Tom Eblen

Like Lexington’s historic architecture? Wish a happy 100th birthday to this scholar.

Clay Lancaster at the ruins of an old house near Lexington in August 1953.
Clay Lancaster at the ruins of an old house near Lexington in August 1953. Courtesy of James Birchfield

Two famous Lexingtonians were born 100 years ago this week. One was a horse, the other a human. You’ve probably heard of the horse, Man o’ War, who was foaled March 29, 1917. Maybe not the human, Clay Lancaster, who arrived the next day.

Lancaster’s fame has dimmed since his death on Christmas Day 2000. But were it not for the acclaimed architectural historian, we would know a lot less about Lexington’s iconic buildings. We also would have fewer of them left.

Lancaster was an artist, writer and scholar of impressive range and depth. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Kentucky, he moved in the 1940s to New York, where he studied, wrote and taught. He authored more than 150 articles and 24 books, from scholarly tomes to illustrated children’s stories.

He received two Guggenheim fellowships: one to study Asian influences on American art and design, and another to write about antebellum Kentucky architecture.

New York’s mayor appointed Lancaster as curator of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and he became an expert on the architecture of both Brooklyn and Nantucket Island, Mass., where he restored a circa 1829 house and lived for a time.

Lancaster returned to Kentucky to live in 1979, buying the circa 1810 Moses Jones house near the Kentucky River in Mercer County. He added a wing and built two architectural follies, one of which was modeled on the ancient Tower of the Winds in Athens, Greece. The property is now maintained by the Warwick Foundation, which he created.

He also was a Buddhist, a vegetarian and a yoga teacher whose personal charm and passionate pursuits attracted a diverse following.

Lancaster was studying art when Edward Rannells, a UK art professor, stimulated his interest in local architecture. He did his master’s thesis on the prolific 19th-century Lexington architect John McMurtry, which was later published as the book “Back Streets and Pine Trees.”

Lancaster often knocked on the doors of strangers so he could sketch, photograph and document many old Lexington houses that would later be demolished. The impressive record he created provided material for several classic books, including “Ante Bellum Houses of the Bluegrass” (1961), “Vestiges of the Venerable City” (1978) and “Antebellum Architecture of Kentucky” (1991).

“He was the dean of architectural history in Kentucky,” said Gay Reading, who with other friends of Lancaster is organizing a centennial event in May which is historic preservation month. “Many brilliant people have built on what Clay did.”

Among Lancaster’s contributions was finding Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s original drawings for Pope Villa on Grosvenor Avenue, perhaps the most important American house designed by the nation’s first great architect.

Lancaster also appreciated vernacular architecture. His book The American Bungalow: 1880-1930 is a broad and deep survey that includes two Lexington bungalows (on Transylvania Park and Mentelle Park) and a final chapter on a bungalow his father built in Bell Court when he was a child.

During the darkest days of “urban renewal” in the 1960s and 1970s, when developers and aggressive city planners bulldozed many Lexington landmarks and tried to destroy more, Lancaster returned to town to speak and advocate for preserving the city’s unique architectural heritage.

Lancaster wrote unsuccessfully against demolition of the nation’s second-oldest railroad depot — an 1830s structure that stood on Water Street between Upper and Mill streets — and helped talk planners out of putting an expressway through Lexington between High and Maxwell streets. (Believe it or not, that was a serious proposal in 1966.)

“To destroy a monument having to do with our cultural heritage is a prime example of an un-American activity,” Lancaster told Lexington leaders at the time. “Later generations will have veneration for old things because they were well designed for their period.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen