Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Historian uses social media to highlight Kentucky’s ‘everyday’ architecture

Architectural historian Janie-Rice Brother grew up on a farm in Montgomery County near the Clark County line. She has a special passion for Kentucky's historic farmsteads and outbuildings.
Architectural historian Janie-Rice Brother grew up on a farm in Montgomery County near the Clark County line. She has a special passion for Kentucky's historic farmsteads and outbuildings. Gardens to Gables

When Janie-Rice Brother saw black smoke rising over downtown last weekend and heard the Blue Grass Stockyards was burning, she was heartbroken. And not just because the Montgomery County farmer’s daughter had spent time there as a child.

Brother uses social media to promote appreciation for Kentucky’s vernacular architecture — buildings that reflect people’s needs, materials and traditions over time. Blue Grass Stockyards was on her long list of places to document and share before they disappeared.

Brother is architectural historian for the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, a joint project of the Kentucky Heritage Council and the University of Kentucky’s Department of Anthropology.

Much of her work involves traveling around the state, documenting old buildings of all kinds: mansions, bungalows, shotgun houses, farmhouses, corner stores, tenant houses, barns and root cellars. She does much the same thing in her spare time.

Brother began her Gardens to Gables blog (Gardenstogables.com) in 2013 during a study fellowship in England. When she returned, friends persuaded her to continue the blog by writing about Kentucky places.

Gardens to Gables started attracting more attention when she expanded the concept to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which is now her most popular platform with more than 2,100 followers.

Most of Brother’s posts feature interesting old houses and other buildings she sees while walking around Lexington or traveling to other towns. She explains each place’s architecture and, when possible, its history.

“Vernacular architecture is important because it’s the story of everyday people and what they build,” Brother said. “Style was not the driving force; it was how people used it. Houses show us how people wanted to be perceived. Their outbuildings show us how they really lived.”

One of her most-read blog posts came when a late 1800s store at the corner of East Third and Race streets collapsed last August after years of neglect. Unlike with the stockyards, she had recently photographed that building, and she was able to tell something about its history as a grocery, saloon, drug store and variety shop.

On Brother’s long to-do list is a survey of Lexington’s remaining corner commercial buildings, such as Wilson’s Grocery at Victory and Cramer avenues in Kenwick, many of which pre-date the 1920s.

If you can't save them, at least capture their stories before they're gone.

Janie-Rice Brother, architectural historian

Many of Brother’s most popular posts are about beautiful old mansions and bungalows. But the places she finds most interesting are modest dwellings that have been altered in curious ways over the years.

One example is a small brick house on Eastern Avenue with a large rear addition. The handsome Italianate cottage was built about 1871 by Edward Dudley Brown, who was born into slavery and became a jockey and successful horse trainer for some of Central Kentucky’s most prestigious farms. The property once included a large stable where Brown kept his own horses.

Lexington’s most interesting vernacular houses are found in neighborhoods where residents’ low incomes during much of the 20th century kept them from being torn down, Brother said. Those include the East End, Kenwick, South Hill and North Limestone. She also likes the neighborhoods off Nicholasville Road, which have everything from 1920s bungalows to Mid-Century Modern doctor’s offices.

Brother is particularly drawn to farmsteads and outbuildings like the ones she grew up around.

“Going out, especially in the rural areas, you’re tapping into stories that people either don’t think are important because they are so ordinary or they are stories they don’t get asked about very often,” she said. “If you can get to the story behind a collection of sheds, then it really transforms the way you look at them.”

Kentucky has paid little attention to its agriculture history, Brother said, and much of the built environment that supported it is rapidly vanishing.

Since the federal tobacco support program ended, warehouses and the once-ubiquitous curing barns are disappearing from Central Kentucky’s landscape. The same is happening with crossroads communities in Western Kentucky as more people leave for cities and soybean fields become ever-larger.

Blue Grass Stockyards was a cultural loss because old-style stockyard complexes like it have disappeared in so many other Kentucky towns, including Mount Sterling, Winchester and Danville. Others, such as Paris and Maysville, are new facilities.

“You can’t save everything, and you also can’t impose adaptive reuse or preservation on thousands of farms across Kentucky,” Brother said. “If you can’t save them, at least capture their stories before they’re gone. That’s my whole thing.”

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