Latrobe’s Pope Villa

The Blue Grass Trust’s deTours  is a group of young professionals (and the young at heart).  The program provides behind-the-scenes tours of  historic buildings, places, and sites in central Kentucky.   BGT deTours are free and open to the public. They occur on the first Wednesday of every month.

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Latrobe’s Pope Villa in 2011. When built, the villa was isolated and was surrounded by several acres of forested rolling hills. The property was subdivided in 1900.  The villa is now within a neighborhood of moderate-sized twentieth century homes.  Image via The Kaintuckeean

Called “one of this country’s greatest treasures,” by Richard Moe, the Pope Villa in Lexington, Kentucky  was one of the most avant-garde buildings in the country when it was built in the early 1800s.  Designed by America’s “first professional architect” for a US Senator, the house was a cutting edge master piece.  As the home passed into subsequent hands, however, its genius was misunderstood or unrecognized and was soon altered to fit a more traditional mold. Buried under layers of additions, the house was eventually divided into student housing before suffering its final degradation, arson, in the 1980s.  Today the house is owned by the Blue Grass Trust and is being slowly and painstakingly restored.

To kick of Preservation Month, the BGT invited deTours to visit the house.  It was a rare behind-the-scenes look at a historic building mid-restoration/reconstruction. Behind the reconstructed facade,  architectural elements original to the interior lay propped against walls with exposed lathing and cracked plaster, waiting to be installed.  Upstairs, a structure of temporary pathways crisscrosses the vast rooms to provide safe passage for visitors who are curious about the second floor reception rooms for which the house is famous or the fire that nearly destroyed the building.  Charred beams, plaster, lathing and other evidence of the fire remain exposed.  Bits of the original wallpaper chosen by Eliza Pope still hang on the walls in some places. It is at once eery and exciting.  Eery because of the house’s state of suspended decay (one expects to catch sight of a ghost at every turn), exciting because so much of the house’s inner workings and historical elements are currently exposed to study.

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The interior of the villa is mid-reconstruction/restoration/conservation (click to enlarge). Counterclockwise from top left: the rotunda (notice the niche for statuary on the right), detail of remaining original dining room wallpaper, the dining room, bedchamber (notice the layers of plaster revealed), charred remnants, and the main receptions rooms (standing in the dining room looking toward the drawing room).

The Architect

Born and educated in England,  Benjamin Henry Latrobe emigrated to the United States in 1795 or 1796. Trained by neoclassical architect SP Cockerell and engineer John Smeaton, Latrobe quickly found commissions to design houses and public buildings in the US.  Having established himself as the foremost architect, engineer and designer in the country, President Thomas Jefferson appointed him surveyor of public buildings in 1803. As surveyor he was responsible for continuing design and construction of the White House and the US Capital building.

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Latrobe’s sketches of Pope’s villa showing a 2 story and 3 story option. Image via Period Homes Magazine

Over his illustrious career, Latrobe helped create a distinctly American style of architecture “elegantly austere exteriors which contained interiors rich in variety” and set a standard of professionalism that resonates today. He designed and collaborated on some of the country’s most important structures including the Bank of Pennsylvania (the first major Greek Revival building in the country), the Baltimore Basilica, the University of Pennsylvania, and Christ Church in Washington, DC. etc.

The Pope Villa is one of only three remaining residential buildings designed by Latrobe.

The Senator

While in Washington, Latrobe met John Pope, an attorney and US senator from Lexington, Kentucky.  “One-Arm” Pope (I’m not joking here, he literally had one arm due to a childhood farming accident), needed a summer home in Lexington to entertain guests and to use as a political base. He asked Latrobe to contribute a design – a move that would ensure that the summer home was the talk of Lexington. And it was, as much for its aesthetic and the reputation of Latrobe, as for the dignitaries that were entertained there.

Unfortunately, the entertaining was not done by Senator Pope.   Shortly after building the house, Pope lost his senate seat due to his opposition to the War of 1812, an extremely unpopular position in Kentucky.  His half English wife, Eliza, and house built by an Englishman did nothing to salvage his reputation.

The Popes resided at Pope Villa (also known as Pope Place) only a few short years. In 1816, Pope and his wife moved to Frankfort  he was (quite controversially) appointed Secretary of State.  The house was subsequently leased to a succession of well-positioned men who used it as a seasonal residence and for entertaining. In 1819, for example, Major William S. Dallam hosted a lavish reception for former President James Madison, General Andrew Jackson, former Kentucky Governor Isaac Shelby, and a who’s who list of other prominent Kentuckians.

Later,  Pope  formed a political alliance with President Andrew Jackson, who appointed him Governor of the Arkansas Territory.   As governor, he again collaborated with Latrobe. The two worked closely on a proposal for vast internal improvements of Western America, including highways, bridges and canals.

