Get creative; blend historic buildings into new UK plans

March 17, 2014 

Bill Johnston, co-chair of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation's Community Preservation and Education Committee, is president of the Historic Western Suburb Neighborhood Association and serves on the Vacant Property Review Commission.

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  • At issue: Feb. 1 Herald-Leader article, "UK approves razing sites to build new dorms; student center redesign moves ahead"

In the 1950s, some 60 years after the Victorian heyday, I remember Victorian architecture being viewed by everyone that I knew as strange and ridiculous.

Now, everyone I know views Victorian architecture as a style to be coveted. Looking at the modifications made by property owners in the late 19th century to their early 19th century buildings is a similar example.

In order to make them more in keeping with the architecture of the times, many of those early 19th century buildings were significantly modified in the late 19th century, effectively rejecting the buildings' original architectural style.

Rejecting recently out-of-date architectural styles, and later embracing those same styles is to be expected. The "this is my father's style" thought-pattern has to be worked through before design styles can be more objectively evaluated. (Someday, we may all covet Chevy Vegas? Surely not.) It appears to take several generations to appreciate the creativity in a given generation's architecture.

Mid-century Modern, the style of which a high percentage of the University of Kentucky's threatened buildings are classified, is still viewed by many as stark, boring, old-fashioned and dated. It is not an ornate style so one has to look more closely to see its elegance.

It reflected the early 20th-century movement to represent artistic vision in a more simplified or abstract way. Mid-century Modern's heyday ran from 50 years to 80 years ago.

But like the Victorian style, one can imagine how interesting the good examples of the Mid-century Modern style of architecture will be viewed not that many decades from now.

Having an abundance of these building styles on the UK campus is not something we should take lightly; rather we can view having these well-executed buildings as an opportunity. Preserving and embracing these buildings will not only give the university a unique asset, but will help preserve an important piece of our cultural history. At UK, this style was executed with a Kentucky twist: its brickwork.

The unique and ornate brickwork on these buildings was a result of the masonry background architect Ernst Johnson gained by studying the work of his father, a brickmason, and his own experience as a brickmason while working his way through college.

Many universities adaptively reuse their historic and iconic buildings.

Examples include Baldwin-Wallace, St. Edward's in Austin, and the University of Chicago. Washington University in St. Louis has made a concerted effort to reuse over 500,000 square feet of 100-year-old buildings on its campus. Boston University has had an adaptive reuse program since 1971 to preserve its historic buildings.

Our federal and state governments both have tax credits in place to facilitate the rehabilitation of historic buildings and their adaptive reuse. While UK pays no taxes, there are various ways other non-tax-paying institutions have used to make use of these credits.

If done well, an adaptive reuse coupled with needed new expansion can result in interesting and exciting buildings that are unique and bring along the history of UK's campus with it.

Creative financing and non-conventional design may not be as easy as scraping a site and throwing up a quickie building.

But with the talent and creativity in Lexington and at UK, it shouldn't be that difficult to accomplish something much better. Lexington and UK have in-house talent that is nationally known in preservation, adaptive reuse, and in the use or resale of various tax credits.

But one has to decide to be creative, rather than just taking the obvious route and becoming common. Continuing with the university's planned demolition is a complete disconnect for a place where creativity and new thinking are encouraged.

UK is connected to Lexington at the hip, knees, hands and everywhere else. If UK becomes common, then Lexington is hurt. With a little imagination (common in a world-class university), we can have our cake (UK's unique history) and eat it too (meet the needs of the 21st century student).

Bill Johnston, co-chair of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation's Community Preservation and Education Committee, is president of the Historic Western Suburb Neighborhood Association and serves on the Vacant Property Review Commission.

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