UK Trustees should vote to save historic campus buildings

May 8, 2014 

By Tom Meng, Bill Johnston and Sheila Ferrell

On Jan. 30, the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation presented to the public its 2014 endangered building list, referred to as the "Eleven in Their Eleventh Hour."

We focused on historic buildings on the University of Kentucky's campus that appear to either have little planned future use (per the university's Master Plan), or that have been specifically tagged for demolition.

Almost simultaneously with our announcement, the university's Board of Trustees voted Jan. 31 to approve the demolition of several of the buildings that appeared on our endangered list.

While this was not totally unexpected, it was disappointing; especially given the seeming lack of information shared with the trustees prior to that meeting.

With the trustees scheduled to meet today and Friday, we want each member to be aware of the historic and cultural significance of these buildings as well of the importance many Central Kentuckians place on them.

One of the buildings slated for destruction, the Hamilton House, was designed and built by John McMurtry, one of Central Kentucky's most respected 19th century architects. In the "Kentucky Historic Resources Inventory" this house has been referred to as "one of the most outstanding and intact examples of its kind in the metropolitan area." Removing this striking 19th century Italianate building will be a major loss to Lexington's heritage and streetscape.

Another building and grounds (the Mathews House and Garden) slated for removal was gifted to the university along with its unique native-plant garden, in order that it be preserved.

Most of the rest of the endangered buildings were designed by Ernst Johnson, a well-respected 20th century modernist architect who schooled and was friends with the world famous architect-designer, Eero Saarinen.

Included in this group is a building that played a significant role in the development of World War II aircraft engines, and in the NASA space monkey research.

These campus buildings have been referred to as being akin to a rare museum of mid-20th-century modernist architecture. To remove these unique buildings and erase them from the campus is destroying an important national resource, let alone an important part of UK's heritage and memory.

Since our announcement and the trustees' vote, this has been a major topic of conversation in Central Kentucky. Googling "Ernst Johnson" + "University of Kentucky" yields 8,760 results. They include blogs, Herald-Leader articles and editorials, lectures, etc. The intent of this letter is to ensure that UK trustees are also aware of the historic and cultural significance of these buildings as well as the importance many Central Kentuckians place on them.

As was quoted in The Washington Times, "UK officials said they spent a year talking with the community about the plan." We are aware that President Eli Capilouto and his staff have attended a lot of meetings with the surrounding community, much more so than his predecessors.

But much less contact was made with the preservation community. And while it is always hopeful when outsiders are allowed to present their position, if the presentation is ignored everyone has wasted their time.

We are asking that UK trustees help initiate a review of the Master Plan with an eye toward preserving these important structures.

Tom Meng is board president, Bill Johnston is chair of community preservation and Sheila Ferrell is executive director of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

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