Reconsider demolition of UK lab that played role in space race

April 22, 2014

WG1 The Wenner-Gren Research Laboratory opened in 1941 to do aeronautical research. Designed by Ernst Johnson, its front resembles an airplane cockpit.  Photos by Tom Eblen

I have made several trips to the University of Kentucky campus over the past year to take a good look at some of its iconic architecture before administrators demolish it.

The most recent trip was to see Wenner-Gren Research Laboratory. It is unique among the several mid-20th century buildings designed by noted Lexington architect Ernst Johnson that may soon meet a wrecking ball.

Swedish industrialist Alex Wenner-Gren, who got rich selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners, gave UK $150,000 in 1940 to build a laboratory for aeronautical research.

The mission called for a structure about as utilitarian as you could get: thick, strong walls to contain aircraft engine tests and funnel out the exhaust. But Johnson found a way to give his building style.

The long, narrow building resembles an airplane, with tail fins on the back roof and a curved front façade of glass block and fine brick work that reminds you of a cockpit. Form elegantly reflected function.

Wenner-Gren is one of the area’s few remaining examples of Streamline Moderne architecture. The style, which also was used in everything from steam locomotives to toasters, reflected mid-20th century Americans’ hopeful visions of a space-age future.

In the 1950s, the lab’s mission evolved from aircraft to biomedical research. In 1959, the lab got an Air Force contract to train chimpanzees, the first astronauts of the Mercury Space Flight program.

During a recent visit to Lexington, retired Space Shuttle astronaut Story Musgrave recalled doing biomedical research in Wenner-Gren while earning degrees in physiology and biophysics that prepared him for his future NASA missions.

wg2As with many older UK buildings, renovation and updating of Wenner-Gren over the years looks to have been basic and minimal. A water leak in the annex recently damaged a display case chronicling the lab’s significant scientific history.

Eli Capilouto, who became UK’s president in 2011, deserves a lot of credit for moving swiftly to play catch-up to longtime facilities needs, from student housing to academic buildings. But that rush has at times reflected a narrow vision of campus improvement, with little regard for history or architecture.

Architects and preservationists have complained about the planned demolition of several Ernst Johnson dormitories to make way for generic-looking residence halls outsourced to a private contractor.

Dining services also are to be outsourced to a major corporation willing to invest in new facilities. That has drawn criticism from students and others concerned about UK’s commitment to the local food economy and worker wages.

UK also plans to demolish Hamilton House, an 1880 Italianate mansion, to make way for a residence hall. Mathews Garden, a unique plot of diverse plant life managed by the biology department, along with two adjacent early 20th century houses, may be destroyed for a proposed expansion of the law school complex.

UK plans to replace Wenner-Gren with a new science classroom building. The dozen research labs now housed there will be moved to a College of Engineering building when this semester ends.

Critics have urged UK to preserve all or some of Wenner-Gren as part of the new science building. One good idea: Turn it into a cafeteria, café and coffee shop whose architecture and illustrious history could help inspire future scientists.

But UK administrators have shown little interest in investing much imagination or money in such adaptive reuse projects. So far, the architecture of the new buildings is nothing special.

You would think that, in their master-planning process, UK administrators would have involved their in-house experts, the College of Design professors who train most of Kentucky’s architects and historic preservation specialists. Well, no.

“I find it extremely disappointing that UK, as the flagship state university and our state’s keeper of culture, is letting accountants make decisions about what is architecturally and historically significant,” said Robert Kelly, a Lexington architect and longtime UK adjunct professor who has advocated for preservation of Wenner-Gren and other significant Ernst Johnston buildings.

“I find it analogous to asking your hairdresser how to perform cardiac surgery,” he said. “Hmm, that doesn’t look important — you can probably remove it.”


State Street lessons could help city, UK save other neighborhoods

April 12, 2014

StateStreetCrowds celebrate March 28 in the State Street area. Photo by Jonathan Palmer

 

How much longer must national acclaim on the basketball court be accompanied by national embarrassment in neighborhoods around the University of Kentucky campus?

Thanks to good preparation and policing, the mayhem on State Street after UK’s NCAA tournament games this year wasn’t as bad as in 2012. But it was still unacceptably violent and destructive.

This year’s toll is an embarrassment to both UK and Lexington: more than 60 injuries requiring treatment; more than 50 arrests; more than 125 fires, including a couple dozen couches.

“It’s a miracle that more people and property didn’t get hurt,” said Diane Lawless, who has represented that area on the Urban County Council since 2009. “This isn’t a spontaneous celebration. Goodwill says they come in and buy every piece of upholstered furniture they have. This is a planned riot, period.”

UK sports celebrations started getting out of hand in 1996, when some of the 10,000 fans gathered at Woodland and Euclid avenues to celebrate the national basketball championship smashed car windows and overturned a TV news van, which caught fire. There were fewer problems after the 1998 championship.

Things got ugly in 2007, when crowds in the student rental neighborhood around State Street celebrated UK’s football victories over Louisville and LSU by adopting West Virginia University’s noxious tradition of couch burning.

Five years later, when Kentucky beat Kansas for the NCAA championship, State Street went wild. There were dozens of injuries from fires and flying beer bottles, damaged vehicles and nearly 100 arrests.

It is worth noting that the vast majority of students and others who celebrate after UK games don’t hurt people or damage property. The crowd that partied this year along South Limestone didn’t become destructive.

The problem is that State Street is a very different kind of neighborhood. Some students and outside trouble-makers see it as a place where they can become violent and destructive without consequences.

Both UK and the city helped create this problem. Demand for student housing in recent decades led investors to buy former single-family houses in older neighborhoods around campus. Those houses were demolished and replaced by cheaply built apartment complexes, or they were fitted with barn-like additions and crammed with students. Yards were graveled for parking lots.

Some neighborhoods fought back, using tools including historic overlays to limit the damage. But State, Crescent, Elizabeth and other streets north of Waller Avenue and west of Limestone were overwhelmed. Homeowners and families that were stabilizing influences in those neighborhood fled. City officials took more than a decade to limit further damage to the neighborhoods by student-rental landlords.

UK officials made the problems worse in 1997 by banning alcohol from fraternity and sorority houses. With students essentially prohibited from drinking on campus, they rented “party houses” in adjacent neighborhoods. Social media made it easier for students to find those parties and evade police efforts to shut them down.

Police have refined their tactics, both to try to prevent destructive behavior and violence and to document lawbreaking for prosecution. From all accounts, they handled this year’s State Street mayhem as well as could be expected.

City code enforcement officers have tried to crack down on violations in student-rental neighborhoods, but sanctions remain minimal. The city also is working on better data collection and sharing methods to make it easier to spot troubling trends in neighborhoods before they become problems.

Because existing student-rental properties were grandfathered in when city restrictions were tightened, it’s hard to reverse much of the damage, said Derek Paulsen, the city’s planning commissioner.

“I hate to say State Street is lost, but when it gets to that level, about the only thing you can do is call the police in,” Paulsen said. “From a planning perspective, the question may be, how do we transition that neighborhood out of what it is now to something more productive?”

UK officials have taken some positive steps, including construction of new on-campus residence halls. Last May, President Eli Capilouto appointed a work group of UK and city officials to look at student alcohol habits and policies and their effect on the campus and surrounding neighborhoods. The group completed its report in December, but UK has not yet released its findings and recommendations.

Because sports-related mayhem is largely fueled by alcohol, UK’s next steps will be crucial. But there is more the city could do as well. These safety and town-gown issues are hardly unique to Lexington; other places have dealt with them for years. Here are some things UK and the city should consider:

■ Accept the fact that college students drink. Make campus alcohol policies more lenient in ways that teach students who choose to drink and are of legal age to do it responsibly.

■ Extend the student code of conduct to off-campus behavior, as is done with UK athletes. That would require more information-sharing and coordination between UK and the city, but students might be less likely to engage in destructive behavior off-campus if they knew the consequences would be more serious. When expectations are high, most people will rise to meet them.

■ UK, city and neighborhood residents should put more emphasis on integrating students into the neighborhoods, from social events to beautification projects. If students feel as if they belong in a neighborhood, they will be less likely to destroy it.

■ City officials and police should more aggressively channel celebrations away from State Street to South Limestone or other commercial districts, which can be more effectively policed. Maybe State Street should be closed on big game nights to people who can’t prove they live there.

■ The city must get tough with problem landlords. That could include stricter rules on zoning, building permits and code requirements, with bigger penalties for violations. There also might be ways to hold landlords accountable for tenants’ destructive behavior.

“There are some good landlords out there,” Lawless said. “But there also are a lot of student landlords who couldn’t care less except for stuffing their pockets.”

■ UK and the city should buy some houses in campus neighborhoods that are near the tipping point of too many student rentals. Those houses could be rented or sold with restrictions to faculty, staff and city employees. That would help stabilize those neighborhoods, and it would provide affordable housing for lower-paid employees near their workplaces.

