

Neither Sawyer’s documentary nor Our Kentucky tell the whole story. It would be asking too much to expect them to. But they’re both worth watching, because together they show Kentuckians what needs fixing — and why it’s worth the effort.

Live from Fancy Farm: ‘Comment on Kentucky’

August 1, 2008

Kentucky Educational Television’s weekly public affairs show “Comment on Kentucky” broadcast live Friday night from the political speaking arena at Fancy Farm. Host Ferrell Wellman, facing, chats with guests Mark Hebert of Louisville’s WHAS, left, Ronnie Ellis of CNHI newspapers, and Bill Bartleman of the Paducah Sun, hidden. On Saturday afternoon, candidates for state, local and national office will speak to several thousand supporters and hecklers there. Photo by Tom Eblen

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.