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Public event celebrates Lexington’s Pope Villa listing on National Register of Historic Places

A rare surviving example of the work of early American architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the National Park Service (NPS) has announced. Pope Villa in Lexington was individually listed for its national significance to architecture, interpreted “for its information potential with respect to the interaction of architects and builders in the early days of this country,” according to the nomination.

To celebrate, the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation (BGT) and Kentucky Heritage Council/State Historic Preservation Office (KHC) hosted a celebration Tuesday on the grounds of the property, located at 326 Grosvenor Avenue near the University of Kentucky campus.

Pope Villa is owned and managed by the Blue Grass Trust, and the Kentucky Heritage Council administers the National Register program in Kentucky.

Speakers were Janie Fergus, BGT Board President; Barbara Hulette, a member of the BGT Advisory Board and Pope Villa Committee; Patrick Snadon, emeritus faculty in the School of Architecture and Interior Design at the University of Cincinnati, and co-author of a book about Latrobe’s domestic architecture; and Craig Potts, KHC Executive Director and State Historic Preservation Officer.

Latrobe (1764-1820) was a British émigré who became one of America’s first professional architects. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson appointed him surveyor of public buildings, responsible for the continuing design and construction of the White House and the U.S. Capitol. While Latrobe also designed more than 60 residences throughout the country, Pope Villa is one of only three still standing today and the only suburban villa. The others are Adena, c1807, a country house in Chillicothe, OH; and Decatur House, c1818, an urban townhouse in Washington, D.C.

“From a purely design point of view, the Pope Villa is the most sophisticated house produced in the Federal Period and perhaps in America in the first half of the 19th-century,” said Snadon during the ceremony. “The only house of its time that can compare with it in intellectual and theoretical terms is Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, though of the two men, Latrobe was the finer architect.”

Pope Villa was commissioned by Senator John and Eliza Pope and dates to 1812. The most striking features of the original design were a Palladian-inspired rotunda on the second floor, which – in a departure from the design trends of the day – housed both public spaces and the Pope family’s private quarters, and the lack of a central passage. These features were obscured during a major renovation in 1843 by Captain Henry and Elizabeth Johnson, when the home was substantially changed and, according to the nomination, the house’s original design became “a product of a nationally significant architect who was subject to local interpretation by its builders and by its users… revealing [the] democratization of the design process on one significant building.”

Subsequent major renovations in 1865, 1914, and 1960 corresponded with ownership changes and included structural additions as well as subdivision into apartments. A major fire burned through the house in 1987, severely damaging the dome yet also revealing historic features that had been hidden for decades. The Blue Grass Trust subsequently purchased Pope Villa in order to preserve and restore it.

“Given the successive periods of rebuilding, the fire, and the restoration of the exterior walls undertaken for the Blue Grass Trust, the building that exists today as the Pope Villa relays two messages,” the nomination reads. “Its restored exterior attempts to be faithful to Latrobe’s design and presents a façade close to the house’s first incarnation; on the interior, it exhibits a mix of Latrobe’s original plan and that created by the 1840s alterations.”

In recent years, Pope Villa has undergone exterior restoration and has been the subject of extensive research. The renowned architecture firm Mesick, Cohen, Wilson, Baker, based in Albany, N.Y., are the architects of record.

The National Register is the nation’s official list of historic and archaeological resources deemed worthy of preservation. Kentucky has the fourth-highest number of listings among states, with more than 3,400. Listing can be applied to buildings, objects, structures, districts and archaeological sites, and proposed sites must be significant in architecture, engineering, American history or culture.

The Pope Villa National Register nomination was authored by Julie Riesenweber, Daniel Rowland and Nancy Wolsk, with contributions from Cynthia Johnson, Jason Sloan and Tom Moore. The building was nominated for listing under Criterion C, property embodying the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or representing the work of a master, or possessing high artistic values; and Criterion D, property that has yielded, or is likely to yield, information important to history or prehistory.

Before it could be submitted to NPS for consideration, the Pope Villa nomination was first required to be approved at the local level by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Certified Local Government Program, led by the city’s Historic Preservation Director, Bettie Kerr, and at the state level by the governor-appointed Kentucky Historic Preservation Review Board, which meets twice yearly to consider nominations prior to their submission to NPS for final consideration.

Owners of National Register properties may qualify for state and/or federal tax credits for rehabilitation of these properties to standards set forth by the Secretary of the Interior, as certified by the Kentucky Heritage Council, or by making a charitable contribution of a preservation easement. National Register status does not affect property ownership rights, but does provide a measure of protection against adverse impacts from federally funded projects.

Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet

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