“We still have some very good, viable neighborhoods around the university,” Paulsen said. “We need to learn the lessons of State Street to keep them that way.”  


Inequality will keep growing as long as big money controls politics

March 24, 2014

The gap between America’s rich and poor has been growing for nearly four decades. Many people worry about what this could mean for our economy, our society — and even the survival of our republic.

This trend is a stark reversal of the four previous decades, and it has sparked a lot of populist anger, from Occupy Wall Street on the left to the Tea Party on the right.

Consider, for example, a recent study that found incomes in Kentucky rose 19.9 percent from 1979-2007, but that 48.8 percent of that money went to the top 1 percent of earners. According to the Economic Policy Institute, that 1 percent saw their incomes rise an average of 105.1 percent, while the average income of the other 99 percent of Kentuckians grew only 11.2 percent.

Democrats have made inequality and economic opportunity their main campaign theme. Republicans are talking about it, too, but offering very different solutions for rebuilding the American middle class.

“Economic and Political Inequality in the United States” is the title of a conference March 27-28 at the University of Kentucky featuring several nationally recognized speakers. The event is free and open to the public. Details at: Debrassocialstimulus.com.

The keynote speaker is Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Ellen Goodman, whose talk is titled “Inequality: Working Moms, Designated Daughters, and the Risks of Caregiving.” She speaks at 7:30 p.m. March 27 at Memorial Hall.

The next day, beginning at 9:30 a.m. in the Student Center’s Worsham Theater, speakers include longtime UK history professor Ron Eller and economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy research in Washington. Topics include inequality in Appalachia and how the “culture wars” have influenced these trends.

I will be interested to hear what the speakers have to say. I will be especially interested to see if they can go beyond lamenting the problems and offer solutions that could have some chance of success in America’s increasingly toxic political environment.

For most of human history, stark inequality was the rule, contributing to both the rise and fall of countless empires. This began to change in the late 1600s with the Enlightenment, which led to creation of the representative democracies now found in most developed nations.

Representative democracy led to government-regulated capitalism and a flowering of technology and prosperity that, while uneven, was far better than anything that preceded it.

In this country, coming out of the Great Depression and World War II, it led to a dramatic narrowing of the wealth gap and an accompanying rise in economic and social opportunity and mobility that made America the envy of the world.

Wealthy industrialists realized that a prosperous middle class was needed to buy the goods they manufactured. A rising tide really did lift all boats. But research shows that America now lags many other nations in economic opportunity and mobility.

The spread of capitalism has lessened inequality in much of the world, although, as Pope Francis has consistently reminded us since assuming leadership of the Roman Catholic church a year ago, not nearly as much as it should.

While the global economy has been good for some overseas workers, it has cost many American jobs. It also has created a worldwide “race to the bottom” for labor costs, while making financial elites fabulously wealthy.

The collapse of communism seemed to show that, over the long haul, capitalism works best when it goes hand-in-hand with representative democracy. Or does it? China’s economic success since the 1980s under a ruling-class dictatorship raises some troubling questions.

Those questions are even more troubling amid the rising power of big-money influence in American politics, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates. There seems to be a new Golden Rule: those with the gold can make the rules.

While conservatives now worry about oppressive government, liberals worry about oppressive capitalism and corporate-controlled government. The rise of inequality since the 1970s has mirrored the rising clout of big business and high finance and the decline of organized labor.

Until the balance of power shifts back toward what it was a generation ago, it is hard to imagine that the balance of wealth will, either.  


Lecture highlights camera club that produced photography stars

March 13, 2014

Coke1Van Deren Coke (1921-2004) made this photo in 1952 in Lexington’s old Union Station, which was on Main Street where the Helix garage, Lexington Police Department and Fayette County Clerk’s office are now located. Photo: UK Special Collections.

 

Before there were pixels and iPhones, back when photography required film, darkrooms and chemicals, almost every American city had a camera club. Most members were hobbyists who wanted to learn how to make pretty pictures.

The Lexington Camera Club was different.

From its founding in 1936, Lexington Camera Club members, who included doctors, lawyers and businessmen, were unusually serious about developing their craft and exploring artistic expression.

By the time the club disbanded in 1972, it had produced two major figures in the art photography world and many more accomplished photographers.

James Birchfield, the retired special collections curator of rare books at the University of Kentucky, will give a free lecture about this remarkable camera club at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Presidents Room of UK’s Singletary Center for the Arts.

“It was not a provincial outlook,” Birchfield said of the club. “It was a big vision of the history of photography and what contemporary photography was doing. This particular cluster of people seemed to generate an extraordinary flowering of fine photography.”

Birchfield’s lecture is in conjunction with an exhibit at the university’s Art Museum of prints from an impressive photography collection it has assembled since the 1990s, thanks to one of the camera club’s members.

When Robert C. May died in 1993, he left the museum 1,200 of his own photographs and his collection of original prints from some of photography’s greatest names. He also left a substantial bequest so the museum could purchase more photography and create an annual lecture series that brings major photographers to UK’s campus. Eugene Richards, the noted documentary photographer, speaks at 4 p.m. Friday in Worsham Theater in the UK Student Center.

The museum exhibit, Wide Angle: American Photographs, continues through April 27 and features prints by famous photographers including Ansel Adams, Elliott Erwitt, Edward Weston, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, Harry Callahan, Russell Lee, Doris Ulmann, Robert Frank, Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman.

The exhibit also includes nine photographs by Lexington Camera Club members, including its two biggest stars: Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972) and Van Deren Coke (1921-2004).

140316CameraClub-a2The club began in 1936 with monthly meetings that included formal critiques of each member’s prints. Guest speakers included Ansel Adams, America’s most celebrated landscape photographer.

Many early club members were interested in landscape and travel photography, while others focused on historical and documentary pictures. Among the documentarians was lawyer and historian J. Winston Coleman, who photographed throughout Kentucky and collected nearly 6,300 historic images that are now at Transylvania University.

The club took an artistic turn under the leadership of Van Deren Coke, who was then president of his family’s Van Deren Hardware Co. on Main Street. Coke’s early photographs of Lexington scenes soon gave way to abstract, artistic images.

Coke got to know many celebrated photographers and became one himself. After graduate school, he went on to be photography curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and director of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.  He taught for many years at the University of New Mexico and started its art museum.

Meatyard was an optician who joined the club in 1954. He became famous for his unusual photographs, which often involved people wearing masks or posing in abandoned Central Kentucky farmhouses.

Over the years, his images were acclaimed for their unique expression. He also was a major influence on other club members who became well-known photographers, including Robert May, James Baker Hall and Guy Mendes.

Meatyard was president of the club when he died of cancer at age 46 in 1972. The club disbanded within a few months.

“Meatyard fostered exploration and discovery within the Camera Club,” May wrote in a 1989 essay. “As photographers, the members did not look just for new things but for new ways of seeing.”

Meatyard’s photographs are still published frequently in books, and his prints command big prices at galleries and auctions. As recently as 2005, the International Center of Photography in New York mounted a major retrospective of his work.

Mendes was one of the club’s youngest members when he joined in 1968. A retired producer for Kentucky Educational Television, he remains an active photographer.

In an interview last week, he recalled that writer Wendell Berry introduced him to Meatyard. “Gene was something else,” Mendes said, adding that Berry’s young son told him: “He makes really strange pictures.”

Mendes accompanied Meatyard and May on weekend photography outings in the countryside around Lexington. He said they and other club members showed him how photography could do more than record reality; it could express feelings and be a medium for artistic experimentation.

“They taught me lessons I still use today,” Mendes said. “For all of the changes photography has gone through, the basics are still the same.”

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


UK shouldn’t destroy unique teaching garden with 350 species

February 11, 2014

140210MathewsGarden0009AJames Krupa, a UK biology professor, stands in the dormant, snow-covered Mathews Garden beside the now-vacant Mathews house. The garden contains about 350 species of native plants, including many rare ones. Below, a rare American elm tree stands in the garden near the College of Law building. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Mathews Garden at the University of Kentucky doesn’t look like much in its winter dormancy, covered with snow.

Dr. James Krupa, a biology professor, says UK administrators have long complained that the garden doesn’t look like much any time of the year. But that’s not the point.

The century-old garden may be the most biologically diverse half-acre in Kentucky, Krupa said, with about 350 species of mostly native plants and trees. The garden provides a unique teaching facility, allowing students to see and compare many unusual plants that rarely grow together.

But like some of its plant species, Mathews Garden is endangered. A proposed renovation of UK’s College of Law building would destroy this unique garden, as well as two adjacent houses, built in 1900 and 1920.

When the $65 million law school renovation was announced in 2012, administrators said the project would claim both houses and the garden. Krupa said he was told recently that the garden is doomed.

But UK spokesman Jay Blanton said no decision about the fate of the garden or houses has been made and won’t be made until after state and private funding are secured for the much-needed renovation. “Those decisions would be part of the design process,” he said.

140210MathewsGarden0004AWhen the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation last month released its annual list of Central Kentucky’s most-endangered historic places, every one was owned by UK. Mathews Garden and the two adjacent houses were on the list for the second straight year. The group also complained that UK had demolished a circa 1800 house at Spindletop Farm without notice or warning.

UK trustees have approved plans to demolish several buildings designed between the 1940s and 1960s by noted architect Ernst Johnson, as well as a circa 1880 Italianate mansion, to make way for new dormitories that will be built and leased by a private contractor.

Architects have complained about the loss of the “architecturally significant” buildings, as well as poor design and construction quality of the new dormitories.

Clarence Mathews, a UK professor of botany and horticulture, created the garden in his back yard after he built a frame house at the edge of campus in 1900. Mathews’ daughter, Ruth, transferred the property to UK in 1968, but continued to live there. She died in 1986.

The Mathews house and the Ligon house next door have been used for UK offices. But the Mathews house is now vacant and showing signs of exterior decay from lack of maintenance.

Krupa said he volunteered to restore the garden in 2000. He said he began by removing 20 truckloads of honeysuckle and other invasive species.

Over the years, Krupa said he has spent countless hours and more than $41,000 in UK funds and his own money improving and maintaining the garden, which he said is used by classes with 1,500 students each year. He has added plants, trails, benches and plant identification markers.

Krupa said the garden is a living botany textbook, with every Kentucky variety of dogwood, azalea, hydrangea and viburnum and other plants. It has dozens of native wildflowers and several rare trees, including roundleaf birch, Georgia oak and striped maple.

The garden has a rare reproducing American elm tree. More than 75 percent of the once-ubiquitous American elms were lost to Dutch elm disease in the mid-20th century. Krupa thinks this may be the last one on campus.

“It’s really amazing that so many species are here in this one place,” Krupa said.

But Blanton said: “The question now is should a facility of dense undergrowth be in the center of campus or more appropriately relocated to a research tract on farms owned by the university?”

Krupa said the garden could not be relocated successfully. “Half of the biological diversity is in the soil,” he said.

Rather than expand sideways and take the garden and old houses, Krupa suggests that the law school expand back, which would displace a parking lot and a small, non-descript 1950s building.

“Administrators have always called this a weed patch,” Krupa said of Mathews Garden. “But it’s only a weed patch if you’re ignorant. I’m up against ignorance, arrogance and a lot of faculty that are afraid to take on the administration.”

For an institution of higher learning that trains many of Kentucky’s architects and historic preservation specialists, UK administrators are showing little regard for either discipline. Let’s hope they don’t flunk botany, too.

 

140210MathewsGarden0026A

The entrance to Mathews Garden. The century-old home and garden were built by Clarence Mathews, a UK botany and horticulture professor.

 


Remembering when JFK came to Lexington — maybe

November 20, 2013

Zefi4.AuSt.79

Sen. John F. Kennedy waved to the crowd as his presidential campaign parade moved along Main Street in Lexington on Oct. 8, 1960. Kentucky Gov. Bert T. Combs was in the back seat with Kennedy. Joe Mellen drove the car, which was heading for a rally at the University of Kentucky. Herald-Leader File Photo

 

Many people my age and older can remember where they were when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

A former colleague in Atlanta has the most impressive story of anyone I know: he was standing with his elementary school class along the parade route in Dallas.

I was 5 years old that day, with my mother at a church craft show. I don’t remember it.

But I do have a memory from three years earlier, or at least I think I do. I have never been sure if it is an actual memory or one conjured up from hearing my parents tell me many times over the years that I saw John F. Kennedy in Lexington.

It was Oct. 8, 1960. Kennedy was a 43-year-old senator from Massachusetts, the Democratic nominee a month away from defeating Richard Nixon in the closest presidential election in 44 years.

Kennedy was on a campaign swing through Kentucky. He was picked up at Blue Grass Airport by Harry B. Miller Jr., a Lexington lawyer who died last week at age 89.

Kennedy waved to people as he rode down Main Street in an open-top convertible, seated beside Gov. Bert Combs. The car took them to the University of Kentucky campus, where they joined other prominent Democrats on an impromptu stage — a flatbed truck parked by the Administration Building.

I lived a block from campus, in an old house on Harrison Avenue — now South Martin Luther King Boulevard — where UK is now building a massive dormitory complex. My mother pushed me over in a stroller and we met my father, who hoisted me up on his shoulders so I could watch Kennedy’s speech.

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library has a transcript of that speech, which now seems rather ordinary and written to impress a Kentucky crowd.

PRWfL.AuSt.79Kennedy got applause by praising the tobacco support program and Lexington’s favorite son, Henry Clay. (He mistakenly referred to Clay as a Transylvania College graduate. Clay was a trustee and law professor there, but not a student.)

Kennedy then accused the Eisenhower Administration, in which his opponent was vice president, of being asleep at the wheel during “a time of danger” when the world was changing and the Cold War was heating up.

“I am not pleased to see countries around the world, when asked who will be first, say the Soviet Union in outer space, in science, in military power, in the next 10 years,” he said. Kennedy then delivered a dose of the “New Frontier” challenge that would inspire a generation of idealistic young Americans.

“No college graduate can go out from any college today without being a man of his nation and a man of his time; without pursuing in his own life, not only his private interest, but the welfare of his country,” Kennedy said.

It was still a man’s world in 1960.

My mother, Marion Eblen, remembers it as a good speech. She was even more impressed by Kennedy’s looks — especially when his car passed within a few feet of us as he left campus.

“He was as handsome as any movie star,” she said.

Phil Patton was 12 years older than me, and his memories of that day are vivid. His older brother had brought him to Lexington to see Kennedy, and after attending the parade down Main Street they rushed to UK to hear his speech.

“I was such a political junkie, even at age 14, that I had a big poster of Kennedy on my bedroom door,” said Patton, now 67 and a circuit court judge in Glasgow. He got to shake Kennedy’s hand and remembers him as tan, handsome and charming.

Kennedy’s charm was put to the test later that day, when he made another campaign speech in Bowling Green.

The mayor presented Kennedy with a gift that only a Southerner could appreciate: a country ham. Like any well-aged ham, it was covered with green mold. Kennedy winced, but quickly recovered.

“It took a brave man to eat the first oyster,” the candidate said with his famous Yankee accent. “I’m going to take your word for this. If you say it’s good, I’ll eat it.”

lp0D1.AuSt.79

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kennedy greeted supporters upon his arrival at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington on Oct. 8, 1960. He held a proclamation given to him that heralded “John Kennedy Day” in Lexington. Herald-Leader File Photo


UK historian Ron Eller leaves big shoes to fill; who will?

November 13, 2013

Ronald Eller, a University of Kentucky history professor and outstanding writer who has focused on Appalachia, was honored last Friday as he donated his papers to UK Special Collections in preparation for his retirement at the end of the year.

ellerEller came to UK in 1985, succeeding Harry Caudill, the Eastern Kentucky lawyer whose 1962 book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, focused national attention on the exploitation of Appalachia. Eller picked up where Caudill left off, analyzing the forces that have shaped Appalachia’s evolution.

Eller’s 1982 book, Miners, Mill hands and Mountaineers: The Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A 2008 book, Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, is the best book I know of about the region’s modern history.

No word yet on the Appalachian scholar UK will hire to succeed Eller in the history department, but he or she had better be good. We cannot really understand modern Kentucky without understanding Appalachian history.


Authors document Robinson Forest in the hope of preserving it

May 7, 2013

 

130502RobinsonForest-TE0106

In their new book, “The Embattled Wilderness,” Erik Reece and James Krupa write this: “To look out over the forest’s steep ridges — slopes that novelist James Still called ‘a river of earth’ — is to understand that Robinson Forest is simultaneously one of the most biologically diverse landscapes in North America and one of the most threatened.” Photos by Tom Eblen  

 

JACKSON — As we hike uphill through beech and yellow poplar trees, a wild turkey flies out of the woods and across the trail in front of us. A few hundred yards higher, Erik Reece stops suddenly and points at a scarlet tanager foraging among the oaks.

At the crest of the ridge, we climb an old fire tower and are rewarded with a spectacular view of Robinson Forest. On this clear, spring morning, the forest looks like a rolling “river of earth,” as James Still described the natural landscape of Eastern Kentucky in his classic 1940 novel, River of Earth.

The green waves roll out in every direction until they suddenly stop at Robinson Forest’s boundary. Beyond the boundary are huge, gray scars from surface mining and the flattened, denuded remnants of “reclaimed” coal-mine land, now struggling to support foreign grasses and scrubby trees.

“We hope more people will go to Robinson Forest, but a lot of Kentuckians won’t, so we wanted them to experience it vicariously,” said Reece, co-author with James J. Krupa of the new book,The Embattled Wilderness: The Natural and Human History of Robinson Forest and the Fight for Its Future (University of Georgia Press, $24.95).

Reece will sign copies of the book from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

130502RobinsonForest-TE0070

Erik Reece on Lewis Fork creek in Robinson Forest.

Reece is a UK English professor best known for his award-winning 2006 book, Lost Mountain: Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia. Like Lost Mountain, this book has a forward by renowned Kentucky author Wendell Berry.

Krupa is a UK biology professor who over decades of study has explored every ridge and valley of the main 10,000-acre block of the 14,786-acre forest, which contains some of the state’s cleanest streams.

“It is one of the last and largest examples of the oldest, most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America — the mixed mesophytic,” the authors write in their introduction.

“Unfortunately, industrial development has churned under the mountains surrounding these 14,000 acres, turning Robinson Forest into an island of biological diversity surrounded by an ever-expanding desert,” they write, adding that there is every reason to believe that coal and timber interests want to plunder this land, too.

Reece and Krupa are both fine writers. In this small, engaging book, they alternate chapters, explaining the natural and human history of this unique corner of Breathitt, Perry and Knott counties and making a case to preserve it.

Krupa describes the geological history of Robinson Forest and the surrounding Cumberland Plateau, which was formed before there were dinosaurs, mammals or even flowering plants. These mountains were once covered by a shallow inland sea and then swamps. Dead ferns and trees sank to the bottom for thousands of years, forming peat and eventually bituminous coal.

Krupa also discusses his research into the ecological diversity of the current forest. Who knew lichens and wood rats could be so fascinating?

Reece’s chapters describe the forest’s human history, from settlement to the early 20th century, when Cincinnati business partners F.W. Mobray and E.O. Robinson bought the forest and cut virtually all of its timber.

In 1923, Robinson gave the wasted land to the University of Kentucky for research to “tend to the betterment of the people of the mountain region of Kentucky.” Under UK’s stewardship, most of the land has regenerated over the past 90 years into a second-growth version of the biologically diverse, native forest.

But coal operators, who wield considerable clout, have periodically pressured UK to allow mining in the forest. Reece said he and Krupa decided to write this book after the UK Board of Trustees’ controversial 2007 decision to clear-cut 800 acres of the main forest.

Although the forest recovered from clear-cutting a century ago, critics doubt that can happen again because of the extensive surface mining on surrounding land and the planting of invasive species as part of mine “reclamation.”

Reece said he and Krupa hope their book will prompt UK officials to rethink their management strategy for Robinson Forest and embrace a broader ecological research mission. A part of such a mission could be helping Kentucky adapt to climate change.

Specifically, the authors urge broader input into decision-making about the forest. Currently, Robinson Forest is managed by UK’s Forestry Department. Also, they want UK to separate research and revenue goals, so that there is not periodic temptation to log or mine Robinson Forest to make money for the university.

Reece is up for tenure this year, and he acknowledges this book won’t be popular in some corners of the university. But he thinks Robinson Forest is worth fighting to preserve.

He said the book was inspired by The Unforeseen Wilderness, which UK commissioned Berry to write in 1971. It advocated for preservation of the Red River Gorge at a time when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to destroy it with a flood-control dam.

“We want to give readers a sense of why Robinson Forest is worth saving,” Reece said. “If you can convince people to love something, they won’t destroy it.”

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

Excerpts from the final chapter of The Embattled Wilderness

“Robinson Forest is many things: it is one of the most important eco-systems in Appalachia, it is a laboratory for crucial research and teaching, and it is a gift held in trust for future generations of Kentuckians. But it is also a model for how we must proceed in our habitation of the natural world. In fact, Robinson Forest represents a model for an entirely new definition of “economy,” whereby our American systems of exchange, both of wealth and energy, are brought in 130508ReeceBookCover001line with the most important and inescapable economy of nature.”

“What we as 21st century Americans must finally come to understand is that the economy of consumption operates in direct opposition to, and at the peril of, the economy of nature. … Kentucky should look to Robinson Forest as a model for a sustainable, post-coal economy. We must replace the industrial logic of the strip mine with the much more ancient wisdom of the forest.”

“To abandon wilderness places like Robinson Forest would be to abandon ourselves. To ignore the natural laws of its watersheds for the logic of our own industrial imagination would be to abandon our better selves — to abandon a sustainable future for the sake of short-term avarice and indulgence. But to preserve the world will mean learning the lessons of Robinson Forest, and in doing so learning to preserve that embattled wilderness.”

 


UK’s Modernist buildings worth a second look — and worth saving

April 28, 2013

130423UKDorms-TE0061

Holmes Hall on Euclid Avenue was built by the University of Kentucky in 1956-1958 and designed by Ernst V. Johnson. Its most distinguishing feature is a covered walkway of stone, brick and concrete canopy. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

When local architects started emailing me about preliminary plans to demolish several Modernist-style buildings on the University of Kentucky campus, my first reaction was to roll my eyes.

Like many people, I have always struggled to appreciate, much less like, a lot of mid-20th century architecture. It seems so plain, boxy, cold and, in the hands of some architects, just plain ugly.

To try to understand why so many professionals consider these buildings important and worth saving, I decided to take a closer look and learn more about them.

Nearly 30 percent of UK’s structures date from the 1950s and 1960s, and many academic buildings and residence halls have been neglected for years. To his credit, UK President Eli Capilouto is trying to catch up, initiating construction and renovation projects all over campus.

Initial plans included demolishing as many as seven of the 13 campus buildings designed between the 1930s and 1950s by noted Lexington architect Ernst V. Johnson: Jewell (1938), Holmes (1956) and Donovan (1955) residence halls, the Engineering Quadrangle (1938), the Wenner-Gren Aeronautical Research Laboratory (1941), the Funkhouser Biological Science Building (1942) and the Mineral Industries Building (1951).

The wrecking ball may also be aimed at the Kirwan-Blanding residential complex (1967), designed by Edward Durrell Stone. He was one of America’s best-known and most prolific Modernist architects, and his work has always been widely loved — and hated.

“It’s easy to see why most people don’t turn on to it,” said Graham Pohl, a Lexington architect with Pohl Rosa Pohl.

130423UKDorms-TE0065Modernism was the first architectural style in centuries that didn’t reference the past. Modernism began in Europe nearly a century ago, but didn’t catch on in this country until after World War II. Then it was everywhere.

“People felt free to be expressive and experiment with forms and new materials that felt right to them,” Pohl said. “It was a product of economic growth and national optimism about the future.”

But Pohl acknowledges that the style was widely abused. When so-called Urban Renewal reshaped America’s cities into concrete jungles built around the automobile, it included a lot of slap-dash architecture that was called “modern.”

“One of the reasons people don’t like Modernism is that it has been used as an excuse to do shoddy work,” Pohl said. “It’s more difficult to do good Modernism than good traditional work.”

Pohl said most of the buildings UK has considered tearing down are anything but shoddy. As an example, he cited Holmes Hall, an International-style building with an elegant stone and concrete stair-step canopy and interesting brick work.

Johnson’s buildings all have elegant brick work, perhaps because he was the son of a Swedish mason and worked his way through Yale as a union bricklayer.

“It’s more than decorative,” Pohl said of Johnson’s brick patterns on Holmes Hall. “It speaks to aspects of the building and the relationship between walls and openings. There’s a lot about that building that suggests someone thought deeply about it.”

Pohl also likes Stone’s Kirwan-Blanding complex, with its 23-story towers surrounded by smaller buildings arranged in a park-like setting. He likes the relationship of the vertical towers to the “incredibly elegant” horizontal canopies that connect the buildings.

“A lot of people see those forms as being part of their parents’ generation and they intentionally don’t want to relate to them,” said Pohl, adding that these buildings have much more architectural merit than anything that is likely to replace them in this era of budget-cutting austerity.

I grew up around the corner from Holmes Hall, on the block where UK is now building a massive dormitory complex. I have always admired Holmes Hall’s stair- step canopy, if not the rest of the building.

130423UKDorms-TE0137But I never liked Kirwan-Blanding — until, that is, I went to photograph it for this column on a beautiful evening last week. The moon was rising between the towers, which were bathed in the glow of the setting sun. Students were all around the buildings, studying among the trees and flowers or throwing Frisbees and footballs. I appreciated those buildings for the first time.

Architecture, like art, is often subjective, said Sarah Tate, an architect and founder of the Lexington firm Tate Hill Jacobs. She greatly admires Johnson’s work, for example, yet has never liked Stone’s. But that is not the point, she emphasized.

“Architecture is a reflection of history and culture, and that campus is a little museum of modern architecture,” Tate said. “Johnson’s buildings give us an architectural handbook of the influences that got us from the late 19th century to the late 20th century. I don’t think (UK officials) know what they have here.

“These mid-century buildings are part of our DNA,” she added. “You don’t want to take them all away. They are important links in our history and culture.”

Sasaki Associates, the Boston planning firm that UK hired to develop a new campus master plan, recently recommended as its first scenario renovating and reusing these historic Modernist buildings. UK officials should take that advice.

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

 


UK sets public forums tomorrow and April 18 on food outsourcing

April 8, 2013

The University of Kentucky officials have scheduled two public forums to gather opinions as they decide whether to outsource food service operations. I wrote about the issue in my column Sunday.

The first forum will be 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. tomorrow evening (Tuesday, April 9) in the Worsham Theater at the Student Center. The second forum will be 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on April 18 at the William T. Young Library’s  UK Athletics Auditorium.

To read my Sunday column, click here. To read more about UK’s goals and process, click here.

 


UK food service decision: what is best for Kentucky in the long run?

April 6, 2013

The University of Kentucky raised eyebrows last year when it decided to outsource housing to a private company. Now, it is considering doing the same with food service.

These are tough questions, but, after years of declining state support, UK needs to be asking them. What are the right answers?

By all accounts, UK Dining Services is well-managed. It pays for itself and provides good food and jobs. So why consider outsourcing? It is not about saving money, UK spokesman Jay Blanton said.

As with the decision to outsource housing in a 50-year deal with Memphis-based Education Realty Trust, this possible deal is more about raising capital. Lots of it.

“A business partner potentially could pop tens of millions of dollars into infrastructure improvements,” Blanton said.

UK needs capital because it has a lot of catching up to do on infrastructure. The General Assembly has always been stingy about letting UK borrow money for new and improved buildings, even when it could generate revenues to repay the debt.

But there are other considerations, too, Blanton said. Might a giant food service corporation be able to offer more variety and convenience at less cost?

“The question becomes what are the core competencies we have?” he said. “What are the things we do best as an institution, and then what are the things that need to be done as services to students that might be best facilitated with a partner?

“We’re not going to give up course delivery and instruction; we do that better than anybody else,” he added. “But are we the best entity to build a residence hall? Are we the best entity to provide food service? Or is that better facilitated through a partner? It’s worthwhile to at least ask the question.”

There are other issues, too. Dining Services has become a key player in supporting Kentucky’s budding local food movement. This year it will buy more than $1 million worth of “Kentucky Proud” products.

UK Dining Services is just the kind of partner UK’s College of Agriculture needs to help Kentucky farmers develop more sustainable production methods that in the long run will provide the state with more healthy food and stronger local economies.

As a land-grant university, UK’s mission extends beyond the classroom. The university has a responsibility to help show Kentucky the way forward by supporting innovation that will improve quality of life. That is a big reason some students, faculty and citizens have objected to outsourcing.

UK officials said last week that they will consider proposals from food service corporations, hold public meetings and make a decision by the end of the year about whether or not to outsource.

But, in response to the concerns, UK officials said that if they do outsource, they will protect current employees’ jobs and set criteria for vendors. That would include a mandatory commitment to partner with the Kentucky Proud program to buy locally produced food.

Those assurances are commendable, but are they good enough? That depends on how the criteria are set, and how well UK officials follow through during the decades this contract is likely to last.

Tens of millions of dollars in up-front capital is a powerful incentive. But any company offering that kind of capital to UK will want to find ways to get its money back, plus a healthy profit.

In many ways, UK’s outsourcing of housing made sense. UK will quickly get a more adequate supply of good, on-campus housing. But some critics worry that the housing will be too expensive for students. Others worry about the quality of the new residence halls.

Those critics say UK should have negotiated for more durable and energy-efficient construction, which would then have saved money in the long run through lower operating costs. Plus, at the end of the contract, UK would inherit buildings with more potential for future use.

Whichever way UK decides to go on food service, a real commitment to supporting local, healthy and sustainable food production is critical for Kentucky’s future.

As UK officials consider all of the implications of this long-term decision, they should keep this question in mind: Will a corporation care more about what is best for Kentucky or what is best for its shareholders?


The story behind fabulous Spindletop Hall, now celebrating its 75th

October 9, 2012

Spindletop’s double staircase when the mansion was new in the late 1930s.  Photo Provided

Pansy Yount wanted only the best for herself and her daughter. So when Texas oilman Frank Yount’s widow decided in 1935 to buy a Kentucky horse farm and build a mansion, the result was jaw-dropping.

This month, Spindletop Hall celebrates the 75th anniversary of its completion and the 50th anniversary of its conversion into a country club for University of Kentucky faculty, staff, alumni and friends.

The Club at Spindletop Hall is hosting three anniversary events: a Texas barbecue on Oct. 19, a gala dinner dance on Oct. 20 and a horse and carriage brunch on Oct. 21. (Some tickets are available to the public; call (859) 255-2777 for more information.)

The 1,050-member club hopes to use the celebration to attract a couple hundred new members and raise money to continue restoring the mansion and improving the club.

“She’s a beautiful lady, but there are some things we need to address for the future,” club manager Gerald Marvel said of Spindletop Hall.

Among those attending the events will be Kathryn Haider of suburban Chicago, who has her own name for Spindletop: Grandma’s house. In a telephone interview, Haider recalled idyllic summers spent at Spindletop: fishing, riding ponies and spending time with her grandmother.

“She was an absolutely wonderful woman,” Haider recalled. “I just adored her. She was a great mentor to me.”

Spindletop is named for the salt dome near Beaumont, Texas, that became a fabulously rich oilfield after Anthony Lucas drilled the first “gusher” in 1901. Initial reserves played out within a few years. But Miles Franklin Yount, a mechanically inclined Arkansas farm boy who moved to Texas to seek his fortune, thought there was more oil to be had if only he could drill deep enough. In 1925, he did.

Yount died in 1933. When his Yount-Lee Oil Co. was sold in 1935, his widow and teenage daughter, Mildred, received a fortune that today would be worth about $208 million. Pansy Yount decided to move to Lexington and indulge her passion for American Standardbred horses.

She bought Shoshone Stud and several surrounding parcels off Ironworks Pike north of Lexington and renamed it Spindletop. As the centerpiece of the 1,066-acre farm, she built a 45,000-square-foot mansion that cost the equivalent of about $17 million today.

Durability was a priority: a massive foundation and steel beams supported the brick-and-stone building, which even had “fireproof” concrete decking in the attic and roof.

“It’s almost built like a bomb shelter,” said David Graham, a recent club president.

Yount imported craftsmen from Europe to carve woodwork, mold plaster and paint art on the walls. In the entrance hall, there were enormous curved staircases. The huge Gothic library had a hammerbeam roof and a mantel salvaged from an English castle. Yount built a music room for her talented daughter, whose instrument collection included a concert harp and two Stradivarius violins.

The music room also housed the console for a Kimball reproducing organ, which could be played manually or with paper rolls of “recorded” music. It sent music throughout the mansion, which was literally designed around it. The club has begun restoring the organ.

Pansy Yount was a strong-willed woman who could be both demanding and generous. Lexingtonians were shocked in October 1942 when she donated Frank’s Duesenberg, one of the most expensive automobiles of the time, to a World War II scrap drive.

Haider recalled the time her grandmother went Christmas shopping at Woolworth’s on Lexington’s Main Street. She was especially well treated by the sales ladies, so she invited them all out for dinner at Spindletop.

“Grandma treated them just like royalty,” she said.

Yount was too independent and egalitarian to get along with some of the wealthy elite of Beaumont and Lexington. Although she had little formal education, she developed excellent taste and a voracious appetite for books.

“She was extremely independent, and a very savvy business woman,” Haider said. “She thought out everything she did. If some people didn’t like it, she didn’t care.”

In 1949, Young married her farm manager, horse trainer William Capers “Cape” Grant. They divorced a decade later, and she had decided to move back to Texas.

When Yount decided to sell Spindletop, she called Lexington friend Fred Wachs, then publisher of the Herald and Leader, for advice. He suggested she donate it to the university. UK President Frank Dickey flew to Texas and negotiated the sale of the farm and mansion for the gift price of $850,000, payable over 10 years.

Yount died in 1962, the year UK converted her mansion and 50 surrounding acres into a private club with a dining room, tennis courts, swimming pools and other amenities. Over the years, other land has been used for offices and facilities for UK agriculture and energy research.

UK owns the mansion, which is operated by the club. They both contribute to maintenance and improvements. Haider said she is pleased with the interest they are now showing in preserving Spindletop Hall.

“Everyone is so devoted to the place,” she said. “That home is truly a gift to Kentucky.”

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

 


Alltech announced job-creation competition

May 22, 2012

Alltech announced a job-creation competition Tuesday for business students at the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville and University of Pikeville, with a $20,000 prize for the winning school.

Pearse Lyons, president and founder of the Nicholasville-based animal nutrition company, said the business plan competition is focused on fostering innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development in nine Eastern Kentucky counties: Bell, Floyd, Harlan, Johnson, Knott, Letcher, Magoffin, Martin and Pike.

“It’s time to balance the scales and cultivate a Kentucky that leads the nation not just in college sports but in employment as well,” Lyons said, noting that many of the targeted counties have unemployment rates twice the national average.

