John Pope was one of early Kentucky’s most prominent lawyers and politicians: a state representative and senator, secretary of state, congressman, U.S. senator and governor of the Arkansas territory.
But he is remembered most for being an important patron of America’s first great architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
Latrobe designed parts of the U.S. Capitol and the White House — and a Lexington house for Pope that might have been the most unusual mansion built in the early republic.
A Latrobe expert says the architect’s ideas also can be seen in the last house Pope built, in the late 1830s, a block from the Washington County courthouse. It’s where Pope lived and practiced law while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. And where he died in 1845 at age 75.
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The house has Flemish-bond brick, original mantles, woodwork and floors. And it can be yours for $114,900. Just bring more money for restoration.
“This was called the most pretentious house in town when it was built,” said Eric Whisman, executive director of the Kentucky Trust for Historic Preservation.
The Trust is helping to market the house for a local couple who bought it a decade ago. Whisman said they have been so busy restoring other old houses that they haven’t gotten to it and realized they wouldn’t anytime soon.
“It's probably the nicest woodwork in Springfield,” he said. “There’s not an earlier, more formal-style house in town.”
The house has many unusual features, including narrow six-pane window sashes. But what is most unique is its design, which probably was more influenced by Pope’s recollection of Latrobe’s ideas than by those of the local builder, John Riley.
Latrobe hated raised basements and central hallways, both of which were common in American mansions of the period. This house has neither, said Patrick Snadon, an architectural historian at the University of Cincinnati and an authority on Latrobe’s house designs.
Instead of a central hall, Pope’s house has two front doors. The left one went to Pope’s office and bedroom; the right, to his parlor and other “social” rooms. An enclosed staircase on the right side of the house originally led to unheated upstairs rooms.
“It is in amazingly original condition — with much more of the original fabric and decorative woodwork, windows, glass, plaster, etc., remaining intact than in Pope’s Lexington house,” Snadon said, referring to Pope Villa on Grosvenor Avenue near the University of Kentucky.
Pope got to know Latrobe while representing Kentucky in the U.S. Senate along with Henry Clay. Both men got Latrobe to design their houses.
Pope and his wife, Eliza, let Latrobe have free rein to create his concept of what an American mansion should be. That circa 1810 house in Lexington was being used as apartments when a fire 30 years ago caused extensive damage. Since then, Pope Villa has been owned by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which is slowly trying to restore the original design. Latrobe’s ideas were so radical that later owners did their best to erase them.
Pope’s home in Springfield also has seen its share of changes over the years. In the late 1800s, the exterior was covered with Victorian gingerbread decoration, now gone. A back addition and a front dormer were added at least a century ago. The house’s shutters probably date from the 1860s.
Whisman said the ideal new owner for this house would be someone interested in unique design and Pope’s legacy in politics and architectural history.
Latrobe also drew plans for wings on Clay’s Ashland mansion about the same time he designed Pope Villa. But structural problems prompted the original Ashland to be demolished and replaced with a more stylish house on the same foundation after Clay’s death in 1852.
Born and trained in England, Latrobe (1764-1820) never visited Kentucky. But Snadon has found that he was commissioned to design eight buildings in the state, six of which were in Lexington and five of which were built. Pope Villa is the only one still standing. Among those never built was a state armory for Frankfort that Pope commissioned.
Pope also was a patron of another significant early American architect: Lexington-born Gideon Shryock, whose best-known buildings are the Old Capitol in Frankfort and Old Morrison at Transylvania University. After President Andrew Jackson appointed Pope governor of the Arkansas territory in 1829, he commissioned Shyrock to build what is now the Old State House in Little Rock.