Richard Isenhour was a chemical engineer at Dupont in the late 1940s when he questioned his career choice in a letter to the Lexington woman who he would marry.
"The kind of job I'd like would be one that's creative and always changing, where I can see what I'm accomplishing," he wrote Lenora Henry. "I'd like to work on things I can improve."
The Isenhours moved to Lexington in 1952, and he took up the occupation of his father-in-law, homebuilder A.R. Henry. Before long, Isenhour began looking for ways to improve his houses with modern styles and materials, as well as new ideas about how a house should function.
Isenhour went on to earn an architecture degree at the University of Kentucky and design and build nearly 100 unique homes in Lexington between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s. Now locally famous, these "Isenhour houses" were some of the first contemporary-style homes built in Lexington.
Larry Isenhour, a retired architect and one of the Isenhours' four children, has just written a handsome, well-illustrated book documenting his father's work: The Houses of Richard B. Isenhour: Mid-Century Modern in Kentucky (Butler Books, $45) He will sign copies at 2 p.m., July 19, at The Morris Book Shop. Information about other book events: Greenschemedesign.com.
Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and later Modernist architects, as well as by contemporary homes he saw in magazines and on family vacations, Isenhour experimented. This was at a time when people from all over the country were moving to Lexington to work at IBM and UK's new College of Medicine.
His first bold design was for his own family's 1956 home on Blueberry Lane. It helped Isenhour find clients who wanted something different than a traditional brick box with shutters.
Isenhour's designs featured post-and-beam construction and open floor plans. They had exposed wooden beams, cathedral ceilings and walls of glass and local limestone. On building lots, he preserved as many trees as possible. His houses seem more spacious than their modest sizes, and they are as much about utility as style.
"Isenhour's best work is full of light, creating an inspirational sense of the blending of outdoors and indoors," Lexington architect Graham Pohl writes in the book's forward.
Jan and Phyllis Hasbrouck, a physician and nurse, came to Lexington in 1962 for his internship. They had grown up in Ithaca, N.Y., admiring contemporary architecture, so when they were ready to build a home, they asked Isenhour to design it.
"I've loved every bit of it — the glass, the stone, the openness," said Phyllis Hasbrouck, who has lived there since 1967. "I feel closed in when I'm in a regular home now where the ceilings are low."
But Isenhour houses were not for everyone. The book reproduces a 1968 letter a Lexington bank officer sent to one Isenhour client, declining his loan application. "We have difficulty in making the maximum loan on contemporary style homes because they are usually custom designed for a limited market," the letter said.
Larry Isenhour, who lives in a contemporary home of his own design, began working on the book soon after his father's death in 2006, collecting old drawings, photos and documents. His goal was to create a chronological catalog of his father's best work to show how it evolved.
"I worked in almost all of them, either as a kid picking up wood or drawing the plans," he said. But he never interviewed his father about the thought processes behind his designs — and wishes now that he had. Isenhour also had never written a book. Fortunately, his got help from his wife, Jan, a writer and retired director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.
Only one of the 98 Isenhour houses has been demolished. Most have been well cared for, expanded and updated as tastes and technologies changed. They have been especially sought-after in recent years with the renewed popularity of Mid-Century Modern style.
At least four of the houses are now owned by architects. One is Tom Fielder, who got to know Isenhour and his work when he was an architecture student at UK.
When Fielder moved back to Lexington in 1990, he wanted his three children to attend Glendover Elementary School. So he drove around that neighborhood, which has the largest concentration of Isenhour houses, until he found one for sale. Then he called his real estate agent and asked her to put in a contract on it.
"She said, 'I can't do a contract on a house when you haven't even seen the inside,'" he recalled. "I knew that Dick had designed the house and it was next to Glendover school. That's all the information I needed to know."