“With its hardworking people, vibrant culture, picturesque landscape and abundance of natural resources, Kentucky is ripe for the right idea,” Lyons said. “What we need is innovation and inspiration — sparks that will kindle the economic flame.”

Lyons announced the competition during a free seminar on entrepreneurship in the state that he and veteran Kentucky entrepreneur Jim Host put on at Lexington Center. It attracted a capacity crowd of more than 400 people, including many Central Kentucky business leaders.

The seminar was held in conjunction with Alltech’s 28th annual International Symposium, which each spring brings a couple thousand of the company’s customers here from all over the world.

Officials at each university will choose a competition team from among master’s in business administration students and some undergraduates. The competition will run from November through January 2013, when students will present their final plans to a panel of business leaders, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.

The winning plan will be the one that best fosters economic development in the nine-county region and appeals to investors interested in funding it. The winning team will receive $20,000 from Alltech for their university’s business school.


Post-game mayhem highlighted neglected neighborhoods around UK’s campus

April 8, 2012

When the University of Kentucky beat Louisville and Kansas to win the NCAA championship last week, the media spotlight focused on more than the basketball team’s talent and Kentucky fans’ pride.

The nation got a vivid look at how far Lexington and UK still have to go in overcoming decades of neglect in some neighborhoods surrounding campus.

What should have been celebrations turned into near riots in the Elizabeth Street neighborhood off South Limestone. There were dozens of injuries and arrests as fires were set and vehicles damaged amid a hail of flying beer bottles.

Things could have been much worse, had not Lexington police and firefighters handled the situation with such skill and professionalism. And after the first and worst night of trouble, new UK President Eli Capilouto issued a stern statement. He urged students to “not be stupid,” and he warned that illegal behavior would result in criminal prosecution and university sanctions.

Some of the troublemakers weren’t UK students or even Lexington residents. Still, the national reputations of both UK and Lexington were tarnished. Will parents of prospective students wonder if UK is a safe environment for their children? Will people interested in moving their families or companies to Lexington wonder about the city’s quality of life?

Last week’s mayhem was a wake-up call to both UK and Lexington officials. They must redouble their efforts to clean up neighborhoods around campus that have been allowed to become little more than student-rental slums.

The problems began in the 1970s, when UK dormitory construction and maintenance began falling behind enrollment growth. About the same time, longtime residents of some nearby neighborhoods built between the early 1800s and early 1900s began dying off or moving away.

Many homes were sold to the university for campus expansion. Others were sold to student-rental entrepreneurs, who either cut up old homes into rental rooms or knocked them down to build boxy apartment complexes.

Once-lovely neighborhoods where many faculty and staff used to live fell into disrepair, as fewer and fewer homes were occupied by their owners. UK’s hands-off attitude reached its zenith in 1998 when officials banned alcohol from campus, which pushed student parties into the surrounding neighborhoods.

Landlords used zoning loopholes to build large dorm-like additions to bungalows and pave over yards, overwhelming those areas with people, cars, garbage and storm-water runoff. Those neighborhoods were not designed for such density.

Diane Lawless, the Urban County Council member who represents those neighborhoods, said the problems have been made worse by spot rezoning and years of building inspection that was “way beyond lax.”

City officials and neighborhood leaders have spent more than a decade trying to catch up to the problem. Studies by the Town-Gown Commission and Student Housing Task Force helped lead to new laws limiting off-campus parties, tightening zoning regulations and halting construction of the “vinyl box” additions. Mayor Jim Newberry’s administration launched a crackdown on code violations.

Still, about 75 percent of UK’s 28,000 students now live off-campus. That compares with only 25 percent of the 1,100 students at Transylvania University, where surrounding neighborhoods have experienced few student-rental problems.

Since Capilouto took office last June, he has made housing and neighborhood issues a priority. UK has launched an ambitious partnership with a private company to replace 6,000 aging dormitory beds and build 3,000 more.

“UK has been working much closer with us on neighborhood issues,” said Derek Paulsen, the city’s new planning commissioner. “But we’re going to be playing catch-up with this legacy for awhile.”

Paulsen’s appointment is another positive sign. For the first time, all city planning, zoning and building regulation will be under one department. Paulsen, an academic, has written several books about designing socially sustainable communities that deter crime.

New apartment complexes west of campus, built on sites once occupied by tobacco warehouses, have taken some of the pressure off older neighborhoods. But those developments bear watching, too. Any area dominated by transient rental property will be less stable than one that includes a good mix of owner-occupied housing.

The upcoming move of the Bluegrass Community and Technical College to the former Eastern State Hospital site could take pressure off the Elizabeth Street neighborhood. But without good planning, zoning, building inspection and code enforcement, Lexington risks the same pattern being repeated in older Northside neighborhoods.

In addition to better planning and zoning and more aggressive enforcement, city officials must clean up the damaged neighborhoods around UK. That will include significant investment in long-ignored infrastructure and more support for owner-occupied homes.

“It’s an economic development issue, because this is what visitors see when they see Lexington,” Lawless said. “What’s good for these neighborhoods and downtown is good for Lexington and the university.”


UK building program should go green, save green

March 24, 2012

UK President Eli Capilouto at Richardsville Elementary School in Warren County last month. Photo by Joe Imel/Bowling Green Daily News

 

When I interviewed Eli Capilouto recently about his first eight months as president of the University of Kentucky, he described a visit to an elementary school in Bowling Green as “my best day in Kentucky.”

The Alabama native went to Richardsville Elementary after receiving a handwritten invitation from second-grader Emma McGuffey. Capilouto said he was impressed by the students and teachers, and by the building where they learn.

That building, which opened in August 2010, was the nation’s first school designed to generate more energy than it uses. Thanks to innovative design and materials, it requires 75 percent less energy than a typical school.

Power consumption also is kept down by geothermal heating and cooling, plus elimination of power-hungry appliances such as deep fryers in the cafeteria kitchen. (That change prompted dieticians to develop healthier school lunches.)

The overall construction cost was about the same as a typical school, except for the addition of solar panels that generate power for the school and local utility grid.

Capilouto said the students gave him a tour of the building and proudly explained the science behind it. “I came back on a high after that visit,” he said. “I’ve never seen a building teach so effectively.”

His ambitious plans for UK include a lot of construction. He wants to renovate or replace many aging academic buildings, renovate 6,000 beds of dormitory space and add 3,000 more beds.

UK has a contract with Memphis-based Education Realty Trust to build and operate a 600-bed dorm. The deal is planned as the first step toward privatizing all student housing as a way to raise construction capital.

I asked Capilouto whether Richardsville Elementary had inspired him to attempt similar energy-efficiency with UK’s new buildings. “We have the same architect,” he replied, referring to the Lexington firm Sherman Carter Barnhart, which is designing the new dormitory.

The dorm will have geothermal systems and will meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards. But initial plans indicate much more could be done to reduce energy consumption and long-term operating costs.

If Capilouto wants to embrace what he saw at Richardsville, much more must be done with this and future buildings. And that process must start soon, before UK negotiates terms of its long-term relationship with Education Realty Trust.

Thanks to projects such as Richardsville Elementary, Kentucky has become the national leader in energy-efficient school construction. Other examples have been built in Warren, Fayette and Kenton counties, and many more are planned.

Berea College has made strides in this area. UK has made a start with the new Davis Marksbury Building. There is plenty of Kentucky expertise on which to draw, including some on UK’s campus.

But people who have been involved with energy-efficient school projects say it is not a process to be entered into lightly. It requires new ways of thinking at each step — from how a building is planned, designed and financed to how it is managed and used after completion.

Highly energy-efficient buildings cost a little more on the front end, although that money is recovered quickly through lower operating costs. Still, it’s a different mind-set.

“There must be a change in culture at all levels,” said architect Mark Ryles, who was a key player in energy-efficient school construction as facilities director for the Kentucky Department of Education. “It will take real leadership and collaboration to make it happen.”

Ryles said the most successful projects have been built in counties where the school board and superintendents were committed to the process and put students’ needs first. The key is to figure out a vision and goals for construction, then shape the business model to accomplish them.

As Capilouto saw at Richardsville, energy efficiency is about much more than cost savings. “The educational benefit is fabulous,” Ryles said. “We now have third-graders going around talking about geothermal.”

If Capilouto and the Board of Trustees were to decide to rebuild UK’s campus as the “greenest” in the nation, it would make a bold statement, create a unique learning laboratory and save a lot of green for Kentucky taxpayers.

It also could make UK more attractive to Emma McGuffey and her fellow college students of the future. They will expect their university’s campus to be at least as advanced as what they had in elementary school.


UK could learn from Tulane, even without a storm

February 26, 2012

Hurricane Katrina almost wiped out Tulane University. Then, the disaster gave the 178-year-old New Orleans institution an exciting new vision.

That was the story that Tulane provost Michael Bernstein told last week, when he came to Lexington to speak as the guest of the University of Kentucky’s Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching.

