Traditional Building Portfolio



Restoring Latrobe

The restoration of Benjamin Henry Latrobe's Pope Villa illustrates the importance of maintaining and utilizing historic structures in challenging times.
By Lynne Lavelle

As with many great houses, the story behind Benjamin Henry Latrobe's Pope Villa in Lexington, KY, is as intriguing as the structure itself. It was built in 1810 for Senator John Pope and his wife Eliza, whom Latrobe met while working in Washington, DC. English-born and -trained, Latrobe immigrated to the U.S. in 1795, where he became one of the country's first professional architects. His Neoclassical work caught the eye of President Thomas Jefferson, who in 1803 appointed Latrobe surveyor of public buildings, with responsibility for the continuing development of the White House and the U.S. Capitol.

Latrobe worked closely with Pope, a Republican, during his Senate term (1807-1813) on a proposal to overhaul infrastructure and privately, on the design of Pope's own residence. John and Eliza were hands-on clients; Eliza in particular shared Latrobe's taste for English architecture and the avant-garde, having been educated in Europe herself.

The result was a fusion of 16th-century Palladian and 18th-century picturesque landscape principles that is regarded as unique in American residential design. Its plan was a perfect square with a domed, circular rotunda in the center of the second story and an austere exterior that conceals a variety of rectilinear and curvilinear rooms. Three sheets of drawings, including alternative two- and three-story elevations, survive in the Library of Congress. Among them are a full section, a partial section and a combined attic plan and roof-framing plan, and the first- and second-floor plans. These show Pope's office, Eliza's parlor and the service spaces on the first floor, and the major public rooms and bedchambers on the second floor.

Though Pope's political career spanned almost 50 years, he was not re-elected to the senate for a second term owing to his opposition to the largely popular War of 1812. John and Eliza's time at Pope Villa was therefore cut short, though they maintained ownership of the house until 1829 and had little trouble renting it out to a variety of interesting tenants.

Among them was Major Dallum, a local militia captain, who entertained President Madison and Andrew Jackson during their western tour. Dallum kept a diary throughout this period, in which he talked of rooms that were not yet plastered and various problems indicative of the Popes' dwindling fortunes. However, it wasn't until after the building was sold that a series of alterations detrimental to Latrobe's original design began, including three additions and Greek Revival and Italianate exterior features. These continued until 1987, when The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation – a non-profit advocate for historic preservation since 1955 – acquired Pope Villa for restoration. By that time, the house was a shadow of Latrobe's original intentions, and had also suffered fire damage that year.

The Pope Villa Committee was formed in 1987 to oversee the project and manage the building, and is comprised of volunteers and members of the Blue Grass Trust's board of directors, as well as longtime affiliates and supporters. It meets annually with the trust's national advisory board, which includes prominent and experienced preservationists such as Travis McDonald, executive director of Poplar Forest; Paul Reber, executive director of Stratford Hall; and Hugh Miller of the National Parks Service executive committee.

First, the committee hired architects to study the building and produce detailed reports regarding its original fabric and the changes that had occurred over time. It was determined from these that certain areas required urgent conservation, including the roof and delicate interior plasterwork. A temporary roof was constructed to mitigate further water damage and buy the trust some time.

Besides fundraising concerns, the biggest question facing the committee was to which period, and how faithfully, it should restore the villa. While members were wary of removing significant alterations without sufficient evidence of original fabric, it was decided after much debate that the villa should represent the 1812 period and Latrobe's original intentions as much as possible. On the front façade, where work began in 1996, this meant that an 1812 front entrance portico was re-created from historical, rather than physical, evidence, while Greek Revival trim from the 1820s was left in place pending future discoveries.

Mike Meuser, chair of the Pope Villa Committee and three-time past president of the Blue Grass Trust, first became involved with the project in 1998. At the time, work had stalled following the completion of the front façade. "There were a couple of issues," says Meuser. "One was that we had applied for a transportation grant, touting the collaboration between Latrobe, Senator Pope and Thomas Jefferson on the Pope Porter bill. The tricky part was that we had to provide a 20 percent match in order to receive the grant, so that held things up for a time. We also decided to resolve any disagreements within the committee and the advisory board about the current architects by issuing a request for qualifications for an architect for the next phase."

After a year-long selection process, the committee hired Mesick, Cohen, Wilson, Baker Architects (MCWB) of Albany, NY. The firm has worked on some of the nation's most significant buildings, including Monticello, Poplar Forest and Montpelier. To Meuser, the parallels were obvious. "Jefferson altered Monticello throughout his life, so it requires a lot of investigation any time any work is carried out there," he says. "Poplar Forest burned and then was rebuilt. And the third and best example is Montpelier, because the National Trust and National Board of Directors had essentially the same debate that we are having on an ongoing basis, which is to say, 'can we adequately document what was here at Madison's time period to restore it with fidelity?'"

