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    Driving on Versailles Road to the Wild  Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, you will find yourself immersed in some of the state’s most beautiful landscapes. Old farmhouses and tobacco barns — their boxy shapes, gabled roofs and blackened white oak being Kentucky’s architectural legacy — dot these rolling hills along the Kentucky River. The American Institute of Architects cited the “evocation of a regional vernacular” when it awarded Louisville-based De Leon and Primmer with its highest honor for the design of Wild Turkey’s new visitors’ center. