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Outsiders appreciate our architecture more than we do

One of the drawbacks to Central Kentucky's growth during the past half-century is that so much of its beautiful landscape and remarkable architectural heritage have been lost to unremarkable development.

That fact was brought home this month by visits from two groups from elsewhere — a tour organized by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America and a regional gathering of the American Institute of Architecture Students.

The first group spent three full days touring the Bluegrass's magnificent — or, at least, once-magnificent — classical buildings. Most of the tourists were architects, interior designers and other professionals from all over the country. To say they were impressed would be an understatement.

"We have seen a lot of great things," said Stan Dixon, an Atlanta architect. "And such a great variety of things."

The tour included several Lexington homes from the early 1800s: Ashland, the Henry Clay estate; the Hunt Morgan house; the Morton house in Duncan Park; and the Matthew Kennedy house at the North Limestone and Constitution Street.

The group also traveled to Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill; Josephine Abercrombie's home at Pin Oak Farm in Woodford County; the late architectural historian Clay Lancaster's Warwick compound in Mercer County; and Ward Hall, a grand 1856 Greek Revival mansion near Georgetown.

"Ward Hall was off the charts," said Richard Sammons, who was on the tour with his wife, Anne Fairfax. They are architects whose firm, Fairfax & Sammons, has offices in New York; Charleston, S.C.; and Palm Beach, Fla.

"There's a real wealth of architectural history here," Fairfax said. "It's incredible."

I caught up with the group at Pope Villa, one of three surviving homes designed by Benjamin Latrobe, America's first formally trained architect, whose work included the U.S. Capitol.

Built in 1812 for U.S. Sen. John Pope, the home was like no other in Kentucky — or anywhere else in America. Reflecting Latrobe's emerging ideas about what a fine American home should be, Pope Villa had many unusual features: Slave quarters and service rooms were on the first floor, and a grand circular staircase led visitors to a grand rotunda and main rooms on the second floor.

The Popes lived in the home only briefly; his unpopular stand against the War of 1812 cut short his political career. The home was extensively remodeled by later owners to look more like a conventional Kentucky mansion. By the late 20th century, it had been cut up into cheap apartments for students at the University of Kentucky.

After a 1987 fire caused extensive damage, the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation acquired Pope Villa and began a slow, methodical renovation. The project remains a long way — and a couple of million dollars — from completion.

"I'm especially impressed with the sophistication of this house and the work the Blue Grass Trust is doing here," said Paul Gunther, the institute's president. "I had no idea it was here."

Gunther said the institute had considered a Bluegrass tour for several years, but he was surprised by the quality and quantity of fine architecture here. He also was surprised to hear how many classic buildings had been demolished in recent decades to make way for parking lots, generic office buildings and subdivisions of vinyl-clad suburban homes.

"That's the downside of your beautiful landscape," Gunther said. "It's not forgiving of development."

But Lexington's architectural legacy isn't just about the old and classical. The American Institute of Architecture Students' regional conference included a session at the Miller House, completed in 1991, with its architect, José Oubrerie, a protégé of legendary French architect Le Corbusier.

Fans of modernist architecture consider Miller House a masterpiece, but it is not everyone's taste — just as Pope Villa wasn't nearly two centuries ago, or for many years afterward.

After owner Robert Miller died, the Miller House was sold for development, and the home was vandalized. A non-profit foundation has restored it but is struggling to raise enough money to pay off the mortgage. If the mortgage can't be paid, the home will have to be sold and will face an uncertain future.

These two gatherings of outsiders are reminders of Central Kentucky's rich architectural legacy — and of how others often appreciate it far more than we do.