The Brilliance of the Wolf Wile Building

Wolf Wile Building - study-1


Simon Wolf and Dolph Wile began a mercantile business together in 1912 on West Main Street between Mill Street and Broadway.  They moved their business to this new International Style store at 250 East Main Street, at the corner of Quality Street, in 1949-1950.  The four-story building is the product of collaboration between the Lexington architectural firm of Frankel and Curtis and the New York firm of Amos Parish and Company.  The department store closed in 1992 and the building was subsequently repurposed by the James N. Gray Construction Company as a corporate headquarters.  The structure is listed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.


The modern design movement, of which the International Style is emblematic, emerged in Europe in the 1910s and 1920s.  As advocated by prominent architects such as Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Richard Neutra, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, modern buildings were conceived to be three-dimensional and relate functional interior use to external appearance through the use of horizontal and vertical planes and wall extensions, and expansive glass doors and windows to visually link the outside with the interior.


The International Style rejected exuberant exterior decoration that had characterized the Beaux-Arts and Art Deco designs of the 1920s and 1930s in favor of simple, functional exteriors whose appearance was directed by the interior spaces. The store’s large front windows and glass doors not only presented another form of horizontal plane but also linked outside and interior.


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A 45-foot vertical pylon is faced with rock-faced Tyrone limestone blocks laid in broken range coursing.  The pylon carries the store name in black vertical letters and extends to the sidewalk’s edge which gives the illusion of projecting into the public walkway.  The upper wall is finished in polished granite panels which mirror the black lettering.


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Three fluted stainless steel columns, flared from bottom to top, support the entrance canopy.  Try to imagine the visual impact of geometric columns as canopy supports.  That option would have created a monolithic entrance dominated by relentless squares and rectangles.  Instead, the fluted columns give the illusion that the canopy is supported by delicate cones while their stainless steel finish subtly links to modern architecture aesthetics.


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The former display space inside the front windows has been repurposed and is now a meeting area where modern bentwood-style mid-century chairs await visitors.


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Next time you’re downtown, slow down, indeed stop and linger, at the Wolf Wile Building and cast your eye discerningly upon this magnificent edifice, an icon of the early modern period of American architecture.


I would be remiss if I did not salute Gray Construction for preserving the Main Street facade of the Wolf Wile Building after the company bought the structure for use as its corporate headquarters.


Finally, I cannot resist the opportunity to reproduce here my playful photographic fantasy – a softening of the building’s masculine facade, which serves as the company’s formal entrance at the rear of the Wolf Wile Building.


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[The architectural descriptions in this post are borrowed from a narrative written by Dr. Karl Raitz (Professor Emeritus, UK Geography Department)].


[photographs by Rich Greissman]


Art Deco Lives in Napier New Zealand


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[photographs by Rich Greissman]


Departing momentarily from my Slow Urban focus on Lexington’s city center architecture, I wish with this post to recall my brief 2015 stay in Napier, New Zealand. The commercial architecture of the city was a delicious visual treat, albeit one borne out of tragedy.


In 1931 a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck the Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand’s north island. The coastal city of Napier, less than 10 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter, was flattened. The human toil was enormous: 161 people were killed and thousands were injured. In addition, most of Napier’s buildings were destroyed.


In the aftermath of the tragedy, the citizens of Napier faced the daunting challenge of having to rebuild most of the city’s commercial infrastructure. In an enlightened moment of urban planning, the Napier’s civic leadership elected to overlay an intentional and uniform design on the architectural reconstruction of city’s commercial district. But what design ought to inform the restoration? A call to the architectural community for design proposals elicited a consensus recommendation.


The Art Deco style of architecture being the international rage of the 1930s, New Zealand’s architectural community urged Napier’s civic leaders to dictate that all commercial building incorporate Art Deco motifs. And so it is — every contemporary commercial building in Napier has a hint, if not full expression, of Art Deco design.



I was enchanted by the visual impact of city-center Napier and set out to capture with photographs its stunning architectural  signature.


Click on the slide show link at the top of this post to my Napier photographs.


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The Past Lives of Buildings

21c Cornice


Fayette Building

[photographs by Rich Greissman]


The 21c Hotel (formerly the First National Bank Building)


In the nineteenth century, a series of taverns occupied the important downtown corner of West Main and North Upper Streets.  In 1872 local builder-architect John McMurtry completed construction on a four-story, stone-front bank here designed in the French Second Empire style.


