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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
A weekly round-up of my favorite preservation related stories from around the web and in the news. Click on the title of each story to jump through to the original article/blog post.
Paris Then and Now – Voyage Voyage
Who doesn’t love side by side comparisons of historical photos and present day places? The descriptions here are in French, but it doesn’t matter. The slide show is delightful. It is amazing how much has stayed the same and how much has changed over the last 100 years in the City of Light.
In the Box – Three Months by Car
Among the post cards sent home by Dotty during her 3 month long, cross country road trip in 1929, was a newspaper clipping about a wild fire in Los Angeles that destroyed 500 acres. At the top of the clipping she wrote, “We saw this fire.” Not only is the clipping an interesting bit of ephemera, an interesting bit of history, and an interesting anecdote from their trip, it also exposes a difference in the way we communicate today as opposed to 1929. Today, it would have been necessary for Dotty send home a newspaper clipping to let her family know about a major event, her family would probably already know about the fire (and likely would have been calling/texting her to make sure she and her friends were ok!) from any number of national news outlets and social media: tv, radio, internet, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Shepton Mallet Prison has run the gamete of prison history in England. Prison historian, Francis Disney said of the prison’s early days, “There were times that were very terrible in the early days. The prisoners had no segregation, they were all mixed in together, men, women and children from nine years of age upwards and that carried on for many years until the prison reform act came in.” During World War II, the prison’s imposing 75-ft high stone walls housed the Magna Carta, the Domesday Book and the Logs of Nelson’s Flagship HMS Victory for protection. When it closed this week due to budget cuts, it was one of the country’s top rehabilitative institutions. It is unclear what will happen to the facility in the future.
Fascinating story! Every Monday, conservators spend time cleaning, repairing, and maintaining the grandiose 17th century chateau and its collections. “There’s always an equilibrium to be struck between preserving the history of the palace and operating in the 21st century, a constant pull between conservation and creation,” Catherine Pegard, president of Versailles, says. “But the better the conservation is, the more creative we can be.” The team at Versailles also spends a good deal of time tracking down lost artifacts. During the Revolution, the house was emptied – pieces can be found all over the world! Versailles’ curators eagerly scour estate sales and auctions looking for items from the palace – they found Marie Antoinette’s brocade bedspread in New York in the 1960s!
A weekly round-up of my favorite preservation related stories from around the web and in the news.
HerKentucky highlighted Louisville’s Palace Theater this week, showing that you don’t have to be a “building hugger” or a even a “preservationist” to appreciate the beauty of historic buildings, a beautiful restoration, or what they can mean to a city. The Palace Theater is a Louisville icon. It was originally constructed in the 1920s and was restored in in 1994, after many years of neglect. The theater plays host to classic films, comedy and broadway productions, and is a favorite concert venue. Cold Play, Fiona Apple, ZZ Top, and Melissa Etheridge have played the Palace. And Alison Kraus recorded a live album here.
I love Mad Men. Who cares about the story – I just want to spend an hour drooling over those incredible mid-century sets every week! Unfortunately, they are just that. Sets. Docomomo (a non-profit organization dedicated to the documentation and conservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the modern movement) points out that the show’s masterminds are really missing out an opportunity to use and showcase real interiors (and exteriors) from the 1960s that still exist, rather than recreating them on a sound stage in California. What say you? Does it matter that they are using sets not the real deal? Either way, it can’t be denied that the popularity of the show has renewed attention to mid-century design.
Wedgewood sherds are not uncommon archeological discoveries at historic house sites and are incredibly helpful for dating the time of occupation. Check out Apartment Therapy’s retrospect to learn about Josiah Wedgewood, his brilliant marketing strategy, political ties, and manufacturing breakthroughs.
Game theory, preservation, and community are blended in this post on Rustwire in a proposal to help neighborhoods in “transition” swing toward home ownership and renewal rather than absentee landlords and neglect. The proposal is this – 1) find a neighborhood in transition with attractive amenities and a number of properties for sale, 2) gather a group of potential buyers to view the houses and mingle, 3) interested buyers sign contingent contracts with “the necessary legalese” to purchase the home of their choice if x number of other “block party” participants also agree to buy a house, thereby negating the fear that the other houses on the block will not be sold to owner-occupants and the neighborhood will transition in a negative way, property values will drop, etc. Check out the original post submitted by Anonymous for a more detailed description. Anonymous, you are brilliant!
More Art in Lexington
Last week, I wrote a post about the sound installation Surface Reflections in downtown Lexington, Kentucky. Even as I was writing the post, more public art was going up just a few blocks away.
German street art duo, Herakut, painted a mural on the south facing wall of 156 Market Street at the back of an unsightly asphalt parking lot. The wall is visible from Cheapside Park, a center of downtown activity and recent downtown renewal. The mural, “Lily and the Silly Monkeys,” creates a focal point that pulls the eye through the market pavilion at the park and up away from the parking lot, and is ultimately framed by the spire of historic Christ Church Cathedral.