Before the August 2005 storm, Bernstein said, Tulane’s engagement with the surrounding community “was haphazard at best.” Now, he said, “it is part of the DNA of the institution.”

Making the university more a part of the community — and the community more a part of the university — was a valuable lesson for Tulane. UK could learn that lesson, too, and it doesn’t require a cataclysmic disaster.

Before Katrina, Bernstein said, “It used to be study and then go into the city to have fun.” When the storm almost destroyed New Orleans, Tulane included, university officials canceled the fall semester and fled to Houston to regroup, reorganize and refocus the university around its most successful academic programs.

With Tulane’s campus and finances either literally or figuratively under water, officials were forced to take a fresh look at the school’s core mission — its very reason for existing.

“Instead of running from what the storm did to us, we have embraced it, and we’re leveraging it in a powerful way,” Bernstein said. “Now we are more focused on how the community can be used in learning and service for students.”

The university has rebranded itself around the motto “Tulane Empowers: Helping People Build a Better World.” Academic programs and learning activities have been refocused around themes of public service, public education, disaster response, urban redevelopment, public health and community medicine.

Unlike Tulane, a private institution, UK and similar state land-grant universities have had public engagement as part of their mission since Abraham Lincoln signed legislation during the Civil War that led to their creation.

Former President Lee T. Todd Jr. focused on revitalizing UK’s land-grant mission statewide, especially in the areas of economic development and health care.

When Eli Capilouto became UK’s 12th president last summer, he took on two long-simmering issues of town-gown relations. How he deals with them could well set the tone for UK’s relationship with Lexington during his tenure.

Just a year ago, UK athletics officials were pushing for a new basketball venue to replace the 35-year-old Rupp Arena that anchors Lexington’s downtown convention center.

Mayor Jim Gray sought to refocus the conversation in broader terms: renovating Rupp Arena and redeveloping the convention center and acres of underused surface parking as an economic engine for Lexington.

Gray created a task force that came up with a visionary and generally popular plan for doing that over the next decade or two. Capilouto has seemed somewhat cool to the idea, though, saying he doesn’t want to jeopardize state funding that UK desperately needs to improve its campus.

With state resources scarce, Capilouto said, UK’s priority needs to be renovating substandard academic buildings and building more and better housing for students. For years, UK students have either lived in scarce, neglected dormitories or been pushed off campus, largely to the detriment of surrounding neighborhoods.

Capilouto’s stand hasn’t pleased everyone, but it is the right approach.

The Arena, Arts and Entertainment Task Force’s visionary plan for Rupp Arena and its surroundings will happen eventually. Few forces are more powerful in Kentucky than the love of UK basketball, so Rupp Arena is hardly in danger of falling into neglect.

On the other hand, UK’s housing and academic structures have been neglected for years — in some cases, decades. So has the university’s relationship with many of the neighborhoods surrounding campus. It is long past time that UK acknowledged and addressed those responsibilities.

Tulane’s decision to embrace New Orleans and their shared fate was not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. Bernstein said community engagement has improved life in New Orleans and Tulane’s educational potential. It even has helped attract students hungry for such real-world learning experiences.

UK already has many community-engagement efforts. But, as Tulane discovered, much more could be done. A closer relationship between UK and Lexington would pay huge dividends to both. Simply becoming a better neighbor is a good way for UK to start.


UK lecturer gets closeup view of Egypt election

January 11, 2012

As University of Kentucky diplomacy students follow Egypt’s attempt to transition from dictatorship to democracy, they can get some behind-the-scenes perspective from one of their teachers.

Stacy Closson, below, a visiting lecturer at UK’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, spent eight days in Egypt last month as an official observer during recently completed parliamentary elections.

An academic with years of international field experience, Closson found the experience fascinating, inspiring and, at one point, frightening. She left with a better understanding of the Middle East’s new political complexities — and why her fellow Americans should pay attention.

“Even after 30-plus years of dictatorship under (Hosni) Mubarak, people don’t lose their taste for freedom,” Closson said. “They seem very excited about the future prospects for their country.”

Closson is a Truman National Security fellow who worked six years for the U.S. Defense Department. She was among 33 observers from the National Democratic Institute who watched the second of three rounds of parliamentary voting Dec. 14 and 15.

Other observers were there from two more U.S.-based organizations, the International Republican Institute and the Carter Center. (Despite their names, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute are non-partisan.)

Closson and another American woman — a congressional staffer — went to 25 polling stations in the Beni Suef region with an interpreter. Voting seemed to be orderly, with each polling station run by a “judge.” Each political party also had poll observers.

Because election turnout was low during Mubarak’s reign, voting was a new experience for many Egyptians.

“There was this initial excitement and pride that they could vote and know their vote could count,” she said, adding that the main issues for most voters were freedom, dignity and jobs.

New liberal parties were much less organized than the Muslim Brotherhood, which is expected to end up with a majority of seats in parliament, Closson said. But one surprise was the strength of a more conservative Islamic party, Salafi al-Nour. It seemed highly organized, with plenty of cars, computers, cellphones and operating funds, reportedly from Islamic interests in neighboring gulf states.

When the polls closed, Closson and other observers followed election officials as they transported ballot boxes through busy city streets to a central counting center. There, they found perhaps 200 rowdy Salafi partisans creating a chaotic scene.

Only a few international observers were able to get inside the center to witness the counting. Closson wasn’t among them.

“I still regret it,” she said. “I think we would have gotten pushed and shoved, but we would have gotten in. But when the two-star general said he couldn’t guarantee our safety, we decided not to push it.”

The third and final round of parliamentary voting was last week, and results could be announced this week. “There are a lot of mathematical shell games in how they’re going to allocate seats,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a political decision as much as a mathematical decision.”

Egypt has scheduled a presidential election for June. But without a constitution, it remains unclear how the president and parliament will function and relate to powerful military officials.

Egypt is likely to end up with a government dominated by Islamists, but the faction that comes out on top will have a big influence not only on foreign relations but on internal economic recovery.

Tourism is one of Egypt’s biggest industries, and last year’s revolution has all but brought it to a halt.

“The hotels were empty except for us,” Closson said. “You have more people in downtown Lexington than at the Giza pyramids. Even the camels where bored.”

If Islamists carry through with threats to ban alcohol sales to foreigners and require tourists to dress conservatively, Egyptian tourism might not recover.

Once all the voting is done, Closson said, “The question now is how they’re going to govern.”

Why should Americans care? Egypt’s transition could affect oil prices, Closson said. It also could have a big effect on Israel’s security and what happens in other unstable Arab countries, especially Libya, Yemen and Syria. But she is hopeful.

“Egyptians are pretty steadfast people,” Closson said. “They see this as the first step of a long process of getting more freedom.”


At new UK hospital, art helps with the healing

December 11, 2011

A loved one is in surgery, and all you can do is worry and wait. Unless, that is, you are at the University of Kentucky’s Albert B. Chandler Hospital.

In that case, you can soothe yourself by admiring original works by some of Kentucky’s best painters, sculptors, photographers and other visual artists.

In the surgery waiting room alone, there are equine paintings by Andre Pater and Peter Williams; blown-glass vessels by Stephen Rolfe Powell of Danville; a wood carving by Wolfe County native Edgar Tolson; interactive three-dimensional works by Steve Armstrong of Versailles; fiber art by UK professor Arturo Sandoval; a sculpture by John Tuska; Lexington painter Robert Tharsing’s fascinating landscape, A Natural History of Kentucky; and much more.

The huge room has just a sample of the more than 300 pieces of art that fill the 1.2 million-square-foot hospital addition, which opened in May. The medical center has become, in effect, one of Kentucky’s notable art museums.

“We wanted to make the public spaces empathetic and relaxing,” said Dr. Michael Karpf, UK’s executive vice president for health affairs. “And we wanted to make it uniquely Kentucky. It’s not all from Kentucky, but most of it is.”

UK has raised about $5 million in private donations to purchase art. The idea is about much more than making the new $532 million building pretty. Art can have a transformative effect on the human spirit. It makes people feel better, from reducing stress to inspiring hope.

“There’s a fair amount of research that shows art will improve moods and make people heal faster,” Karpf said. “So it makes financial sense for us to do this. People feel better and get out of the hospital faster.”

It is common in many cities for major new buildings to invest 1 percent of the construction budget on art. With this huge project, the results are impressive.

As soon as visitors enter the covered walkway over South Limestone from the parking garage, they see glass cases displaying folk art sculptures. Outdoors beneath the walkway is a landscape and water feature with curving fences made from traditional Kentucky dry stone.

Also outside is Second Breath, a bronze figure by Maurice Blik, a Holocaust and cancer survivor. “It ended up being controversial because it’s a nude,” said Jacqueline Hamilton, who coordinates the hospital’s art program.

At the end of the walkway is the education center, where patients and the public can research medical information. It is decorated with cityscapes by Louisville folk artist Anthony Mulligan, other paintings and a case of folk-art sculpture.