The McMurtry Building was razed to clear space for Lexington’s First National Bank in 1913.  The commission to design the new bank was awarded to the New York architectural firm of McKim, one of America’s premier architectural firms at the time.  The bank was constructed in 1913-1914 at a cost of $285,000. At fifteen stories, the bank building was Lexington’s first skyscraper, and also its tallest until the 1970s.


The top-most photograph above features the bank building’s cap (floors 12-15), which includes some of the building’s most interesting architectural flourishes.


The Fayette Building


As viewed from the Main Street side, the diminutive three-story bank annex building was formerly part of a larger multi-lot Italianate-style building called the Higgins Block erected in 1872.  In 1933, First National Bank acquired the building to expand its vault and office space.


The bank building and the Higgins Block were recently renovated for the opening of Lexington’s 21c Hotel.  To update the annex and associate it visually with the Beaux Arts style of the hotel Building, the first-floor facade of the Fayette Building was torn off and replaced with a new buff-colored brick street wall.


Gone from the Fayette Building is the cast iron Italianate façade of the first floor.  The second of the two photographs above illustrates the lovely, if also ornate, architectural features of that facade.


For some, and certainly this photographer, the recent renovation of the Fayette Building leaves the visual landscape of West Main Street diminished — rather pedestrian, I believe — compared to the former (albeit historically situated) architectural rendering of the Higgins Block building. Such are the past lives of downtown buildings.


[The architectural descriptions in this post rely heavily on a narrative written by Dr. Karl Raitz (Professor Emeritus, UK Geography Department).


What’s My Line


Heydar Aliyev Center (Baku, Azerbeijan) | Zaha Hadid, Architect


The curvilinear line is the most seductive form in an architect’s toolbox. One need only view Zaha Hadid’s astonishing design for the Heydar Aliyev Center, shown here in the figure above, to find irrefutable merit in my bold assertion. There is no finer poetic verse in geometry than that of the curved line.


That said, this post shall rhapsodize about the rectilinear line, if only to speak up for the lesser, but beautiful, architectural line.


My meditation on the rectilinear line has three elements, a set of contiguous buildings on the west side of North Limestone just above the Second Street intersection. They are individually and collectively outstanding examples of un-natural geometries. They are visages not seen in nature. Give to nature full marks for the visual splendor of the hexagonal beehive. It is natural elegance – an elegy to the straight line, but of a very different vector.


The rectilinear form is the invention of an architect. Its provenance is wholly human. And thoroughly sublime. Witness our trilogy on North Limestone:


209 Limestone

215 Limestone

221 Limestone

[photographs by Rich Greissman]


I love the complex geometries of the top-most image. The subtle interplay of rectangle and square, of wood, glass and brick, of varying tonalities, juxtaposed against the playful inclusion of the angular pediment and the lovely arc and ripple of the drapery fan.


I am captivated by the varied textures of the middle image, by the valiant effort of the steel balcony to defy the flattened dimensionality of the photographic image and by the sculptured elegance of the wood trim set in an awkward embrace with the weather-worn facing of brick.


And finally, there is that aura of solemnity and solidity in the facade of the third image, which I find powerfully photogenic.


Curvilinear and rectilinear line – children of different provenance, but like our own progeny, we should not choose one over the other.


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More Thoughts on Inspirational Architecture

nyc public library

photograph of the 5th Avenue branch NYC Public Library by Wurts Brothers (NYC)


My dear friend Rona Roberts sent a thoughtful reply to my recent post on inspirational architecture. Her comment and my reply follow . . .


Rona’s comment:


I was right there with you as I read. And actually I still feel much the same wonder when I go to NYC and visit these places. It’s human in those situations to look “at each other with a wild surmise.” I know there are problems and issues with cities and with tall buildings and grand spaces — but I also know they elevate life. Thank you for voicing that.


Rich’s reply


I’ll take my notion of ‘secular cathedrals’ one step further by confessing that I adore monumental public architecture. The term ‘monumental’ alludes not only to GRAND architecture — think of the numerous union train stations that dot the urban landscape across numerous US cities (e.g., Portland, Chicago, Utica, DC, Cincinnati, to name but a few) or the 5th Avenue branch of the NYC Public Library — but also to the celebratory public spaces that are intended to be at once secular AND revered, if not sacred. Public architectural monuments thrill me in much the same way as the grand cathedrals of Europe. They are spaces, secular or sanctified but always hallowed, that speak to a greater power, a higher sense of purpose, be that power transcendent or communal.


