Awakening and Building: A look at the Progressive Era and Architecture (Part 1)

Election season in Kentucky…barbs, innuendos and bluster hang as heavy in the air as does pollen during the spring and fall. And like the pollen, all of the posturing makes me want to sneeze repeatedly to clear my head and stop the onslaught of buzzwords. Sadly, allergies are easier to deal with, but despite the recycled air of most national and local campaigns, I find the use of buzzwords on the metaphorical playground of politics most interesting. Progress is a favorite buzzword for some candidates – and while it doesn’t make me pay any extra attention to their grandstanding,  it does make me think of how Progress was once a strong word with meaning and a movement that resulted in substantial societal changes.

The Progressive Era is not as well-known in American architecture (at least in Kentucky) as say, the Victorian era, or the now very cool and sexy mid-century modern. We can all recognize the distinctive elements of a late-19th century Victorian house, with “gingerbread” trim work, or the low lines of a ranch house that seemed shockingly futuristic in 1955.


1965 house, Louisville, Kentucky


Late-19th century Victorian house, Mercer County, KY

But how do the politics of the Progressive era – the decades belonging to Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson – play out in our cities and neighborhoods? And is “Progressive Era architecture” a misnomer? Different areas of the country – and the historians and scholars hailing from there – often use a variety of terms for architectural features, styles, and plans. For example, what I call a T-plan would perplex an architectural historian from the West Coast- but I digress.

Most commonly associated with the City Beautiful movement, which championed planning and landscape architecture principles that included “coordination of transportation systems and residential development” and a focus on tree-lined, curvilinear streets, large, landscaped lots, and a sense of privacy within a pastoral setting,1] the Progressive Era is a different beast. Although I’ve written and studied about the impact of this political movement on the built environment – and better still, have friends who have skillfully documented Progressive examples locally (graduate school thesis work is too often consigned to library shelves, and relegated to the gaze of other students and academics. A woman architect : Magdalen McDowell and the era of progressive architecture in Lexington, Kentucky is a fascinating story…but I will save that for another post!), I’ve not taken the time to catalog, even mentally, the disparate examples of this time span. Ken Burns’ recent documentary The Roosevelts not only provided several nights of scintillating viewing, but also prodded my  little grey cells into a muse about the instances of the progressive era shaping our cultural landscape.

First, a brief primer.  The Progressive Era is a term that encompasses social activism and political reform in the United States from 1890 to 1920. Most commonly associated with anti-trust laws, Prohibition, and suffrage, the movement championed application of scientific principles to almost every aspect of American life.  The Progressive era saw the entrance of national reforms which emphasized cleanliness, hygiene, and space.  Cities were the staging areas for most Progressive reforms, and Kentucky’s largest city, Louisville, was no exception.

Louisville KY 1883

Birds-eye view of Louisville from the river front and Southern Exposition, 1883. W. F. Clarke. From the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C. 20540-4650 USA, g3954l pm002370


The overcrowded slums of the inner city caused a national movement to eradicate vice, disease and create a more family oriented atmosphere. Jane Adams, the founder of Hull House in Chicago, visited Louisville in 1895 to meet with citizens interested in social settlements. A year later, the first settlement house in Kentucky opened at Jefferson and Preston Streets. Other efforts to assist the poor in Louisville came through the creation of free citywide public kindergarten in 1887.

Examples of Progressive Era architecture abound across Kentucky- from large public buildings to modest dwellings for young families.

One institutional example of Progressive Era architecture in Louisville is the Theodore Ahrens Trade School.  Located at 546 South First Street, the school illustrates the growth of vocational training and education championed during the Progressive era. Theodore Jacob Ahrens, Jr., the son of German immigrants, was a businessman who took his original plumbing supply store on Market Street and through mergers and acquisitions, developed a national industrial firm with international sales. Ahrens’ background working in his father’s brass foundry as a youth underscored his belief in vocational education. Working in partnership with local government, he helped plan Louisville’s first vocational school, which opened in 1913. Over the years, the school benefited greatly from Ahrens’ largess – in 1925, he contributed $300,000 for construction of a new school and gymnasium. The last class graduated in 1980. During the 1990s, the school housed the Ahrens Educational Resource Center.



The Ahrens School was constructed in several phases between 1925 and the 1960s, and combines a variety of Revival styles. The main facade is carefully ordered and symmetrical.  Clad in a glazed yellow-orange brick, the school features limestone detailing along the foundation, lintel bands, and the cornice. Large, multi-light bands of casement windows light the classrooms – lots of natural light was a hallmark of Progressive Era architecture. Although there is some stylized geometric ornament along the parapet wall, this is not an Art Deco building – although you could say those features were influenced by that style. As a bricks and mortar example of the Progressive Era, the Ahrens school skillfully combines the goals of the Progressives – in this case, access to education and reform of existing school systems – with a physical representation of those principles, stressing light, order, and a paean to the Classical styles of Greek and Rome. (I wonder if anyone will be able to say that about the Common Core in 70 years time?)



Although the 1960s addition to the building falls outside of the Progressive Era, I quite like how it sympathetically references the original building while not detracting from its own strong statement of form and design. And now, I must go sneeze. Election Day is 10 days away.




[1] Ames and McClelland, 39.

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