Tom Eblen: Celebrate 250th birthday of architect who left his mark on Kentucky and nation

Herald-Leader Columnist,Tom EblenApril 26, 2014 

  • If you go

    What: Benjamin Latrobe's 250th birthday party

    When: 5 p.m. — 8 p.m., Thursday, May 1

    Where: Pope Villa, 326 Grosvenor Avenue

    Admission: Free, including house tours

    Information: (859) 253-0362, Bluegrasstrust.org

Thursday marks the 250th birthday of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, America's first professional architect of renown and a man who left a lasting impression on Kentucky.

Latrobe, who is best known for his work in the nation's capitol, had eight Kentucky commissions between 1802 and 1817, six of which were in Lexington and five of which were built. His designs influenced many Kentucky architects and builders, including Gideon Shryock and John McMurtry, setting the tone for much of the state's most iconic architecture.

Only one of Latrobe's Kentucky buildings survives, but it is among his most significant: Pope Villa in Lexington. The house will be open for free tours Thursday evening as the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which is slowly working to restore it, throws a birthday party for Latrobe and marks the beginning of National Preservation Month.

Latrobe was born in England in 1764 to a British father and American mother. He came to America in 1796 and died in New Orleans in 1820 after an illustrious career. Early on, his neo-classical designs caught the attention of Thomas Jefferson. Latrobe's work in Washington included the U.S. Capitol and White House porticos.

Patrick Snadon, a professor in the University of Cincinnati's School of Architecture and Interior Design, has studied Latrobe's Kentucky work, which he detailed in a chapter of the 2012 book, Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852.

Most of Latrobe's Kentucky projects were the result of his friendships with Rep. Henry Clay and Sen. John Pope. Snadon thinks Latrobe, the nation's most avant-garde architect of the time, found the Kentuckians willing clients for his ideas.

Latrobe's first project in the state, in 1803, was the First Kentucky Bank in Lexington, on Main Street just east of Wrenn Alley. It was demolished before the Civil War.

In 1807, Latrobe was asked to design First Presbyterian Church, which then was on Broadway at Second Street, where Broadway Christian Church now stands. But by the time Latrobe's detailed plans arrived, the church had already been built using a design that may or may not have followed his initial proposal. That building was demolished in 1857.

Latrobe designed three projects for Clay. The first was his Ashland mansion, 1811-1814. It was demolished after Clay's death in 1852 and rebuilt on the same foundation by Clay's son, James, and his architect, Thomas Lewinski.

Clay's influence led to Latrobe being asked in 1812 to design the Transylvania University building in what is now Gratz Park. But his plan was too big and costly, so trustees hired Lexington architect Matthew Kennedy instead. That building burned in 1829 and Transylvania moved north to its current location.

Clay asked Latrobe in 1813 to design several townhouses, shops and tenements for property he owned at the northwest corner of Short and Market Streets. Parlay Social and Dudley's on Short are now located in late 1800s buildings there that replaced Latrobe's structures.

Latrobe asked to design Kentucky's second state capitol when the first one burned in 1813. But when another project kept him from traveling to Kentucky, that job, too, went to Kennedy. Pope asked Latrobe in 1817 to design an armory for Frankfort, but it was never built.

Also in 1817, Latrobe designed a house in Newport for Gen. James Taylor. It was completed in 1819, but burned in 1842.

Pope Villa is perhaps the most significant house Latrobe designed. That is because Pope and his wife, Eliza, gave the architect freedom to express his radical ideas for what a "rational" American house should look like.

"Altogether, the Pope Villa is theoretically and spatially the most sophisticated house designed in federal-period America," Snadon wrote.

Pope Villa was a perfect square with service rooms on the first floor and main rooms on the second floor, which had a domed center rotunda with a skylight. It had full-length, three-panel windows upstairs that were widely copied in other Greek Revival houses in 1800s Kentucky.

When Pope wasn't re-elected to the Senate in 1813, he and his wife sold their new house. Later owners did everything they could to obliterate Latrobe's unique design. The remodeling included addition of a back wing and center hall, two then-common design elements that Latrobe hated.

Pope Villa was divided into apartments in the early 1900s. The Blue Grass Trust acquired the building in 1987 after a fire did considerable damage. Restoration according to Latrobe's original drawings has been slow, both because of a lack of money and uncertainty about Pope Villa's future use.

One idea at a brainstorming session last November was to use the reconstruction-in-progress interior as gallery space for contemporary art. An initial installation is planned this fall by the Lexington Art League. Details are still being worked out.

"It's going to be the first foray into the next step for the Pope Villa." said Sheila Ferrell, the Trust's executive director.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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