The architectural history of Kentucky follows the trajectory of the country’s, from its Native-American prehistoric origins to the period of white settlement and the establishment of statehood in 1792, when the Greek Revival style became synonymous with nationhood. These parallels continue into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when a multiplicity of styles and modern concerns shaped the built environment, and finally to the present period, when vernacular forms are once again revered and even emulated.
The state’s representative buildings and sites range from the most vigorously progressive architecture of the day to humble vernacular structures emblematic of economic realities of time and place. Kentucky features buildings designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Robert Mills, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, E. Fay Jones, Michael Graves, and Daniel Libeskind, as well as churches and barns designed and erected by anonymous builders. High and low, these buildings exemplify particular moments, styles, movements, religions, corporate entities, or socio-political situations. Alongside discussions of form and style are topics of geography, industry, agriculture, transportation, education, racism and segregation, economic decline and resurgence, and the ensuing architectural responses.
Prehistoric Adena and Mississippian Cultures built earthen mounds in both the eastern and far western parts of the state. Mount Horeb (500 BCE–250 CE) and Wycliffe Mounds (1000–1359 CE) are among the earliest monumental earthworks to have been erected in North America; both mounds were first documented in Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley by Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis in 1848. When white settlers, including James Harrod, Daniel Boone, and George Rogers Clark, arrived in what was then part of the state of Virginia, they built wooden stockade forts as a defense against the warring Delaware, Shawnee, and Cherokee tribesmen. The recreation of Fort Harrod in the 1930s came about as national interest in the American Colonial period peaked.
The waxing and waning of interest in Kentucky’s historic sites has resulted in the loss of many, the preservation of some, the rebuilding of others, and the repurposing of a fortunate few. The state in which Abraham Lincoln was born was dependent upon slave labor for its economic prosperity; structures reflecting this period include not only Lincoln’s birthplace cabin and its twentieth-century Greek Revival enclosure but also a rare slave pen from Mason County. The authenticity of Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace log cabin has long been in dispute; however, the history of that debate enriches our understanding of the role architecture played in the forging of American’s national identity. The slave pen bears witness to the sometimes brutal realities of Kentucky’s history.
Kentucky is perhaps best known for its classical revival architecture, introduced to a wider audience by pioneering architectural historian Rexford Newcomb in his 1953 Architecture in Old Kentucky: Colonial, Federal, Greek Revival, Gothic, and other types erected prior to the War Between the States. Clay Lancaster’s Antebellum Architecture of Kentucky of 1991 continued along the path forged by Newcomb. Examples include Liberty Hall in Frankfort (1796–1801), Federal Hill in Bardstown (1795), and Locust Grove outside of Louisville (1790), all of which were built before Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin in LaRue County. Gideon Shryock (1802–1880) was the first Kentucky-born professional architect; his beautifully articulated Greek Revival buildings include Transylvania University (1834) and the Old Capitol in Frankfort (1837).
The fashion for Greek Revival was long lived in Kentucky but was eventually overtaken at mid-century by the Italianate, as seen at Loudoun House of 1851, which was designed by Alexander Jackson Davis for Francis Key Hunt of Lexington. After the Civil War came an abundance of revival styles, while all throughout the long nineteenth century, Kentucky vernacular architecture thrived. Kentucky was a bastion of religious freedom, and idiosyncratic churches such as Cane Ridge Meeting House (1791) and the Old Mud Meeting House (1810) are examples of the types of religious structures built in the state. The Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg survives as an important example of an American utopian community and the nineteenth-century architectural vernacular.
If much of Kentucky’s architecture is picturesque, none is more so than the horse farms that dot the Bluegrass and the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs, under the shadow of which the Kentucky Derby is run each May. Similarly charming is the architectural imagery of Kentucky’s bourbon distilleries, some of which survived Prohibition. Two Kentucky distilleries show a range of architectural options in a single industry—from the purely utilitarian George T. Stagg Distillery in Frankfort (1936) to the massive and homogenous Art Deco factory that was the Seagram Distillery in Louisville (1933).
As much a part of Kentucky’s architectural history are the Appalachian coal company towns such as Lynch in Harlan County, where coal mine Portal 31 and the U.S. Coal and Coke Company Store survive. The socio-economic realities of Kentucky’s history are revealed in its architecture; examples include the Colored School for African American children in Lynch, built to meet the students’ needs, and charitable institutions such as the Pine Mountain Settlement School, which was built to provide education and training to “mountain people” in the early part of the twentieth century.
The Ohio River, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N), and the Dixie Highway provided the necessary movement of goods and services from east to west and from north to south, and the architecture along these corridors tells the stories of Kentucky’s economic evolution. Visually, Louisville resembles Midwestern cities that boomed after the Civil War, such as Cincinnati, rich in cast-iron building fronts and brick warehouses that bespeak the importance of the river. Kentucky features a range of transportation buildings, from rural L&N depots to Louisville’s large Romanesque Revival Union Station (1891). Wigwam Village in Cave City (1937) and Lexington’s Parkette Drive-In (1951) illustrate architectural responses to the escapism and ersatz glamour associated with automobile travel in the first half of the twentieth century.
Given the persistence of traditional styles in the state, the importance of Modernism is perhaps the greatest surprise in Kentucky’s architectural history, with examples such as the triangular aerodynamic house called Triaero by Bruce Goff (1940) and the silo-shaped Lindsey Wilson Chapel by E. Fay Jones (1992). Edward Durell Stone was by far the most popular Modernist to work in Kentucky. His buildings include the elegant Paducah City Hall (1965) and his Lake Barkley Lodge (1969). Postmodernism arrived in Kentucky with the stunning Humana Building by Michael Graves (1982) but did not have a major impact in the Commonwealth.
More recently, architects and the public have discovered the intrinsic beauty of Kentucky’s vernacular forms. Repurposed buildings include the tobacco warehouses that were converted by Deborah Berke into the 21c Museum Hotel in downtown Louisville (2006) and the new visitors’ center at the Wild Turkey Distillery (2013), which resembles the tobacco barns that used to dot the region.
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