When you think of Lexington, Kentucky, you may think of horses and bourbon and perhaps college basketball. But Lexington is also home to one of the most avant-garde buildings for its time, built by America’s first professional architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
Born in England and educated in Europe, Latrobe came to the United States in 1796, after the death of his first wife. Latrobe studied in England under neo-classical architect S.P. Cockerell and engineer John Smeaton and brought his diverse talents to the new republic. First in Virginia, then in Pennsylvania, Latrobe quickly found commissions to design houses and public buildings, including the Bank of Pennsylvania, the first example of Greek Revival architecture in America.
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson made Latrobe surveyor of public buildings. His duties included overseeing the construction of the U.S. Capitol. While in Washington, he met John Pope, an attorney and U.S. senator from Lexington, Kentucky. Pope needed a summer home in Lexington to serve as a political base where he and his wife, Eliza, could entertain guests and he asked Latrobe to provide him with a design.
Latrobe presented the Popes with plans for an elegant cube-shaped brick villa with a one-story white portico composed of two Greek columns flanked by arches. Latrobe’s design incorporated elements of neo-classical architecture and the picturesque, and showed his genius in combining the two.
Guests would enter the house through a doorway flanked by Ionic columns and large sidelights. Once inside, they would be welcomed into either Mr. Pope’s office or his wife’s parlor on either side of a square hall, or proceed upstairs, where Latrobe placed the main reception rooms of the house.
The square entrance hall and the stairs located to the side would be an unusual experience for someone who was used to the long central hallways that were the fashion of the time. Latrobe hated these long hallways where the guests, household members, and servants mixed. In his design, all the services for the house, the kitchen, laundry, etc., were hidden behind the reception rooms, so the servants could move discreetly from floor to floor using their own private staircase. Latrobe also disliked the “ell” extensions on the backs of houses, where the servants typically performed their labors, so he placed the kitchen and bake house into the block of the main house, despite the fact that it must have made the house quite hot in the long Kentucky summers.
Once on the main floor, guests walked through a double set of columns and entered a grand domed circular rotunda with an ocular skylight; a rare sight at that time for a public building in America and unheard of in a private house. Columns and niches filled with statues lined the walls. In the front of the building were the drawing room and dining room, the primary spaces where guests were entertained. Both rooms had elegant curved walls and large windows that looked onto the front lawn. Bedrooms and a butler’s pantry occupied the remainder of the upstairs. In his original design, Latrobe also included plans for a third floor: attic. story.
Around 1812, the Popes proceeded to build their new house, using local builder Asa Wilgus and making changes as they went along, including enlarging the windows on the second floor. Unfortunately, the Popes’ time in their villa was short-lived. John Pope lost his reelection bid for the Senate and left Lexington, leasing the Pope Villa just three years after it was built.
In 1819, Latrobe left Washington for New Orleans, a city in which he saw great potential, to oversee the new waterworks system proposed by his son at his behest several years prior. . Latrobe had to finish the project after his son had contracted yellow fever and died. The following year, exactly three years after his son’s death, Latrobe also died of yellow fever. His remains were most likely taken to a mass grave “lye pit,” where victims of the epidemic were buried.
The Popes were finally forced to sell the Pope Villa in 1829. Successive owners made additions and changes to the interior in accordance with the architectural fashions of the day. Eventually the house was converted into four and then ten apartments for the local university students, and Latrobe’s design was largely forgotten.
In 1987, a fire set by an arsonist destroyed the roof and damaged sections of the second floor. A local preservation group, The Blue Grass Trust, acquired the property and put forward a plan of restoration and conservation that continues today. Their extensive research revealed that the house’s construction followed Latrobe’s original designs much more closely than was previously thought. When the restoration project is completed, the university plans to use the building for its Historic Preservation program and as a space for architecture and design exhibitions.