Liberty Hall in Frankfort, Kentucky has been the home to two U.S. Senators, one vice-presidential candidate, one Governor of Missouri, one Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, one Ambassador to France, one U.S. District Attorney, three U.S. Army colonels, two doctors, one newspaper editor, and it is the ancestral home of beloved children’s author Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon (who sometimes published under the nom de plume, Kaintuck Brown!). It is also US National Historic Landmark.
Like Liberty Hall on Facebook to keep up to date with its restoration, see historic photos of the house and its grounds, and to read timely snippets of letters written by those who lived in the house, like this one posted in June, “‘Our June apples are now in perfection…’ Margaretta Brown wrote to her son Orlando Brown in 1819. While Orlando was away at college at Princeton University, Margaretta wrote him often with news from home. Orlando was fond of apples, and while our June apples are not in perfection, the tree on our site is currently bearing fruit!” In another recent post, Margaretta’s letter referenced the excessive July heat 200 years ago! Little nuggets like these serve as a great reminder of how places connect us to our history, don’t you think?
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.
Touted as the “Good, Bad, and Ugly Tour,” general manager Gerald Marvel gave our group free reign to roam the magnificent 1930’s Georgian Revival mansion known as Spindletop Hall. Named after Spindletop Field, where Frank and Pansy Yount struck oil, Spindletop Hall was established in 1935 on 800 acres of land in Fayette County. At a cost of one million dollars (over 40 million today!), construction of Spindletop Hall took two years to complete. The widowed Mrs. Yount intended the the house to be a showplace – it was and still is.
It is currently owned by the University of Kentucky. It is a private club open to faculty, alumni and friends of the university. You may recognize it from the Disney film, Secretariat. Portions of the movie were filmed at the estate!
It’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places was recently approved by the Kentucky Heritage Council. Management is awaiting word on the NRHP’s final approval.
By all accounts, Pansy Yount was a devoted mother, an unassuming millionaire, a generous spirit and a spit-fire who bucked tradition. After the love of her life, Frank Yount, died, Pansy fulfilled their dream of owning an award-winning Saddlebred horse farm in Kentucky with grit and determination. When workers realized midway through construction just how much Pansy was worth, they dug their heels in. Without blinking, Pansy doubled their wages (from $1 a day to $2) and they were back to work before lunch. Unfortunately, her lavish spending during the Great Depression (locals would travel out to the farm to watch construction just for the entertainment!) rubbed Lexington blue-bloods the wrong way. When construction was completed, Pansy planned a huge and extravagant celebration. She flew in French chefs and fancy ingredients. And no one showed up.
Undeterred by the snub, Pansy said to hell with them and lived her life any way she pleased. She wore house-dresses into town (both unfashionable and inappropriate for a woman of her social status), dined with her staff (another faux pas!), and generally ignored Lexington high society.
Spindletop Hall was designed in the Georgian Revival style – it utilized classic form and design elements, however, it was constructed using modern materials and with modern technologies in mind. The two most interesting examples are the use of concrete in the structure and the installation of the Kimball reproducing organ. The bulk of Spindletop’s structural elements were fabricated with concrete, but the material was manipulated in such a way as to fool the casual observer. The concrete forms were designed to impress a wood-grain pattern into the material. The concrete is only recognizable in the basement and attic where it has been left exposed. The most impressive example of the skill and workmanship involved in the house’s concrete fabrication is the circular double staircase located in the entry hall. (At the time of construction, it was the largest circular staircase in Kentucky). All floors, including the attic, rest on 4-7 inch thick reinforced concrete and are the only per-fabricated elements in the house – everything else was constructed on site by a team of artisans, carpenters, and other skilled laborers.
