You might expect the architects for a new building dedicated to the history of the region surrounding Louisville to try and fit the design into its surrounding context. After all, the client, the Filson Historical Society, is almost 125 years old, and the site is in a landmarked district full of well-kept Victorian houses. But the recently completed expansion, the Owsley Brown II History Center, by de Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop, is clearly of this century: the 30,000-square-foot, five-story structure in Old Louisville has a flat, plinthlike roof and a taut veneer-brick skin with vertical sculptural fins that seem to peel back the cladding to reveal generous expanses of glass. It is decidedly not what M. Ross Primmer and Roberto de Leon, coprincipals of the Louisville-based firm, refer to derisively as “Ye Olde.”
The architects have designed a handsome contemporary structure for the center—named after a late local philanthropist and Filson board member—and have skillfully inserted it into its complicated setting. Even casual observers should be able to detect the underlying logic, rooted in close observation of the site. The most obvious manifestation is the choice of brick, the dominant material of the neighborhood. A more subtle reference to the context is the building’s proportions: its tall and narrow street-facing elevation is of similar dimensions to the fronts of the adjacent houses and echoes their facade rhythm, in which one third of each housefront is distinct from the rest. The architects discovered that these proportions are consistent throughout the district by documenting nine square blocks around the site—one piece of their extensive analysis of the neighborhood and its history.
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De Leon & Primmer, Architectural Record Design Vanguard winners, relied on such a reinterpretation of historical and vernacular architecture in previous projects, including a visitor center for Wild Turkey Bourbon in Lawrenceberg, Kentucky. The building melds forms typical of the region’s agricultural buildings with clean-edged modernism. Here at the Filson, the architects’ strategy of combining investigation and invention won over the board and the neighbors, as well as the landmarks commission, which was eager to avoid creating a false sense of history, according to Primmer.
The new building, which provides much needed archive space for the organization’s extensive collection of manuscripts, photographs, and artwork, among other materials, as well as a home for lectures, exhibitions, and receptions, completes a small campus. Besides the History Center, the Filson includes a 1905 Beaux-Arts mansion and carriage house (the buildings have been the institution’s home since the mid 1980s; both were renovated as part of this $13.8 million project), and a new 115-foot-long elevated, enclosed walkway. It spans an alley and connects the three structures, allowing staff to move research materials through the complex without exposing them to the elements. The new facility and a capacious plaza replace parking lots that were created by tearing down houses, before the neighborhood earned its protected status in 1974.
Within its rectangular footprint, the History Center contains the archives on five floors at its eastern end, along with two stacked rooms for events, each with the capacity for 220 people, at its western end. In between these two zones, and extending the structure’s full 42-foot height, is a grand stair hall, glazed on two sides. The program areas have distinct characters. The archives look quasi-industrial, with the concrete structure and the utilities exposed. Although they have a back-of-house feel, passageways that are accessible to both staff and visitors extend into these storage areas, offering glimpses of the Filson’s treasures through glass partitions (the collection is also visible from the exterior because of a five-story-tall, north-facing, UV-protected glass curtain wall).
The architects gave the stair hall and function rooms an entirely different tone, one more akin to the elaborate interiors of the neighboring houses and to those of the Filson’s own mansion, which include Tiffany light fixtures, elaborately carved oak-paneled walls, coffered ceilings, and mosaic-tiled hearths. But the new interiors don’t replicate any of these elements. Instead, they imaginatively reinterpret them, relying on less exotic and more contemporary materials, as well as new construction methods.
The event rooms, for instance, feature wall panels of CNC-cut poplar slats stained a rich brown. The ceilings have similarly fabricated screens that conceal acoustical material and mechanical systems. In addition to the poplar slats, they incorporate strips of Lucite. These are almost undetectable, except for their unpolished edges, which subtly glow with reflected light. The idea, says de Leon, was to provide a sense of craft and intricacy, but still make it easy to build.
The stair, supported by a steel structure suspended from above, is wrapped, like the walls and ceilings of the two halls, in poplar slats. Here they have been cut and arranged to create a sculptural, extruded form based on the profile of a traditional stair balustrade. The strategy produces something that is more than a means of vertical circulation: any visitor should find it an inviting social space, enhanced by the warmth and grain of the precisely cut wood. One can easily imagine the stair landings populated by guests at a fundraising gala, engaged in conversation.
Since completing the History Center, the Filson has seen an uptick in donations, both of artifacts and of funds. Many of the gifts, including a set of U.S.-presidential autographs and a grant establishing a Jewish community archives, are from individuals with no prior connection to the organization. Craig Buthod, the Filson’s CEO and president, attributes this activity to the new building. “Previously, we just had a mansion,” which, as far as passersby were concerned, could have housed anything, “even a dental office,” says Buthod. And he credits the way de Leon & Primmer’s thoughtful design is integrated into its surroundings, yet is still clearly of the present day, with this new visibility and confidence. “People just have a better idea of what the Filson does.”
de Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop— Roberto C. de Leon, Jr., M. Ross Primmer, coprincipals in charge; David Mayo, Michael Gastineau, project managers
MKSK (civil, landscape);
Tetra Tech (structural);
Shrout Tate Wilson (m/e/p)
Wehr Realm Construction Services
Filson Historical Society
Sioux City Brick
Trulite Glass and Aluminum Solutions
Wall and Ceiling Panels, Stair Cladding
Louisville Lumber and Millwork
EcoSense, Bruck, Lithonia Lighting