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My Earliest Memory of Urban Architecture

Chrysler_Building_by_David_ShankboneGrand Central Station

photograph of the Chrysler Building by David Shankbone


My earliest memory of an ‘architectural moment’ is two-fold. One school holiday (perhaps when I was about 10 years), I traveled with my father by train to New York City to spend the day at his advertising agency located in the Chanin Building, which was adjacent to Grand Central Station. The train from Hartsdale, New York lumbered along the Hudson River on its journey to its destination. After the final 10 minutes of eerie travel through the subterranean maze of train tunnels that led to Grand Central Station,  we stepped outside the train onto the cavernous train platform deep underground  and ascended by stairs into the great hall — the main concourse — of Grand Central Station.


It may be my first memory of a cathedral-like public building.


Years later, in a moment of reverie after reading the lines of a John Keats’ poem, I would think back on that moment when, casting a figure like stout Cortez, I gazed upon the architectural majesty of the main concourse:


Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

excerpt from Keats’ On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer


At lunch time, my father and I  walked to a nearby restaurant.  Along the way, I caught my first glimpse of the Chrysler Building, the Art Deco icon of midtown Manhattan. The visual gifts of Grand Central and the Chrysler Building left indelible impressions on me. I have been fascinated by urban architecture every since.


Of a different scale for sure, Lexington’s downtown architecture nonetheless rewards those willing to be inquisitive and observant.


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Upping Your Game As A Photographer

Yellow Window

For the past year I have been teaching photography classes for the UK’s Fine Arts Institute (FAI), the continuing education division of the School of Art & Visual Studies, a unit within the College of Fine Arts.


I have taught both didactic classes on beginning and advanced Adobe Lightroom Classic CC (the desk/laptop version of Lightroom) and field workshops on the streets and alleys of Lexington. I have also offered one-on-one instruction on a variety of topics focused on the mechanics of a digital camera and computer skills related to digital photographic post-processing, as well as individual instruction on Adobe Lightroom Classic CC and Adobe Lightroom CC (the cloud-based version of Lightroom).


My consultation rate is $50 per hour, typically in two-hour blocks. And, with each 2-hour block of consultation, I include an additional hour of free follow-up help.


My FAI students and those with whom I have conducted one-on-one sessions have praised my instruction. Having taught for forty years at the high school and college levels, I know what I do well. I am a talented and accomplished teacher.


I would welcome the opportunity to help you ‘up your game’ as a photographer by having you enroll in one of my FAI classes or contact me about one-on-one instruction.


Visit my DoubleTake Photography website





Outside Lies Magic







John Stiloge begins his book Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places with an emphatic declaration, one worthy of reproduction here in its entirety:


‘GET OUT NOW. Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people at the end of our century. Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around. Do not jog. Do not run. Forget about blood pressure and arthritis, cardiovascular rejuvenation and weight reduction. Instead pay attention to everything that abuts the rural road, the city street, the suburban boulevard. Walk. Stroll. Saunter. Ride a bike, and coast along a lot. Explore.  Abandon, even momentarily, the sleek modern technology that consumes so much time and money now, and seek out the resting place of a technology almost forgotten. Go outside and walk a bit, long enough to forget programming, long enough to take in and record new surroundings.’

[Stilgoe, John R.. Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places (pp. 1-2). Bloomsbury Publishing.]


Stilgoe’s words ring true to me and resonate with the sentiments of my New Year’s resolution: to get out more, be mindful of place and purposeful in the effort to capture with camera that which most excites me.


Were it only so. Gone are the days that I relished the swoosh of a cross country ski outing across the hills of central New York State in -20 degree weather. My 66 year old body speaks to me: You are a weather wimp.


Instead, I remain indoors, rereading Stilgoe . . . (mostly) confident that arctic air will eventually recede and I will make good on a promise to saunter, observe closely, photograph and produce a regular Slow Urban post.


visit my DoubleTake Photography website








Slow Urban redux

Old and New

It has been 4 years since I last posted to my Slow Urban blog. And now, almost half a decade later, it feels right, and yes long overdue, to commit to a pair of New Year’s resolutions for 2018. The first: Revive my life as a blogger. And its companion, if also its creative antecedent: Spend more time on the streets of Lexington or in the glens of the Bluegrass with camera in hand.


Look for my posts . . . and help me stay resolved.


Happy New Year!


visit my DoubleTake Photography website