Mrs. Yount’s beloved daughter, Mildred, was a talented musician. In order to accommodate the Kimball reproducing organ purchased for her, a large part of the house was designed around the extensive pipes and mechanics of the organ. Much of its inner workings are built beneath the classic Georgian Revival porch. The mechanics also stretch into the basement and attic. The organ was played manually or in conjunction with a Welte reproducing machine which used specially recorded paper rolls. The sound was funneled from the luxurious music room throughout the mansion thanks to a sophisticated system of speakers. Staff loaded the Welte with a selection of music each morning and inserted a hand-written list into state-of-the-art remote controls installed in six rooms of the house. At a press of a button in any of the six rooms, the song of your choice would play throughout the house. The organ, the Welte reproducing machine, most of the paper scrolls, and the remote controls are still in place at the estate. Plans for a half a million dollar refurbishment to get it back in working order is underway.
Other unique technological amenities included individual thermostats in each of the mansion’s forty rooms, 14 modern bathrooms (which included bath tubs and showers with 10 spray heads each), swimming pools, an intercom system, a six bay garage, and copper plumbing, pipes, fittings and roofs.
There is so much to say about Spindletop Hall, I had to break this into more than one post. Check back later today for descriptions and photographs of Spindletop’s incredible interiors and grounds!
A weekly round-up of my favorite preservation stories from around the web and in the news.
The Homes and Hovels of Literary Greats
Flavor Wire: Cultural News and Critique offered us a little virtual tourism this week. Check out their A Google Maps Tour of Famous Authors’ Homes to see where your favorite author spent his/her formative years or cooked up their tallest tales. Though not all the sites offered by the tour are historical (architecturally speaking) and not all of the buildings that sheltered our literary heroes are still standing, the tour is a fun way to spend a few minutes while you count this Friday down to the start of Labor Day weekend.
How We Threaten Our Own Legacy
A guest post on Preservation Nation by Seattle heritage writer Knute Berger points out that for-profit developers (who are often cast as the greedy antagonists in preservation sagas) are not always responsible for the wrecking ball. The government, public entities and public projects are sometimes the trouble – motivated by the misguided notion that “their will embodies an unquestioned public good” or because they are underfunded and neglect historical places under their care.
By now we’ve all heard about the botched restoration of Elías García Martínez’s “Ecce Homo.” While most of us have either reacted in horror or had a good laugh (or both – one must cope somehow!), Art historian, Stefla of Florence and the Historian wrote a great post In “Defense” of a Hack-job Restoration. She points out that the elderly woman responsible for the damage was motivated by love of the piece and it was not an out-and-out act of vandalism, that professional conservators make mistakes (sometimes out of sheer carelessness), and that this situation has brought a great deal of attention to the plight of many Spanish churches – they don’t have the funds to care for their historic frescoes and other works. Perhaps the loss of this one fresco will result in additional funds to maintain others – a blessing in (a tragically furry) disguise.
Cookie Monster Cookie Recipe
I realize that not all food can be linked to heritage and preservation, but it’s COOKIE MONSTER’S RECIPE! It does date from the 1970s so I think we can at least call it vintage. And, of course, there is a case to be made for Sesame Street as a mainstay of American culture… Regardless, I think you should on over to theKitchn and whip a batch of these over the weekend. Go ahead! You can ponder culture and heritage while you do it 😉
(PS Cookie Girl, this is for you!)
Tesla, The Oatmeal, and Preservation
My favorite story this week comes from NPR. The only remaining laboratory of Nikola Tesla, one of the greatest American inventors, was vacant and neglected but may soon be purchased so that it can be turned into a museum, thanks to an Internet campaign that raised nearly a million dollars in about a week. After Jane Alcorn, president of a nonprofit group called The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, put out an SOS for funds to purchase the dilapidated warehouse on Facebook asking her contacts to “send out the word to celebrities or people with deep pockets or anyone they thought might be able to give us assistance,” Michael Inman, a famous online cartoonist also known as The Oatmeal got involved. (Inman had previously published “Why Nikola Tesla was The Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived.) As of this writing, they campaign has raised $1,178,162, surpassing their goal of $850,000. Who knew social media and the internet could be the key to preservation success?!
Have a wonderful weekend!
