I Am Sorry Ernst Johnson: Endangered properties at UK still threatened

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I am sorry Ernst Johnson
UK’s Endangered List still Endangered

by REBECCA BURNWORTH

As an architect who practices preservation architecture, I am saddened to hear that the University of Kentucky and the Bluegrass Trust for Historic Preservation were not able to reach an agreement this past week regarding the demolition of several University properties. The University of Kentucky is moving forward with plans to permanently erase several properties including all mid-century housing on campus. The Wenner-Gren building, built in 1941, has NOT been scheduled for demolition; however, it currently stands in the way of University plans for a new science building. Several other architecturally significant buildings are threatened by university expansion.
0206201411In architecture school, we were taught that we generally hate what our parents built, but embrace what our grandparents built. Does embracing the mid-century modern era mean we are getting older? As the generations progress we are coming to value the architecture of the 50s, 60s and 70s a bit more than we used to. What makes these building so valuable?
It is easy to see that an impressionist painting has value and we understand that impressionist techniques were groundbreaking for painting styles at the time. Who decided this value and at what point? When did Warhol soup can prints decidedly become so invaluable? Perhaps we only see in hindsight a valuable contributor to an important artistic style in history. These portable works are easily stored, easily speculating, but also readily grasped at that scale.
What does it take for us to realize that an architectural style is important to society? While architectural projects have an obvious, less portable girth, they are no less inspiring or no less of a contribution than priceless historical paintings. In fact, I would argue that they tell an even greater story. They speak of how we live, how we work and how we adjust this lifestyle over the years. Not only do they represent a moment in time, but a range of years. I can tell you that architectural “improvements” can successfully be made over time to move the building forward towards a continued useful life – respectfully.
As we move forward, Lexington, let’s determine a grounded plan for saving all of our architectural gems. We know that there are aging campuses everywhere with maturing mid-century buildings. Let us look now. These buildings may purely contribute to an architectural style that our grandparents saw as wholly responsive to life during that moment in time. We have already embraced turn-of-the-century Victorian era homes and Italianate urban beauties. We hoist these artifacts onto willing flat-bed trucks and wiggle them through the streets only to lovingly place them, whole, onto a new foundation, a new resting place. We have come up with successful plans to encase, surround, include and save these aging antique buildings.
I am proud to see that we are aging in Lexington, getting older means embracing a new era of architecture and perhaps a new method of saving these pieces.
While we may have missed these priceless contributors (I am sorry Ernst Johnson), I cannot wait to see what our new generational attitude produces. Perhaps we may even see a mid-century beauty wiggling its way through the streets of Lexington.
Eleven at the 11th Hour
On January 29th, 2014, The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation presented a letter addressed to Dr. Eli Capiluto, President of the University of Kentucky regarding proposed demolition of eleven buildings on the University of Kentucky Campus in order to construct new residence halls and class buildings at a meeting called: “Eleven at the Eleventh Hour” to initiate a dialogue with the university. The eleven historic buildings on the list slated for demolition are: Ligon House, Mathews House and Garden, Kirwan-Blanding dormitory complex, Carnahan House at UK’s Coldstream Campus, Patterson Hall, Hamilton House, The Quadrangle (Bowman Hall, Breckinridge Hall, Bradley Hall and Kinkead Hall) as well as the Wenner-Gren Research Laboratory, Jewell Hall, Holmes Hall and Donovan Hall, designed by Ernst Johnson.
Ernst Johnson lived in Lexington and designed buildings on UK’s campus from 1938 through 1950 including the Student Center, Funkhouser Building and Memorial Coliseum These designs branded him a 20th century Modernist architect, in similar vein as Eero Saarinen.
Following the meeting in January, The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation sent another letter on February 5th also addressed to President Capiluto.
In a meeting on Monday March 3, The University of Kentucky and The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation failed to reach agreement on the following properties that will be demolished: The Hamilton House, Holmes Hall, Jewell Hall and Donovan Hall. However the Wenner-Gren demolition contract has not been awarded as of yet.
The University previously committed to renovating Patterson Hall and has stabilized the Carnahan House – both named by the Blue Grass Trust in the 2014 Most Endangered Properties in Central Kentucky.
The Mathews and Ligon Houses remain in limbo at this time, neither the funding nor the architectural plans are in place.

This article also appears on page 11 of the March 6, 2014 issue of Ace.

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