Oftentimes, architects like to say they felt a drive to create, and were inspired from childhood to become the designers of homes, buildings, and cities. Kentucky’s Richard B. Isenhour had no such pretensions about his own practice. He took a long time to come around to the idea of being an architect, going through a midlife career change and teaching himself via work as a building contractor. As he details in a letter he wrote to his wife Lenora before he became an architect, Isenhour sought out a creative, fulfilling job—he later made it happen on his own accord.
“The kind of job I’d like would be one that's creative and always changing, where I can see what I'm accomplishing,” Isenhour wrote. “I’d like to work on things I can improve.”
By the time he retired from Isenhour Inc. Architects and Builders in the early ’90s, he’d designed more than 100 homes, helping his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, embrace modernist design.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Richard Isenhour seemed set to have a successful, middle-class, midcentury life. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he began working as a chemical engineer for DuPont at their Newburgh, New York, plant. He only decided to pursue architecture because he was unsatisfied with his job.
Isenhour didn’t move to Lexington, Kentucky, in 1952 on a whim. His wife’s father, A.R. Henry, ran a construction businesses in town. Isenhour became an apprentice of sorts and began learning the basics of building techniques and home construction. He later enrolled at the University of Kentucky to earn an architecture degree, and become licensed in 1974. But by that time, he’d already built dozens of homes in Lexington’s new subdivisions.
Isenhour also sought out his own inspiration. During family vacations in California and Mexico, he’d study and photograph modern buildings and homes, and pour over the work of other influential architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright. By learning both the trade and the theory, he became adept at transferring his ideas from blueprints to lots around Lexington.
Buildings to know
Isenhour’s homes, all numbered with his own organizational system, show him gradually adapting and evolving his own style. Beginning with a standard midcentury template—post-and beam construction, open floorplans, lots of exposed wooden beams and Kentucky limestone—he slowly morphed from these contemporary ranch styles to bolder, block-style homes with rooms stacked in a more minimalist, streamlined fashion.
His most recognizable home is the one he designed for his family in 1972 on Bridgeport Drive. It offers a bold contrast to the 1956 building he designed for his family, which shows him beginning to embrace modernist principles. The Bridgeport Drive residence, with floor-to-ceiling glass panels and a sawtooth roofline, stand out in a region more known for traditional design.
Legacy and reputation today
Isenhour homes, with spacious interiors that belie their often modest sizes, have become much sought-after purchases for midcentury fans in Kentucky, and a handful of architects have renovated and restored his designs in ingenious ways. Recently his son, fellow architect R.L. Isenhour, wrote a book about his father’s life as an early and prolific practitioner of midcentury architecture.