A place can can get into the bones of a community. It can define its landscape. It can become a part of its culture – a feature in its folklore.
The Bluegrass Army Depot (BGAD) in central Kentucky has been a fixture of the Madison County landscape and a centerpiece in Madison County culture since the early 1940s. The 15,000 acre site dominates the scenery between Richmond and Berea (Madison County’s two largest cities) and harbors federally protected plant-life. It is one of its largest employers, and is a prominent feature in the area’s folklore . UFOs, secret weapons and alien technology are only a few of the common rumors.
Oh yeah, and it’s home to more than 500 tons of chemical weapons.
Chemical Weapon Storage
BGAD has been a chemical weapon storage facility since 1942. Although the US canceled its chemical weapons program in the 1960s, 44 of BGAD’s 900 storage bunkers contain them – many of which are 60s era rockets, the rest date from WWII .
Dozens of plans for their destruction or removal from the depot have been proposed over the decades to no avail – chemical weapons are difficult to destroy or move safely. But there is an end in sight. Since 1997, the US has destroyed 90% of its chemical weapons and BGAD is one of only two facilities that have ongoing destruction programs. A facility to neutralize the mustard, sarin and VX agents contained in 101,000 rockets and artillery pieces stored at the depot is currently under construction. It will be complete in 2020, at which point the 3 year process to neutralize the weapons (the process breaks the chemicals down into carbon dioxide, water, and salt) will begin.
Madison County Landscape
Berea Road/Highway 421 links Madison County’s two largest cities, Richmond and Berea. As one travel south from Richmond toward Berea, commercial development suddenly stops on the left, just past Clark-Moores Middle School. For about five miles, commercial and manufacturing development is crowded on the right before giving way to farmland, while the other side of the highway is dominated by seemingly unspoiled, rolling hills and fields of grazing cattle – idyllic except for the tall razor wire fencing marked “US PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING.” The bucolic scene is also occasionally interrupted by guarded and barricaded entrances, stopped rail cars in the distance, and flood lights. To the unsuspecting, the tableau is at the very least bizarre, if not a little creepy.
Oddly enough, a by-product of cordoning off the land to all by cattle was the creation of the perfect habitat for a rare and endangered species of clover. Running Buffalo Clover is a federally endangered species that grows in only three geographical areas. It requires periodic disturbance and a somewhat open habitat to successfully flourish. The depot’s decision to lease acreage to farmers for grazing cattle, resulted in the periodic disturbances required by the clover.
Madison County Culture
The US Army is not known for its transparency and its operations at BGAD are no different. It is not difficult to imagine more is going on behind the razor wire fence and guarded entrances, and Madison County residents have done just that. Rumors abound regarding leaks (some substantiated), the purpose behind the grazing cattle, and other mysteries. In recent years, the depot has made an effort to court the good will of the community by opening the land for seasonal hunting and fishing, a golf course, and a “Living Memorial” to Kentucky service members killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
Additionally, several historical sites are enclosed in the BGAD compound. A portion of the Battle of Richmond battlefield is behind BGAD’s fence. The depot allows a reenactment to take place on BGAD property each year. A portion of Daniel Boone’s Trace also lies on BGAD property. The depot allows (and encourages) civilians to tour the facility including its grounds. There is little evidence that BGAD is not a good steward of Madison County’s history. It is possible that the battleground and wagon trail have been preserved because BGAD has prevented development of the land. A scenic overlook allows motorists to view the battefield and wagon trail from the highway, as well as read the seven historical markers located there.
Despite the small percentage of acreage dedicated to the storage of chemical weapons, leaks and fear of leaks have punctuated the local news and collective psyche for decades. Rumors of undocumented leaks persist and there is at least one documented case. In 1979, 40 people with residences near the depot were hospitalized due to a toxic cloud released at BGAD. The army denied the incident for weeks. This denial likely compounded fears that the army detected leaks in the past and did not notify the public and that it could happen again.
