Gardens to Gables

Trips through History: Visiting Pineville, Kentucky

There is a small wooden chair in the front hall of my childhood home. Made of cherry or walnut, it is a nice little chair, but unremarkable except for its story. From an early age, I knew the chair traveled strapped to a horse through the Cumberland Gap in the 18th century. I fervently wanted that chair (like a Disney movie) to animate, and tell me about that journey. My willpower, unfortunately, did not compel the chair to break into song or speech, so I made up my own stories (likely much more romantic and exciting than the reality). Today, I satisfy my curiosity with detours to places like Pineville, Kentucky.

The 1919 Bell County Courthouse was designed by John W. Gaddis of Vincennes, Indiana.

The 1919 Bell County Courthouse was designed by John W. Gaddis of Vincennes, Indiana.

The valley in which Pineville lies served as the interstate highway of its day, ushering in families from Virginia and North Carolina looking for fertile land in the ever-reaching westward expansion. Located on the west bank of the Cumberland River, Pineville originally went by the name “Cumberland Ford.”  Little construction transpired, though, until after the Civil War, and the formation of Bell County in 1867.

These buildings on Kentucky Street form part of the courthouse square. The Bell National Bank is at left in photo.

These buildings on Kentucky Street form part of the courthouse square. The Bell National Bank is at left in photo.

Initially settled in 1781, (only seven years after Harrodsburg, Kentucky) the county seat town of Pineville is nonetheless a young town (architecturally) for all of its history. The town was platted and laid out in 1888 by the Pine Mountain Iron and Coal Company.  The Bell National Bank Building, a handsome Romanesque/Classical Revival stone and brick structure, is one of the oldest buildings left in the courthouse square. The Comptroller of the Currency approved the Bell National Bank’s application to organize as a national bank in 1904 – the man filing the application was J.R. Rice (which made me chuckle, though I have no idea if there is any relation).

Prominently sited on northwest corner of Walnut and Kentucky Steets is the Masonic Temple.

Prominently sited on the northwest corner of Walnut and Kentucky Streets is the Masonic Temple.

I found the early 20th century buildings in the courthouse square just stunning. The three-story Masonic Temple, designed by Thomas Nolan, dates to 1921, and is a stripped down, “modern” interpretation of an imposing temple. Down the street is a handsome Craftsman Commercial Building known as the Asher Building, erected between 1916-1920.

The Asher Building is just stunning - I love the stone accents on the red brick and all of those windows..

The Asher Building is a spectacular 20th century commercial building – I love the stone accents on the red brick and all of those windows…

The 1930s saw the introduction of the Art Deco/Moderne style to Pineville, with the construction of the Bell Theater. So many Kentucky towns tore down their early 20th century theaters (or else dramatically remodeled the buildings), and I was thrilled to see the Bell Theater maintains its marquee and ticket booth.

The 1930s Bell Theater.

The 1930s Bell Theater.

The Great Depression slowed the growth of Pineville in the 1930s, but the town, like much of Eastern Kentucky, benefited from the programs of the New Deal. Bridges, roads, trails – and buildings –  many handsome stone buildings serving as schools or municipal offices were built across Eastern Kentucky in the 1940s. Pineville’s former City Hall was built in 1941 by the National Youth Administration, designed to help the “nation’s youth stay in school and gain meaningful employment and vocational training during the Great Depression.”[1]

The former Pineville City Hall building.

The former Pineville City Hall building.

The ensuing years have changed the facade of the City Hall building, but the Bell County Jail, constructed by the Works Progress Administration, maintains its original form and overall appearance.

The Bell County Jail was a WPA project, constructed between 1940 and 1941.

The Bell County Jail was a WPA project, constructed between 1940 and 1941.

Pineville’s courthouse square, one of the last such plans laid out in the Commonwealth, suffered  a tornado in 1890, demolitions in the 1970s, and an 1986 fire, but is still remarkably intact. My family’s passage through the Cumberland Gap provided an excuse to visit the town while en route to another location for work, but I didn’t expect to find much of the 18th century lingering in the valley. Mineral extraction, both coal and timber, provided the stimulus for growth in Pineville in the late-19th century, and reshaped the natural landscape in the 20th. I don’t need any excuse to take a detour and explore a town or crossroads, or peer through a field at a lone chimney – all of these excursions make me a better student of the Kentucky I love.

 

 

[1] Rachel Kennedy and Cynthia Johnson. “The New Deal Builds: A Historic Context of the New Deal in East Kentucky, 1933 to 1943.”

 

 

 

 

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5 Thoughts on “Trips through History: Visiting Pineville, Kentucky

  1. Steve Cawood on November 3, 2015 at 2:40 pm said:

    You missed the Pineville branchbank belonging to “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, grandfather of President John Kennedy, 3rd building West of the Bell National Bank on the South side of Kentucky Avenue.

    • Janie-Rice Brother on November 4, 2015 at 8:58 am said:

      I needed more time than was available to see all of Pineville! There is a wonderful residential area as well – beautiful homes.

  2. Brings back a lot of good memories.

  3. Ralph Mills on October 3, 2016 at 6:57 pm said:

    The “New Deal,” with the WPA and other programs, made an enormous and enduring contribution to Pineville and the surrounding area. One of the finest football stadiums and and a wonderful community swimming pool, the school buildings, the Laurel Cove, and others structural contributions that you have mentioned–all added to the quality of life for the residents of the community and especially for the young people who were privileged to grow up there in the 1940s and 1950s–myself among them. Thank you for helping to keep Appalachia’s Diaspora in touch with our roots.

    Ralph Mills
    SoCal

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