On a quiet cul-de-sac on the southeastern edge of Lexington, Kentucky, a large house stands out from a neat patchwork of gabled McMansions with brick facades. Designed in the late 1980s by Le Corbusier protégé and then-dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Kentucky, architect José Oubrerie, the Miller House takes clear cues from Le Corbusier’s modernist Villa Shodhan in Ahmedabad, India. The homes are similar in scale and material, with porous concrete porticos, protruding stairwells, and a division of public and private spaces between the ground floor and upper levels. Where Le Corbusier left parts of Villa Shodhan open to take advantage of cross breezes in Ahmedabad’s warm climate, Oubrerie used glazing to adapt the Miller House to Kentucky’s colder winters.
The most distinctive aspect of the Miller House’s architecture, however, lies in its program. Commissioned by an older couple with two adult children, Oubrerie incorporated three autonomous dwellings into the home, each separated by a series of elevated catwalks and stairwells. On the interior, a collection of wood, dark metal, concrete, and brightly painted elements create a sense of continuity across volumes. A double-height atrium in the middle of the building serves as the social center of the residence.
The more recent encroachment of large suburban McMansions onto the Miller House’s original 30-acre forested lot has highlighted the building’s eccentricity, perhaps to the chagrin of some neighbors. For many designers and architectural historians, though, Oubrerie’s unique approach to intergenerational co-living makes the Miller House a project worth preserving. While the house does not fall under any of Lexington’s neighborhood-wide preservation ordinances, hopes are high that a new buyer will appreciate its design value enough to reject demolition. Although the home originally went up for sale in April of 2017, it was finally purchased and saved from disrepair in 2018. However, the current owner, Jennifer McClure, reportedly needs to sell the building and will open an auction on the property tomorrow, May 26. With bids starting at $400,000 despite higher previous sale prices, the purchase could be a major bargain for the right preservation-minded buyer.
Just southwest of Lexington’s historic center, a similar story is playing out with a very different house. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, restauranteur and developer Philip Greer has applied to demolish the historic Thomas Watkins House, which he acquired through his LLC Virginia Way. Designed and constructed by local architect John McMurtry in the late 1880s, the red-brick house is now surrounded by an increasingly dense commercial and residential district. But with no landmark protection or guarantee that its replacement will be of more use to the community, the demolition of the house could mark an unmitigated loss for the city of Lexington.
As the Herald-Leader pointed out, the city of Lexington does maintain an H-1 protection classification for individual buildings of historic or architectural significance, though the rule has only been used twice since its inception in the middle of the 20th century. While it is unclear whether any H-1 applications have been filed for the Miller House or the Thomas Watkins House in the past, it is unlikely that such a process would begin for the latter without new ownership. Preservationists are hoping, in the meantime, that the future buyers of the Miller House will steer clear of the demolition route, lest Lexington lose another unique gem.