BGAD’s lack of transparency has probably also contributed to a persistent rumor about the cattle seen on BGAD property. The official story is that the depot leases unused land to area farmers for grazing, however, the rumor is that the cattle are actually an early detection precaution in case underground bunkers leak. The theory is that if a leak occurred, the cattle would quickly be effected by the deadly gas giving BGAD personnel a chance to respond to the leak before the situation could escalate.
Even more far-fetched are the rumors of UFOs, alien technology and other top secret goings-on. It has been claimed that BGAD stores UFOs in its underground bunkers and/or engineers at the depot are using alien technology to “reverse-engineer” advanced flight technology for the government. It has also been claimed that the depot is a testing facility for top-secret cutting edge flight technology of all kinds.
The culture of fear and suspicion is introduced to Madison County children early. Not only are they exposed to rumors, but schools in Madison County are required to have emergency response plans for a chemical weapons leak. Plans range from evacuation to containment. As a substitute teacher in Madison County, I experienced practice drills for both types first hand. Some schools keep a number of buses on hand to evacuate students, and practice loading and unloading. Others corral students into gymnasiums or other large rooms then seal air vents with plastic and duct tape.
Madison County Economy
Not only is the depot a fixture of the landscape and local culture, it is a cornerstone of Madison County’s economy. The depot has an annual operating budget of more than $200 million dollars – that is $200 million dollars Madison County would lose if the depot were to close or move. It is also one of the county’s largest employers. Upwards of 13,000 people work at the depot, and its employees earn an average salary almost double the county average. For all the times BGAD has found itself in the news because of leaks or rumors, it makes headlines just as often because Kentucky politicians continually advocate for the depot and its economic importance.
What happens when the chemical weapons are gone?
It is unclear if the destruction of chemical weapons at the depot will effect jobs or operating costs at the depot, however, a possible 300 person lay-off was announced only a few weeks ago. It is also unclear how it will effect the community in other ways. Will the landscape change (downsized territory? more cattle – which could potentially effect the clover)? Will there be a generation gap between Madison County kids who practiced chemical weapons drills and those who didn’t (like the gap that exists between those who remember a time before TV or the internet or who remember when corporal punishment and segregation were legal in public schools)? Will the rumors of UFOs and top-secret technology fade with the fear of leaks and disaster? Only time will tell.
Here are few of my favorite preservation related posts from around blogland this week.
- Don’t miss Tom King’s delightfully frank comments on the Department of Interior’s “Listening Sessions.” King never hedges – his cutting and brutally intelligent arguments never fail to make you stop and think about a topic. This week he discusses the battle between the DOI and Native Americans over “sacred sites.”
- A Frank Lloyd Wright house in Arizona is in danger of demolition. Designed for Wright’s son, David, the house features a unique concrete facade and shares the same spiral concept as the Guggenheim. The National Trust for Historic Preservation spotlighted the house and efforts to save it on their blog, Preservation Nation.
- The brutal conflict taking place in Syria has dominated news headlines for months. In the last few weeks, reports have slightly shifted focus from political disarray and lives lost to the destruction of Syria’s infrastructure and its cultural heritage sites. The Global Heritage Fund has published several posts on their blog, Heritage on the Wire, highlighting damage done in Aleppo and other cities. This week, they published a story applauding the contributions of Emma Cunliffe, a 2010 Global Heritage Preservation Fellow, to the discussion. Of Cunliffe, the GHF wrote,”This year, she has shown the world that even in the wake of human tragedy, cultural heritage must not be forgotten.”
- This week on his blog, Time Tells, Vince Michael and Dr. Anthea Hartig, Executive Director of the California Historical Society answer the provocative question: “What is a Historical Society in the 21st Century?” They break it down by subject: society (aren’t we all one society?), archives and artifacts (how are they used?), exhibits and eduction (they make people care), preservation (collections and historic buildings often come as a packaged deal, but they aren’t necessarily good for each other), and place (most historical societies are place-based). Michael’s thoughtful blog never fails to impress and inspire.