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« Blue Highways: Lexington, Kentucky | Main | Littourati News: Blue Highways photo essay »

Blue Highways: Frankfort, Kentucky

Click on Thumbnail for MapUnfolding the Map

We hit the Kentucky state capitol today.  Let the map at right guide you.

Book Quote

"The river loops from the east bluffs to the west bluffs and back again, a serpentine among old buildings that almost makes the town a little Venice.  Had it not been for the last thirty years, Frankfort would be an architecturally distinguished capitol city with streets of forcefully simple, aesthetically honest houses and shops.  But the impulse to 'modernize' nineteenth century commercial buildings, an impulse that has blasted the business districts of almost every town in the country, defaced Frankfort.  The harmonious, proportioned, historic lines of the buildings now wore veneers of ceramic tile, cedar siding, imitation marble, extruded aluminum, textured stucco, precast concrete; and the street level had become a jumble of meretricious, tawdry forms.  But at the second- and third-story levels, graceful designs in brick and stone remained; disregarding the plywood over the upper story window, you had unrenovated history."

Blue Highways: Part 1, Chapter 8


Downtown Frankfort at night

Frankfort, Kentucky

William Least-Heat Moon (LHM) writes about driving into the Kentucky capitol as if he is driving into a bowl whose depression conceals the capitol building.  He calls it a "hidden statehouse."  Writing 30 years ago, he couldn't have envisioned the bigger stage that Kentucky plays on the American scene now, where Mitch McConnell is a power player in the Republican minority and was when the Republicans had the U.S. Senate majority, and those interested in politics watch as Republicans in power scramble to distance themselves from their newest Kentucky political player, Rand Paul.

I wrote in a post a while back about how cities in America are often named after cities in Europe.  I assumed this was the case with Frankfort.  After all, there is a city in Germany called Frankfurt, and I thought that perhaps Frankfort was originally settled by a German or Germans.  But I was wrong.  Instead, Frankfort was a derivation of Frank's Ford, after a settler killed by Indians as he crossed the Kentucky River.  The name was changed by residents who wanted something more modern sounding so, as LHM says, they picked something that kept the barest of their history but which didn't make any historical sense and "cut something between them and their beginnings."

I've often written about the modern aesthetic, and so what most appeals to me about LHM's chapter is the quote I've picked above.  Later on in the chapter, he highlights another aspect of modernization to me, the New Frankfort strip with the chain stores and fast food joints.  His quote, however, focuses on the urge to modernize by "sprucing up" old buildings.  Towns and cities all over America did it, adding new materials and losing something of their history in the process.  If it wasn't retrofitting historical buildings to meet modern aesthetics, it was destroying them entirely.  Sometimes it became hard to believe.

An aside to where I live now, in New Mexico.  In Albuquerque, we had a grand old Harvey hotel called The Alvarado that existed until it was demolished in 1970.  It occupied an entire city block downtown right along the railroad tracks, and evidently was a jewel.  But progress couldn't be stopped, and wrecking balls reduced it to rubble.  Years later, when a transportation center was planned for that spot, the design was made to resemble the old Alvarado Hotel.  The center is just a shell compared to what once stood there, but I like to think that the city realized that it had lost something special.

In Santa Fe, a variant of modernization actually tries to hearken back to what New Mexico originally was, a Spanish colony of adobe buildings.  However, Santa Fe itself became a sort of "Western" town, with buildings that you would expect in the old West.  However, many of those buildings have been stuccoed over to resemble adobe buildings in an attempt to recall an even more distant past, and building codes make any new buildings fit the popular aesthetic.  Does this really recall a past or does it lose some of the history?

Call it what you will - progress or destruction - but cities and towns all over America remake themselves, often under the rubric of "revitalization."  All the places I've lived and work have experienced this.  My hometown looks different than it did when I was growing up.  Milwaukee remade its downtown.  New Orleans seems to live in its somnambulent past while modern growth springs up around it in the adjoining parishes.  San Antonio created the Riverwalk and is trying to revitalize its downtown.  The goal is to draw new people with new needs and desires into these areas, and to do so, cities and town must make their downtowns appeal to them.  Frankfort is probably no different.  However, any revitalization also means denigrating some part of the past to the shadows, until it might get popular again and rise to the surface.  Is this bad or good?  I think it depends on who is observing and what they miss the most.

If you want to know more about Frankfort

Destination Frankfort
Gravesite of Daniel Boone
Kentucky Historical Society
Kentucky State University
State-Journal (newspaper)
University of Kentucky: Frankfort history
Wikipedia: Frankfort

Next up:  Lexington, Kentucky

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  • Response
    NFL is seriously a single of the greatest sports in America. It has a major following.

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