I’ve been very, very lucky to spend three of the past five summers in England. But while I was away, playing across the pond, morning glories took over my garden, my dogs lost any semblance of obedience, and my pocketbook…well, let’s just say that historic preservation is not a career one pursues for the utmost in monetary compensation. In many ways, I am eagerly looking forward to spending the summer in my beloved Bluegrass, and playing tourist in my own backyard.
A small preview of my summer jaunts arrived last week, with a long-weekend road trip along the Ohio River to western Kentucky. Sadly, we were not on a boat, but instead confined to terra firma, driving small, winding roads as close to the water as possible – and due to the heavy rains in the state this spring, at many intersections we were forced to detour and head inland.
This provided its own set of delights, especially the John James Audubon State Park. I grew up knowing the name of Audubon, but my view of birds was influenced more by my bird-hunting father, and I not only ate grouse and quail, but helped pluck their feathers when he came home from hunting – but I digress.
Audubon, an American naturalist, produced Birds of America, a collection of 435 life-size prints, first published as series between 1827 and 1838. Although not the first person to attempt to depict all of the birds in the young country, Audubon’s work changed the world of wildlife illustration. He lived in Henderson, Kentucky, for ten years, where he operated a mill. It was the destruction of that mill that led to conversations in the early 20th century about creating a park and museum in Henderson dedicated to Audubon.
Donations, public outreach, and the Kentucky Department of Parks came together to start making this vision a reality. The idea of a nature preserve, where animals and their habitat could be protected and studied, and a museum about Audubon, formed the foundation of the state and local efforts. In 1936, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) began work on trails, land surveys, and site preparation for buildings.
Oh, those buildings! As we emerged from the soft green canopy of trees in their spring finery, and saw the Welcome Center – it was the last thing I expected. The Norman Revival style is not commonly employed in rural Kentucky, and the tea house (the welcome center) and the museum were purportedly designed in this style to evoke the chateau in which Audubon grew up. The Works Progress Administration hired Donald Corley, a Washington, D.C. architect previously employed by McKim, Mead, and White; Corley worked together with retired Henderson native Bernard Alves, who received his architecture degree from Princeton University.
The stone museum is two-and-one-half-stories, with a three-story conical roofed tower at one side (my first thought was “It’s a dovecote!”), and three, 1.5 story wings coursing off the main building asymmetrically. The upper level of the tower is laid in brick, with small recessed squares and a wonderful blind arcade of arches above the stone beltcourse of the lower level.
The exhibits in the museum- the world’s largest collection of Audubon artifacts – were fascinating for the context they provided about the growing pains of the new country and Audubon’s own struggles to achieve his dreams and support his family. His wife was a veritable saint. Although we were only there for a very brief window of time, I am already planning a return trip to stay at the park in one of the cabins the CCC built – in addition to the tea house and museum, CCC Camp Number 1540 constructed cabins, gardens, shelter houses, picnic areas, a lake, and trails. I don’t know if it will happen this summer – I have lots of exploring to do…but if you haven’t been, take a detour to Henderson and the park. History, nature, architecture – what more could you ask for?