According to MCWB principal Jeff Baker, Pope Villa's cultural and architectural uniqueness made this project extra special to the firm. "Latrobe's very name is special to architects, especially those interested in historic architecture and American culture," he says. "Not only was he our first professional architect, he was also very skillful and discerning. And out of the three surviving houses of the many that Latrobe designed, to my mind, this is the most architecturally interesting and spectacular. Only a person who was very conversant in what was going on overseas in France and England during the early Federal period would have dreamed of anything like this; Latrobe really carried that Neoclassical flame to our shores."

The second phase moved on to the side and rear elevations, where a series of remodelings over the years had result in a confused, semi-Italiante appearance. Three additions, dating from the 1850s, early-20th century and the 1960s, as well as two Italianate bay windows, were removed, leaving gaping holes in the original brick façade. A number of original windows survived in the house, and were copied exactly, from the species of wood to the joinery and hardware.

Despite its public perception as a ruin, the villa provided the architects with ample original materials. Wallpapers, moldings and mantels kept guesswork to a minimum, and the detailing had much in common with the local vernacular. "I think when people go into a house that has suffered at least three major renovations and a major fire, they see a hopeless basket case," says Baker. "But we've spent our entire professional lives looking at and studying buildings of this nature, and although it suffered some severe damage, there is still an enormous amount of original fabric that enables us to restore it with a great deal of accuracy. Trying to get that point across has been something of a challenge, but I have worked on houses with a lot less than this. At Poplar Forest for example, we would have prayed for the amount of information that we have here."

Analyses of local materials and craftsmanship helped the architects build a sense of place. The villa contained a lot of indigenous blue ash and the bricks were made in nearby Lexington, home to the cutting-edge Federal period architecture that influenced some of the detailing. Most telling of all, the surviving windows were replicas of those found in half-a-dozen houses around town. "There is no doubt that there were a lot of vernacular materials and even some vernacular details happening, even though Latrobe designed the house," says Baker. "There was a certain method that the craftsmen and the workmen were accustomed to. Not only materials, but also their molding planes in some cases. Where perhaps the drawings were not there for them, they did things the way they had done on the last house. We do see that, and it is helping us out quite a bit."

The 1987 fire burned away at least a third of the original roof, but its flat deck, railing and chimneys will be faithfully reconstructed next. "There were fragments of the original flat roof deck on top of the building that must have been encapsulated later on," says Baker. "And we know it had wood shingles, as pieces were found after the fire. We'd like to restore the upper region, so the whole exterior will be just about completed."

As the project is entirely driven by funding, the restoration is currently on hold. And as Julie Good, executive director of the Blue Grass Trust explains, the present economic downturn will force organizations such as hers to make some tough decisions. "I think we have to be realistic. Nonprofits have always been able to operate on very little, and the point is that we are operating with even less now," she says. "Donations are down, the number of donors is down, but our donors expect that we will do the best possible work, and continue to do so despite the tough economic times. We will have to streamline our programming to become even more efficient with the resources that we have and are made available to us. And whether our members are donating time or dollars, any help is welcomed."

The Blue Grass Trust recently relaunched its website ( and is currently overhauling its marketing department. And to pique the public's interest even further, it holds regular onsite workshops, such as that held at Pope Villa in April of last year. "We brought Dr. Gerard Lynch – an internationally known brickmason – over from England, and masons came from around the country to work with him and a local mason, Miles Miller," says Good. "And so these men and women worked on the Pope Villa structure together and got three days on hands-on experience and guidance. It was a pretty amazing experience."

Though it is further down the road, the committee has begun to explore how the fully restored Pope Villa could be used. So far, the University of Kentucky – whose campus is located less than half a block away – looks promising. "The university runs a graduate program in historic preservation and has almost no historic facilities in which to hold a small reception or an exhibition," says Meuser. "So we are working on securing an agreement with the university for a light and appropriate use of the building that is connected to the university in some way."

Ultimately, Pope Villa's survival will depend on its relevance. "We live in a time when house museums, even the best of them, can't seem to get enough people through the doors to justify their existence, "says Meuser. "It's going to be tricky. We don't want to lose control over the building's future and want to retain some controls over how it is used. But if we can get some help with the cost of repairs and maintenance, and a suitable use for the villa within the community, that could be a win-win situation."  



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