Central Kentucky's grand mansions and horse farms have been fodder for pretty picture books for more than a century, at least since Thomas A. Knight's Country Estates of the Bluegrass came out in 1904.
Of the many books I have seen, the best has just been published: Pieter Estersohn's Kentucky: Historic Houses and Horse Farms of Bluegrass Country (Monacelli Press, $60).
The photographs are stunning, as they should be. Estersohn, 53, is one of America's top "shelter" magazine photographers. He has shot covers for Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, Southern Accents, Metropolitan Home and many other big magazines. This is his 23rd book.
What makes this book especially interesting and authentic are the places Estersohn chose to photograph. There are only a few of the usual suspects, too important to omit: Waveland, Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate.
Many of the other 15 properties are not well-known, even to many Kentuckians, but they are some of the most precious architectural gems of the Bluegrass. That didn't happen by accident. Estersohn had inside help.
In a telephone interview, Estersohn said he and Antony Beck, owner of Gainesway Farm, have been best friends since they were 19. The New York-based photographer said he and his son, Elio, 10, have been visiting the farm regularly for years.
"It's sort of like our home away from home," he said. "It's just such a magical environment to be on that farm. Antony's landscaping is amazing."
Beck suggested the book, and Estersohn quickly agreed. For more than a year, the photographer made quick trips to Kentucky between other jobs, scouting locations and making pictures. The initial focus was on equine culture, but the emphasis soon shifted to the much-loved examples of historic preservation Estersohn found.
"I wanted to find a balance," Estersohn said, "between some things that were more humble and some things that were more extravagant and some things that were really over the top."
Beck opened doors for Estersohn, and his key local contact was antiques dealer Gay Reading, owner of The Greentree Tea Room. Reading, who wrote the book's well-informed introduction, has a curator's eye and extensive local connections.
"He wanted a variety of styles and periods, and I chose places I thought were special and different," Reading said. "Unless you're a friend, you don't get to see many of these gems. They are places where people are really living."
Estersohn said he was charmed by the houses he photographed, their owners and the houses' varied stages of restoration. He was especially impressed by Ward Hall in Georgetown, one of the nation's largest and finest Greek Revival mansions.
Other highlights were Walnut Hall, where Margaret Jewett has preserved the ornate Victorian decorations her grandfather put there in the 1890s, and Elley Villa, an elegant Gothic Revival mansion near the University of Kentucky campus that was condemned before being lovingly restored by James and Martha Birchfield.
"I loved Mary Lou's place," Estersohn said of the 1792 farmhouse restored in the 1960s by horsewoman and socialite Mary Lou Whitney. "It's sort of like a time piece. It's a very specific expression of decoration, which I think is amazing."
Other featured properties include Gainesway Farm; the Simpson Farm in Bourbon County, built in 1785 as a pioneer station; Welcome Hall near Versailles; Clay Lancaster's Warwick estate in Mercer County; Overbrook Farm; the Alexander Moore and Thomas January houses downtown; and Liberty Hall in Frankfort.
Estersohn photographed Botherum as its new owners, garden designer Jon Carloftis and Dale Fisher, were beginning their restoration. And he was moved by the much- damaged Pope Villa, the most significant house designed by America's first great architect, Benjamin Latrobe.
"For Pope Villa, I hope we can elicit some financial attention so that it can be further renovated," Estersohn said. "It is a very, very, very important piece of American architecture."
Estersohn said he photographed the houses with a large-format digital camera. He used mirrors to even out natural light and illuminate dark corners and cavernous rooms.
Each chapter is accompanied by text that is well-researched and tightly written. Inexplicably, though, there is no text with the final chapter to explain the Iroquois Hunt Club.
"I thought the biggest challenge was going to be enrolling people to have their private residence shot, which is oftentimes the issue shooting for magazines in New York," Estersohn said. "But I think there was such a regional pride and appreciation. Every single person was enthusiastic and wanted to contribute to the book."
The photographer said what he enjoyed most about this project was "developing a very intimate experience" with the Bluegrass.
"I really feel like I know the area," he said. "I can get around there very easily now. I know all the pikes. I know how to say Versailles."