Judging from the daily excitement surrounding the mural’s creation, I think that Lexingtonians are happy with this new addition to downtown. When I visited the mural Thursday afternoon, a small enthusiastic crowd was gathered at the foot of the wall watching artists Jasmin “Hera” Siddiqui and Falk “Akut” Lehman work. Siddiqui paused to talk with some school children, and explained one component of the piece – a visual pun. The “horse fly” is a white horse with the wings of a dragonfly. (One kid smartly piped up, isn’t that a Pegasus? Saddiqui patiently and with a big smile pointed out the difference in wings – a Pegasus has bird wings, you see.)
Late Thursday afternoon, the artists moved along to the corner of North Limestone and East Sixth Street to paint a second mural on the wall of the former Spaldings Bakery building. This block of North Limestone has been experiencing its own revitalization. Recently an art gallery, Homegrown Press, and North Lime Coffee and Donuts opened alongside longtime favorite, Al’s Bar. A free book exchange, rehabilitated historic houses, and inspirational quotes stenciled on the side walk have also sprung up around the intersection. It promises to become an artistic hub. The placement of the Herakut mural is striking. It can be seen for blocks as you approach the intersection, and the character looks as if she is being sheltered by the building. It features the quote, “It was a beautiful moment when the little giant woke up to see where dreams come from.”
The team works quickly with spray paint, rollers, brushes and a cherry picker to bring their characters to life in dramatic scale and detail. The pieces are the first installments of a special children’s book project, which centers around Lily, whom Saddiqui describes as a “stubborn little girl.” Herakut has painted murals in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Berlin. They have published two books previously.
Art, Revitalization, and Preservation
Recent studies have found a strong correlation between downtown revitalization and art, therefore, it definitely seems as if Lexington is moving in the right direction. And Herakut’s choice of locations, two areas experiencing a renaissance, is telling. Historic places that are thriving, can be great for historic preservation. Buildings are maintained and adapted for new purposes and the community acts as a steward of the built environment in the best cases. However, as much as I love the murals and the sense of community that developed around their creation, I worry about the effect of painting directly onto the side of historic structures. Murals, no matter how beautiful, alter the historic appearance of the building and effect historic integrity.
The mural located on Market Street is less troublesome (to me), because it doesn’t detract from the architectural character of the building. The wall is not a primary elevation and lacks architectural detail. It is mostly a blank canvas, punctuated by just a few windows. It probably bordered an ally at one time. Facing the building head on, no one would ever never know that the mural is around the corner.
The mural on North Lime, however, is another story. The mural distracts from the lovely arched windows and doorways and other Italianate details of the building. Because it is painted on a prominent (though not the primary) elevation, it is obtrusive. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, it is not necessarily preservation friendly. On the other hand, the larger- than-life modern mural announces that the intersection is being used in a new way – a hip artsy commercial/residential area. It’s exciting and builds on the history of the neighborhood. (Although, that opens up another can of worms entirely with concerns about gentrification – but that’s fodder for another post sometime in the future).
A final concern is the permanency of paint. I don’t know if spray paint actually damages historic brick, but I do know that paint removal is costly and has the potential to be very damaging. A future owner of either building may have to make the decision to remove the mural at some point, which would mean damaging the brick or painting over the mural. So then you have a brick building that was not painted historically, being painted… which again, effects its integrity. You see where I’m going here.
What do you think? Do you love murals on historic structures? Do you prefer community murals or murals designed and executed by artists? Or do you think there is no place for murals in historic neighborhoods and districts (unless they are historic themselves)?
A weekly round-up of my favorite preservation stories from around the web and in the news.
Preservation and Place expanded on an NBC News story about a new trend at cemeteries – QR codes. The same codes you see on product packaging and advertisements are now being encoded with information about the life and death of the deceased. P&P pondered how this technology could be applied to historic cemeteries – creating a dialogue between the past and present. Expanding on this idea – could QR codes be the future of interpretation at historical sites in general? I can easily imagine a QR code tucked into the corner of informational signs and panels offering access to more information and resources – photographs, audio, video, etc.
Is this being done anywhere yet?
Gensler proposed a floating airport in the Thames estuary as a solution for London’s aviation needs. The futuristic design seems completely unrealistic, but it would provide a solution to the large land needs of airports, which sometimes swallow up entire neighborhoods.
Turns out that the small arts and science museum I grew up going to has had a rare Picasso piece in storage for half a century. I had no idea! Know why? Neither did they! The piece had been mislabeled as a work by Gemmaux (the plural of the glass working technique used to make the piece). Museum curating and preservation are not the same profession, but there is some overlap. Take heed historic house museums with collections! Catalog them carefully! (And maybe review what you have every now and then).
The National Trust pulled together 10 common preservation terms for their Ten on Tuesday series. If you get confused between renovate, remodel, and reconstruct, head on over to find exactly how they are different and more!