Pope went on to hold a number of other well-regarded political offices, but his Senate term remained the high point of his career.

Though Pope only lived in the house that bears his name for four years, he owned it for more than a quarter of a century. He did not sell the property until 1836.

The Villa

The Pope Villa is notable for the elegance of its design. It is believed to be the result of a close collaboration between Latrobe and Pope’s wife, Eliza. The design married his need for the pragmatic use of space and her sophistication. The result was an innovative plan that incorporated elements of neo-classical architecture and the picturesque and provided a wholly unique spacial concept for American residential architecture.

The cubed-shaped brick villa broke from tradition. It’s minimal facade is dominated by a one-story white portico composed of two Greek columns flanked by arches. The grand domed circular rotunda with skylight was unheard of for a residential structure. And the spacial plan defied the fashion of the day.  To enter the house, guests passed through  a doorway flanked by Ionic columns and large sidelights into a square hall, where they were welcomed into Mr. Popes office on the left, Eliza’s parlor on the right, or ushered upstairs where Latrobe placed the main reception rooms.  This was a departure from the long center hallway most guessed would have expected.

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“Latrobe’s plan for Pope Villa fused 16th-century Palladian and 18th-century picturesque landscape principles – a perfect square with a domed, circular rotunda in the center of the second story and an austere a variety of rectilinear and curvilinear rooms. Three sheets of drawings survive in the Library of Congress.” Image via Period Homes Magazine

Latrobe hated the center hall plan because it caused the co-mingling of guests, members of the household and servants.  He also despised the use of a rear-ell to house all the service functions. His plan cleverly concealed the servants and their goings-about while incorporating the laundry, kitchen and bake house within the main structure. Servants were able to discreetly move between floors by using a separate staircase and hidden corridors.

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Analysis of the circulation pattern created by Pope’s innovative floor plan. He called it a “rational plan.” Image via Exit Review

Aesthetically, Latrobe drew inspiration from 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, which probably appealed to Eliza, who grew up in London where she would have been exposed to other Palladio-inspired structures.  Unlike Palladio’s villas, however, Latrobe designed a series of rectilinear and curvilinear rooms for the interior of the Pope Villa.  These rooms were another break with tradition.  They were surprising not only for their shape, but also because they were dramatically splashed with light and shadow – Latrobe’s use of the term “scenery” to describe the effect reflects his loyalty 18th century Picturesque landscape design principles.

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Hypothetical reconstruction of the drawing as constructed, with original drapery wallpaper; dining room as designed by Latrobe (with furniture designed by Latrobe for other projects); rotunda as designed by Latrobe; and drawing room as designed by Latrobe(with furniture designed by Latrobe for other projects). (Digitally reconstructed by Stephanie Hawk, John Cheng, and Christopher Fahrmeier). Image via The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe

The Popes began construction of the villa around 1812, before Latrobe finished the designs.  Using local builder Asa Wilgus, they speculated and made changes as they went along, including enlarging the windows on the second floor and nixing the third floor attic story.  After the Popes were forced to sell the house, successive owners made additional changes to both interior and exterior, including a dramatic makeover by Thomas Lewinski, who was also responsible for Henry Clay’s Ashland estate.  At some point, a rear ell was added (I imagine Latrobe rolled over in his grave).  And later Victorian additions were made.  Eventually, the house was converted into ten apartments for local university students, obscuring Latrobe’s original plan almost entirely.

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The villa as it appeared the 1960s, 1940s, again in the 1960s, and rear additions in 2001. Images via the Kentucky Digital Library and MCWB Projects

A 1987 arson turned out to be a boon for the Pope Villa.  Though the fire destroyed the roof and damaged sections of the second floor, the blaze caused ownership of the building to fall to The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.  The BGT saved it from demolition  and from obscurity.   Its extensive research uncovered a wealth of knowledge about the house as an historic resource and made it famous in American architectural history/historic preservation circles.  It is now regarded as one of the most important buildings of Federal America.

Since the BGT acquired the Pope Villa, it has been a lab for restoration efforts, conservation techniques and research. Countless architectural historians, preservationists and craftsmen have studied the house and its restoration/conservation process or have made hands on contributions to research, restoration and conservation.

For more information about the process of restoring the villa, visit the links below:

Mesick-Cohen-Wilson-Baker Architects

Restoring Latrobe – Period Homes Magazine

The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation

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2 comments

  1. blancosblog

    Reblogged this on blancosblog and commented:
    What do you NOT know about Kentucky? You’ll never know until you know. Check out some of the rich history in the Commonwealth. Discover some KY landmarks nearest you this summer.

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