Ginkgo, a stainless-steel and fabric sculpture by Warren Seelig, is a focal point in the long lobby that connects the hospital’s wings. Elevator bays feature mosaics of paintings by Versailles glass artist Guy Kemper.

On the lobby’s second floor is the 90-foot-long Celebrate Kentucky wall. Tim Broekema, a Western Kentucky University photojournalism professor, created the wall using photographs and videos of Kentucky scenes taken by dozens of photographers. The wall is constantly changing with images that reflect the current season.

Karpf said the wall has been extremely popular, perhaps because it offers glimpses of home. About 40 percent of the hospital’s patients come from small-town and rural Kentucky.

There are landscape photographs in patient rooms, and paintings and sculpture in halls and reception areas throughout the hospital. Near the emergency room is a video installation called Mine-Control that changes shape as the viewer interacts with it. The pediatric emergency room has art that appeals to children.

The hospital tried to buy at least three pieces from each Kentucky artist it selected. “We’ve done a lot to stabilize the Kentucky art community during the recession,” Karpf said.

Two long corridors have become galleries for temporary exhibits. One now has drawings by Alabama’s Thornton Dial, and the other displays cut-and-paste photographic panoramas of Lexington and New York City by Albert Moser.

The UK hospital is a busy place, but only one piece of art has been damaged — a canvas was accidently ripped but is being repaired. “If you present it as art, people tend to respect it,” Hamilton said.

The Lucille Caudill Little Performing Arts in HealthCare Program and an endowment by Dr. Ronald Saykaly will sponsor performances by UK music students and faculty, as well as other performing artists. Performances can be in the hospital lobby or a new high-tech auditorium. When the violinist Midori was in town in September to perform with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra, she also played for hospital patients.

“What has been rewarding is that as we tried to humanize the building for patients, we also humanized it for staff,” Karpf said. Physicians have been big donors to the art program, and nurses have helped choose pieces for areas where they work.

When a pipe burst several months ago, filling an emergency room hall with water, doctors and nurses first made sure there were no patients in danger. “Then they started grabbing art off the walls and putting it on gurneys to take it to safety,” Karpf said. “They saw it as their art.”

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

 


Nebraska echoes coal lodge flap; results different

October 26, 2011

Does this sound familiar?

An energy industry is controversial because of its environmental impact. So a company tries to buy public goodwill by donating money to the state university’s most popular athletic program.

I’m not talking about the Wildcat Coal Lodge, the new on-campus luxury dormitory for the University of Kentucky’s basketball team. The lodge’s name — plus a shrine to the coal industry that will be in its front lobby — were requirements of an $8 million donation from coal industry executives.

The university’s 2009 decision to accept the donation with those strings attached created controversy. That is because surface coal mining has caused extensive damage to Appalachian Kentucky’s land, air and water.

I’m also not talking about the $85,000 the industry group Friends of Coal is spending to sponsor three athletic events, including the UK-University of Louisville football game and Big Blue Madness.

No, the scenario I am referring to played out recently in Nebraska. That is where TransCanada is trying to build a pipeline across that state and several others to carry oil from Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

The pipeline is controversial in Nebraska because the company insists on building it through the porous soil of the state’s Sandhills region and the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides water to large areas of Nebraska and parts of seven other Western states. A pipeline leak in those areas could create an environmental disaster.

TransCanada has refused to change the pipeline route. On Monday, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman called a special legislative session for Nov. 1 to address the issue.

University of Nebraska football is a religious experience in that state, similar to UK basketball in Kentucky. But the Lincoln Journal-Star reported that cheering turned to boos when a highlights video of the Cornhuskers’ 1978 conference championship team began showing on Memorial Stadium’s huge HuskerVision screen during the Sept. 10 game against Fresno State.

The video was titled “Husker Pipeline” and seemed to be as much an advertisement for TransCanada as a tribute to the team. Four days later, after fans complained, the university ended TransCanada’s football sponsorship.

“I want to make it clear that the athletic department has no position, either pro or con, regarding the proposed TransCanada Pipeline,” Athletic Director Tom Osborne, a former Republican congressman and Nebraska head football coach, said in a statement.

The university explained that IMG College — the same marketing firm that works with UK Athletics — had signed the deal before the pipeline controversy erupted.

“Our athletic events are intended to entertain and unify our fan base by providing an experience that is not divisive,” Osborne said in his statement.

It is unclear what the TransCanada football sponsorship was worth to the university. Pipeline opponents estimate the company has spent several hundred thousand dollars on pro-pipeline advertising in Nebraska.

The Nebraska and Kentucky situations make for interesting comparisons.

In both states, the essential debate is about whether creating short-term jobs is worth the potential for long-term environmental damage. But the situations get more complicated from there.

TransCanada has had a presence in Nebraska for only about three decades. King Coal has ruled Kentucky politics for more than a century. Few Kentucky elected officials are brave enough to buck the cash-rich coal industry.

In Nebraska, the pipeline would be an environmental threat only if it leaks. (Building it would have some environmental impact, but, in the long run, that impact would be less than trucking millions of barrels of oil cross-country.)

In Kentucky, though, coal’s environmental damage has been real and apparent for decades, especially as surface mines have gotten bigger and more destructive. The beautifully reclaimed meadows and real estate developments the coal industry likes to brag about represent only a tiny fraction of mined land. Mine-related air pollution and water pollution have been significant.

You could argue that it was easy for the University of Nebraska to take a principled stand. The thousands of dollars it stood to gain from the TransCanada sponsorship paled in comparison to the millions the coal industry gave UK for its tribute lodge.

But that brings us to a question: Is the issue one of principle, or merely price?


UK Art Department working to increase visibility

September 7, 2011

The University of Kentucky Art Department was created in 1918, the same year the state high school basketball tournament began and only 15 years after UK launched its basketball program.

“UK was slightly ahead of the curve,” said Art Department chairman Ben Withers, noting that many other universities didn’t create visual art departments until years later. “But sports has been able to actively engage Kentucky’s public imagination in ways that the arts have not.”

He isn’t being critical of Kentucky, or of basketball. After all, Withers is from Cynthiana, the hometown of former UK basketball Coach Joe B. Hall.

But Withers said he wasn’t exposed to visual arts much until he went to college in Minnesota.

“It opened the world to me,” said the art historian, whose research focuses on early medieval art.

If anything, Withers said, artists and academics haven’t done enough to make participating in the visual arts appeal to average Kentuckians in ways that build public enthusiasm and support.

“There’s not that disdain for the Sunday afternoon basketball player like too many art departments have for the Sunday afternoon painter,” he said. “Part of what we have to do is find a way to engage the community similar to — but not in competition with — sports. We have to show that art is not just for the snobbish elite.”

UK’s Art Department is trying to do that in a couple of ways — one focused on the community, the other on UK undergraduates.

The department’s Fine Arts Institute offers non-credit art instruction to the public. The classes are taught by UK faculty, graduates and local artists, and they attract about 100 people each term.

Classes are offered in drawing, painting, ceramics, fabric art, metalworking and woodworking, and digital photography software. The institute also has workshops in beginning drawing and painting, and in digital photography and metalworking.

This fall’s classes begin Monday. For more information, and to register, go to Uky.edu/finearts/art/fineartsinstitute.

The department also is offering new classes to UK students who are not majoring in art. As part of changes to UK’s general education requirements, undergraduates must take courses that teach hands-on creativity. One option is visual art.

To help teach those classes, the Art Department recently hired seven non- tenure track faculty from among more than 100 applicants compiled in a nationwide search, Withers said.

“With these new faculty, it will bring a new set of artists into Lexington who will get involved in things all over town,” Withers said.

The Art Department has about 300 undergraduate majors and 30 graduate students, and over the years it has been able to attract some outstanding artists as faculty members, including Arturo Alonzo Sandoval and the late John Tuska.

But the program wasn’t accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design until 2008, largely because of its shabby facilities, Withers said. For all of the Reynolds Building’s large, well-lit spaces, the converted tobacco warehouse on South Broadway was a dump. The building is finally getting some long-needed safety renovations.

But because a proper renovation of the Reynolds Building would be so expensive, UK hopes to renovate another former tobacco warehouse around the corner on Bolivar Street and move the art department there. Renovating that building, which developer Rob McGoodwin converted into the University Lofts several years ago, would be about $2 million cheaper than a Reynolds Building rehab for about the same amount of space.

If the General Assembly approves the project this winter, Withers hopes the new building can be ready for classes by fall 2013. The building is more conveniently located, and in addition to providing much-improved studio space, it would give the Art Department a more visible public profile.

“We’re misleading our children when we tell them it’s all about computer technology and rote learning,” Withers said of education. He said research shows the value of creativity in business success and the increasing importance of visual literacy in society.

“People get more information from images these days than they do from language,” he said. “That’s what we have to prepare the next generations of citizens for.”