The county seat of Oldham County, the picturesque town of La Grange, Kentucky, is distinguished by a street-running mainline railroad track that cuts through the center of its historic downtown district. Replete with shops, small businesses, eateries and art galleries, the city was recognized as a Preserve America Community in 2004 because of its commitment to protecting and celebrating its unique heritage.
Situated between the main interstate access to La Grange and its historic downtown core, time had not been so kind to an abandoned site accented by a discarded feed-storage building and a onetime Southern States co-op. An eyesore to most, the derelict location and its unkempt buildings spelled opportunity to Oldham County resident George R. Rawlings, owner and CEO of The Rawlings Group—a comprehensive health insurance data mining and claims recovery company—and founder of the Rawlings Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to revitalizing Oldham County.
A trusted advisor to Rawlings, GS&P designed the Rawlings Group headquarters—a 160,000-square-foot office space located on a 60-acre greenfield site not far from downtown La Grange. Following the success of the project, the businessman and philanthropist called upon GS&P once again, this time to transform the long-forgotten downtown site and its unused buildings into a distinctive gateway element to the city of La Grange that could be utilized by the community.
“Mr. Rawlings wanted to do something that was both exciting and modern, and would introduce something new into the context of La Grange,” says project designer Jeff Kuhnhenn. “His overarching vision was to provide a signature project that conveyed the spirit of the city while serving as a gathering space for community events.
“Because of its prime location, Mr. Rawlings saw tremendous potential in the unoccupied site, and he re-imagined it to provide the city with a new state-of-the-art chamber of commerce and visitor center, as well as multiuse event space and a landscaped public park.”
Leading the rehabilitation effort, GS&P was charged with providing conceptual design, architecture, engineering and landscape architecture for a 3,500-square-foot chamber of commerce and visitor center, and a 9,000-square-foot event space that would both utilize the infrastructure of the site’s two existing buildings. In addition, a new 9,200-square-foot event space was slated for construction on an adjacent property, and a vacant paved lot was set to become a park-like plaza for public use.
“Mr. Rawlings was very clear about what he wanted to accomplish with this project,” explains Kuhnhenn. “We knew from the outset that he wanted to do something that wasn’t grounded in merely emulating the existing building topographies in the area, and he certainly didn’t want us to design a new old building. So we looked for inspiration from textures that you’d find in the area. Working off that abstraction, we started to generate a sense of place and uniqueness that warranted the function Mr. Rawlings wanted to achieve.”
An Unexpected Discovery
Worn down from years of service, the former Southern States cooperative building—a previous home to feed, seed and farming supplies—may have seemed an unlikely place to house the Oldham County Chamber & Economic Development’s new offices if not for its ideal downtown location. However, great interior and exterior potential lay beneath the utilitarian structure’s rough edges, as was the case with the wood-frame barn that stood empty behind the old brick co-op.
“We discovered an amazing wood frame interior in Pavilion 1—the former feed-storage building we were transforming into an event space,” explains project architect Kelly Cathey. “It had been hidden behind years of neglect, but once exposed, it was really beautiful. So we decided to leave it intact. This feature ultimately became a catalyst for how we designed Pavilion 2, which is the new construction.”
“The old Southern States building was a one-story block and brick structure with steel joist framing, and even though it was a very different design language from the other two structures, we treated it in the same way by exposing its steel joists,” adds project coordinator Clint Harris. “The unexpected findings in both existing buildings were really an added benefit and provided us the perfect opportunity to visually connect all three structures through exposing their framework.”
By using the former feed-storage building as a foundation for Pavilion 1, the design team not only exploited the original building’s striking wood-frame interior, but also eliminated the need for a brand new structure. The first of two conditioned spaces, the 9,000-square-foot pavilion is suitable for a multitude of events, including farmer’s markets, live performances and even wedding ceremonies.
Along with exposing the trusses in Pavilion 2 to keep it aesthetically consistent with its existing building counterparts, the new 9,200-square-foot structure (suitable for larger community events because of its greater volume of space) embellishes on the design intent for Pavilion 1 by using the same materiality, sliding barn doors and outdoor terraces.
