I imagine the phrase “revolutionary architecture” conjures up a myriad of differing images for people – or maybe just a blank stare. Architects willing to experiment with materials, form, and site have transformed both our cities and domestic spaces, but a progressive design is not always so palatable to its neighbors, or indeed, the occupants of the building. Lexington, Kentucky, cannot claim the mantle of radical design now, nor could it in the first quarter of the 19th century, when Benjamin Henry Latrobe designed a house for John and Eliza Pope on what is now Grosvenor Avenue.
Latrobe, a British architect, is often labeled as the first professional architect in America. When he met the then-Senator Pope and his wife in Washington, DC, Latrobe was working as the Surveyor of the Public Buildings of the United States (first hired by President Thomas Jefferson). Eliza Johnson Pope, by all accounts, was a lively and intelligent woman, and it was at her direction that Latrobe’s designs for a house one mile east of downtown Lexington unfolded.
And what a house! In 1810, most houses in Kentucky were one room and constructed of logs. Oh, don’t be misled – rich men were building brick and stone houses, but nothing like the Pope Villa had been seen in the Commonwealth – and the nation. (Palladio was not a household name.) Latrobe abhorred the central passage, which was already a mainstay in Virginia, and well on its way to becoming the preferred house plan in Kentucky, calling it a “common sewer” and deriding it as a “turnpike.”
The two-story brick house (which sat on a 10-acre parcel) would have been an arresting sight in 1811. The main rooms of the house were on the second story (or piano nobile – which is common among the country houses in England, but not so much in the Bluegrass), with three massive windows on the facade illuminating the drawing room and dining room. The pathway to these rooms also would have shocked – again, there was no central hall with a nice Federal-style staircase. Instead the stair on the first floor was tucked behind Senator Pope’s office, but as it climbed, the central, top-lit rotunda would have come into view, further cementing the fact that these were the finest rooms of the house.
Sadly, this revolution fizzled almost as soon as it began. Latrobe, father of the architectural profession in this new country, died of yellow fever in 1820. The Pope Villa went from avant-garde and the epitome of Latrobe’s “rational house” plan to a standard Kentucky central passage plan, in only about 20 years. The square house gained an ell addition, and in the 1860s was remodeled in the fashionable Italianate style. By the 1920s, the single-family home was divided into apartments – and the revolutionary villa joined countless other houses around the University of Kentucky campus in being further carved up. There were ten apartments in the Pope Villa in 1987, when the house caught on fire.
The fire, which burnt 1/3 of the roof, also revealed, for the first time in decades, Latrobe’s original design. The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, a non-profit preservation organization located in Lexington, purchased the house, with little idea of what would happen other than saving an incredible and singular piece of architecture from further degradation.
I first went inside the Pope Villa as an intern at the Blue Grass Trust in 1997. The house, in a halted state of deterioration, was full of burnt lath, shadows, and crumbling plaster. I loved it.
The interior, though greatly improved since then (I remember those hundreds of pizza boxes full of architectural fragments), remains arrested – and for many people, that is exciting and revolutionary. While the fire caused damage, the disregard for Latrobe’s design in the 19th century was more harmful.The Blue Grass Trust has slowly restored the exterior – removing Italianate bay windows and rear additions, reconstructing a version of the original portico, and restoring the facade with its enormous second story windows.
Choked in as it is by other houses, the Pope Villa does not have the advantages of site like other traditional house museums – and that can deter the average visitor, expecting a totally restored experience. I’ve watched the Pope Villa for over a decade now. When I was in graduate school, the plan was for the house to house the offices of the Historic Preservation department at the University of Kentucky, and serve as a hand-on learning laboratory. That plan, echoing the ambitions of a brand-new graduate program, did not materialize – though many of the program’s graduates served as resident curators, living in the concrete block addition (now removed) at the back of the house.
The Blue Grass Trust should be commended for maintaining the house during economic downturns, various administrations, and staff turnover. A handful of committed volunteers has remained stalwart supporters and defenders of the Pope Villa, stoking the fires of revolution even as historic preservation came under fire in the less-than progressive climate of Lexington. Latrobe, I think, would be pleased. His innovative design has finally been embraced, and perhaps one day will be fully visible and appreciated.