Efforts to move, repurpose People’s Bank building are getting close

July 11, 2015
People's Bank on South Broadway must be moved or it will be demolished to make way for a 12-screen movie theater. Photo by Tom Eblen

People’s Bank on South Broadway must be moved or it will be demolished to make way for a 12-screen movie theater. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

The former Peoples Bank building, with its zig-zag roof and walls of glazed turquoise tile,seems to have captured people’s imaginations.

Fans of the Mid-Century Modern structure are within $75,000 of the $850,000 in cash and in-kind services they need by July 30 to save it from demolition by moving it off the South Broadway site where it was built in 1962.

“We’re in the home stretch,” said Laurel Catto, board chair of the Warwick Foundation, which plans to renovate the building into the People’s Portal, a public space for promoting cross-cultural understanding.

The building is owned by Langley Properties, which has agreed to donate it to the foundation if it can be relocated. Otherwise, Peoples Bank is slated for demolition to make way for a 12-screen movie theater.

One piece of the puzzle could fall into place July 17, when the Lexington Center board votes on whether to allow the building to be moved to the corner of West High and Patterson streets at the far front end of the Rupp Arena parking lot. The board also will consider putting $150,000 toward site preparation.

Plans call for much of that surface parking lot to be redeveloped eventually, and the Peoples Bank building would make a nice transition in scale from large, new structures to the historic Woodward Heights neighborhood to the west.

The Warwick Foundation, created from the estate of the Lexington-born architectural historian Clay Lancaster, has pledged $300,000 toward the Peoples Bank relocation and renovation.

Most of that came from a $250,000 grant the foundation must raise money to match. So far, it has raised all but $75,000 of the match. The most recent major donation, $30,000, came from the Josephine Ardery Foundation in Paris, which promotes historic preservation.

The Urban County Council has appropriated $150,000 for the project. The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation also has been active. More than $11,000 has been raised in small donations, Catto said. To give, go to: Warwickfoundation.org.

To help with fundraising, Langley Properties will allow the foundation to give tours of the building from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on July 18, the first time it has been open to the public in years. Tours cost $20 each, with all proceeds going toward the building fund. More information: Facebook.com @People for the Peoples.

The planned new use for the building is something Lexington needs and Lancaster, who died in 2000 at age 83, would have loved, Catto said.

“Everybody knows Clay Lancaster as an architectural historian and preservation pioneer, and he was,” Catto said. “But he did an enormous amount of work in cross-cultural and inter-religious study. And he considered that his most important work. So it has always been baked into the Warwick mission.”

Plans call for the People’s Portal to be a public space for lectures, art exhibits, films and other events centered around promoting community values of respect, compassion, understanding and inclusion.

“You can’t pick up a newspaper today or hear the news without understanding the importance of that message,” she said.

The foundation has formed a high-profile advisory board for the People’s Portal, co-chaired by former Kentucky first lady Libby Jones and architect Tom Cheek.

Among the initiatives Catto would like to see the People’s Portal involved with is helping Lexington become a signatory to the Charter for Compassion, which has been signed by 62 cities worldwide, including Louisville and Cincinnati, and is in process with more than 200 others.

Also, she said, the People’s Portal could become an outpost for the Festival of Faiths, a 20-year-old event held in Louisville each May.

Catto thinks this building, designed by Lexington architect Charles Bayless for the People’s Federal Savings and Loan Association, is a perfect structure for this use. Modernist design has become especially popular among young adults.

“Young people have really engaged with preservation in a big way over this building,” she said. “It resonates with them, much like the Hunt-Morgan House and other Antebellum buildings did with adults in the 1950s.”


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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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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