One of several buildings designed in Kentucky by notable Federal-period architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the Pope Villa in Lexington is the most advanced of the architect’s domestic designs and one of only three fully-documented houses surviving by him in the United States. It is a two‐story, brick, neoclassical villa with a highly unusual functional distribution and a great variety of room shapes and spatial effects. The villa is the best remaining example of Latrobe’s thoughtful interpretation of John Soane’s theories of classicism. Deployed here in a domestic context, the villa represents what Latrobe termed “a rational house”—essentially a new house type invented by Latrobe for the new American Republic.
Latrobe met his clients, John and Eliza Pope, in Washington, D.C., when he was surveyor of public buildings and Pope was a U.S. Senator representing Kentucky. Eliza Pope, who grew up in England and was the sister of Louisa Catherine Adams (wife of John Quincy Adams), was a sophisticated woman whom Latrobe credited with significant contributions to the design process. Latrobe never visited the site; instead, he designed the villa by meeting with his clients in Washington and sending letters, specifications, and drawings to the Popes and their builder, Asa Wilgus, in Lexington. With a complete set of drawings for the house still extant along with several letters between architect and clients, the Pope Villa is one of Latrobe’s best‐documented domestic designs.
The Popes’ building site was suburban, about a mile east of downtown Lexington, at that time the major metropolis of the developing American West. The grounds contained ten acres, sloping gently down northward, toward a branch of Elkhorn Creek. The house is square in plan, fifty-five feet to a side, with three bays on each front and the principal entrance on the north. Latrobe offered the Popes two- and three-story versions; they built the two‐story villa, with brickwork laid in Flemish bond. The hipped, pyramidal roof had a flat, central observation deck surrounded by railings, accessed from inside via the main stair. The north facade features a one‐story, central portico with unfluted Greek Doric columns between slightly outset pavilions with arched openings.
Latrobe had three “rational” objections to the standard large American houses of the period. First, he objected to their use of partially submerged (“raised” or “English”) basements especially when public rooms were on the elevated first story, which necessitated an exterior staircase up to the principal floor. Latrobe thought this was dangerous in the American climate, with its frequent rain, snow, and ice. Second, he objected to central stair halls, which, he believed, inappropriately and indiscriminately mixed together all household circulation, whether of family, guests, or servants carrying chamber pots and dirty linens. Latrobe dismissed these as “turnpike halls” and “common sewers.” Finally, Latrobe disliked rear service ells because he felt they required more roofing material, created inefficient plans, and spoiled the appearance of the rear facade, where they were typically placed.
At the Pope Villa, he offered radical alternatives to these ubiquitously American domestic features. In place of a “raised” basement, he created a low first story, its floor only slightly above the ground; this story housed the service rooms and private family spaces. He then located the entertaining rooms above, in the front of the second story, with three bedchambers across the rear. This eliminated the exterior stair, giving access to the public spaces of the second story via a protected, interior stair. He avoided the central hall by displacing the public stair to the left of the entrance axis of the house and concealing a private stair to the right. Finally, he eliminated the awkward, rear service ell by incorporating the service spaces into the main volume of the house, across the rear of the first story, in the fashion of a concealed, French service dégagement. The fenestration of the north facade of the Pope Villa signals Latrobe’s unusual distribution of spaces and functions within; the first story windows are small, while the second story contains three, giant tripartite windows, a unique composition denoting the unusual locations of the service and principal spaces.
Latrobe’s interior planning at the Pope Villa is as extraordinary as its exterior composition. On the first story, the front portico leads to a square, central vestibule. Pope’s office is to the left, Mrs. Pope’s household parlor to the right. The services, including the kitchen, wash‐bake room, and servants’ rooms, are concealed across the rear. This servants’ zone unobtrusively connects with Mrs. Pope’s parlor, allowing her to control all the villa’s services. While the first story rooms are low and rectilinear, the second story has higher ceilings and contains a suite of curvilinear rooms with a central, domed rotunda reminiscent of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda in Vicenza, Italy (and of the eighteenth-century English neo‐Palladian villas that emulated it). Unlike in Palladian villas, however, Latrobe concealed the Pope Villa dome from the exterior so that visitors, emerging from the stair, encountered this high, top‐lit space by surprise. It is lighted by a glazed oculus and its color scheme seems originally to have been yellow walls with a blue dome. From the rotunda, doors lead diagonally into back‐to‐back drawing and dining rooms with curved, basilica‐style ends. Through the giant triple windows are extensive landscape views. Latrobe described this winding, turning sequence of changing spaces and effects of light and color as the “scenery” of the house and it can be understood as an internalized version of a picturesque landscape.
According to Latrobe’s theories, the Pope Villa is both a “rational house” (due to its arrangement of functions) and a “scenery house” (due to its spatial sequences). Finally, it is also a Palladian “rotunda villa”—but one in which the rotunda appears as the culminating event of an unexpected, picturesque sequence. In terms of its formal qualities, the Pope Villa is not only Latrobe’s finest surviving domestic design, but also one of the most complex and sophisticated American buildings to survive from the Federal period. It displays Latrobe’s reinvention of the American house and his attempt to demonstrate how the citizens of a new, democratic republic might live. By this measure, it is a building of international importance.
The interior details of the villa reflect the Popes’ tastes more than Latrobe’s restrained classicism; plaster and woodwork are in an elaborate, Kentucky Federal style. The restoration of the house has also revealed exciting early wallpapers and paint schemes. Later owners of the villa exhibited little sympathy for its unusual planning and strove to make it a more standard American house. By the 1840s, a central hall had been driven through the first story and the kitchen externalized in an added, rear ell‐wing. In the 1860s, another major remodeling transformed the villa’s exterior with Italianate details, including bay windows and a cast-iron front veranda on the first story, while the great, tripartite windows of the second story were filled in and made smaller. All of these renovations were meant to increase the importance of the first story rooms while de‐emphasizing the visual impact of the second story—an attempt to turn Latrobe’s “upside down” rational house “right-side up.”
In the early twentieth century, the house was converted into four apartments and then further subdivided so that, by 1987, it contained ten apartments. In that year a disastrous fire damaged the interiors and destroyed much of the roof. Fortunately, the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation acquired the villa and began a careful study and ongoing restoration. To date, the exterior has been mostly restored and the interiors carefully documented and conserved, pending further restoration. The pebbles and flowerpot wallpaper discovered in one of the second-story rooms, which was originally manufactured in Philadelphia, has been reproduced by Adelphi Paper Hangings. The Pope Villa is open for tours.
Fazio, Michael, and Patrick Snadon. The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2006.
Lancaster, Clay. Antebellum Architecture of Kentucky. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991.
Pope Villa Archive. Special Collections Library. University of Kentucky.
Snadon, Patrick. “Benjamin Henry Latrobe and Neoclassical Lexington.” In Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852, edited by James C. Klotter and Daniel B. Rowland, 286-343. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012.