Unifying the Campus
With the fundamental design concept for the two existing buildings and the new construction established, the GS&P team began developing a design solution that would not only unify the new chamber of commerce, visitor center and multiuse event spaces with each other, but also with the site as a whole.
“Tying together the short, front brick building with the existing concrete-block and wood-frame pole barn, and the new construction was the project’s single biggest challenge,” explains Cathey. “And that’s because they had to feel like they were all a part of the same campus. One of the ways we achieved this was by using green space and landscaping to tie everything together, and the landscape architects out of our Louisville office played a major role in making the effort an urban park-space rehab as well as a building rehab, which will allow the entire site to be used by the city of La Grange.
“We also addressed this challenge by putting new skins on all of the buildings, which gave the structures a cohesive appearance. We added a bent metal panel entry portal at the visitor center, which is the showpiece and the first thing you’ll see when you enter the town, and we carried that design language through into the new building and the existing pavilion. That level of detailing—so that everything made aesthetic sense—was without doubt the project’s biggest challenge. But it ultimately led to the project’s biggest success, because those previously disconnected structures now feel like they were always a part of the one place.”
“We essentially created an urban park with a series of pavilions around its perimeter,” adds Kuhnhenn, “and I don’t think anybody would have guessed that would be the outcome if they visited the location from the outset. I don’t believe anything exists in the city today that matches those event spaces. And it’s a unique transition that will create another interesting hub of activity adjacent to the downtown core.”
Designed to serve as a verdant oasis from the nearby downtown area, the campus’ park-like garden plaza features carefully selected plant materials that not only highlight this theme but also guide visitors through the site. Spatial considerations were made to reinforce the architecture—and at times to selectively contrast with it—to call attention to design features such as the broad sweeps of the bioswale area.
Creating a New Point of Entry
For a number of years, Oldham County Chamber & Economic Development desired to relocate its offices to La Grange’s town center to establish a distinct downtown presence. To help create a new iconic point of entry to the city—along with a bright, inviting space for both visitors and employees—the design team incorporated a number of key design solutions.
“We recognized that we needed to add volume to the lobby area of the existing one-story structure to make it brighter and more open, so we extended the roof height to make it a two-story space,” explains Cathey. “This not only lifted up the lobby space, but also exposed the steel joists which became a texture for incoming light to play off. We also incorporated a folding-metal form that created a clear definition between the existing building and the new chamber of commerce.
“And because we were challenged with creating a ‘gateway’ into downtown, the new chamber of commerce and visitor center had to be its own blank canvas. So we gave the building’s exterior a distinctive look that comes from the angled canopies which form the entry access to the building. We also utilized the south facade to achieve this by incorporating reflective metal panels that taper in a multitude of directions to reflect the sky and the sunlight. This way, the colors on the facade will be constantly changing as the sky transforms.”
Additionally, materials that reflect the history of the county’s farmland as well as the Ohio River Valley—such as stone, wood and steel—were incorporated into the design, emphasizing the chamber’s connection to Oldham County’s unique heritage.
“If you simply look at the individual materials, a lot of them just say quasi-rustic or durable,” says Kuhnhenn. “But if you stand back and look at how those materials are applied, it’s a very sophisticated design from a detail perspective. It’s definitely not My Old Kentucky Home or a stylized horse barn. It’s its own unique architecture that draws on sensibility, and that goes back to the sense of texture and material and how it relates to the area.”
Redefining the entry into the city of La Grange, GS&P’s design not only creates a brand new gateway element that introduces everyday citizens, periodic workers and tourists to the city, but also offers a functional, modern and unique nexus point for events and activities that will ultimately bring the community together.
“We’ve taken an empty and derelict site on the main pathway into town and turned it into something vibrant and striking that will be utilized and occupied,” says Kuhnhenn. “And at the same time we’ve almost injected a quirkiness into this quaint Kentucky town that embodies an energy that isn’t focused in the city right now.
“At the end of the day, this new point of entry will give people a sense of ‘Hey; there’s something going on here,’ as opposed to just seeing fast-food restaurants and a gas station when you first get off the interstate. And it’s one of those little talismans that a town like this can have, which will work toward changing peoples’ perception of what La Grange and Oldham County are truly all about.”