John David and Mary Helen Myles’ house is a classic example of what people think of when they hear the phrase, “my old Kentucky home.” But as his new book explains, these iconic buildings are rapidly disappearing.
Myles, a lawyer and former circuit court judge, recently published “Historic Architecture of Shelby County, Kentucky, 1792-1915,” with an introduction by historian John E. Kleber, who edited the encyclopedias of Kentucky and Louisville.
“I literally had some people say, ‘Is there enough in Shelby County to make a book?’” Myles said. “Actually, there’s a remarkable amount of stuff.”
Indeed there is. Anyone interested in architectural history will find this book fascinating. And there is no need to be familiar with Shelby County, which stretches along Interstate 64 between Frankfort and Louisville. The county, created the year Kentucky became a state (1792) and named for first governor, Isaac Shelby, has an architectural history similar to many others in Central Kentucky.
Agricultural wealth, slave labor and cultural aspirations inspired pioneer landowners to create unique examples of popular architectural styles throughout the 1800s. They progressed with fashion from log cabins and stone farmhouses to Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Victorian mansions.
This well-written book has a wealth of old pictures Myles collected from archives and newspapers, as well as recent photographs he made. His legal training helped him trace the ownership histories for many of the properties he discusses.
Myles also was helped by having been given the files of Frances Cottongim (1920-1998), who had surveyed and researched Shelby County architecture for decades.
Where Myles’ book becomes depressing is when he shows an old photograph of an amazing building, then tells when it was demolished or shows a picture of how it is being left to collapse from neglect. “I do a bit of preaching in this book,” he admitted.
For example, in discussing three stone houses from the early 1800s, Myles describes one that now “ignominiously shelters cattle who are doubtlessly as unimpressed with its splayed window reveals, carefully fitted stone jack arches, six panel door and box cornice as are its present owners.”
Myles, 62, grew up in Shelby County and was always fascinated by architecture, even though he pursued a law degree and career after Centre College.
“Any time I saw an old building that looked abandoned, I had to go in and see it,” he said. “My father worried about getting calls that I had been arrested for trespassing.”
Myles and his wife took on a big challenge in 2002 when they bought 26 acres near the Jefferson County line that included the John Dale House, built by a farmer and Baptist preacher about 1839. The house was filled with trash, had rotten floor joists below the parlor, one wall about to collapse and a rear brick kitchen beyond repair.
On the other hand, the handsome Greek Revival structure had suffered few clumsy “modernizations” over the years. Most of its poplar and ash floors were sound and it still had original woodwork throughout, which Myles painstakingly stripped. The graceful staircase in the center hall was intact except for one missing spindle, which had been replaced with a tobacco stick.
After a lot of work and investment, the Myles now live in a beautifully furnished showplace. The restoration won awards from the Kentucky Heritage Council’s Ida Lee Willis Memorial Foundation and the non-profit group Preservation Kentucky.
Myles’ career as an author began when he wrote a chapter on architecture for Kleber’s 2003 book “The History of Shelby County, Kentucky.”
“From that point on, I knew I wanted to do a much more in-depth and better looking version of that chapter,” Myles said. “The generation that still knew and cared was passing, and I thought this book would be a way for a certain amount of that knowledge to survive.”
As Shelby County increasingly becomes a Louisville bedroom community, Myles fears more historic buildings will be demolished to make way for subdivisions, highways and strip malls. He ends the book with a plea for their preservation.
“They will determine if Shelby County continues to be known as a community with deep roots and an abiding love and respect for its history,” he writes, “or is just another (interstate) exit along the way to someplace more interesting.”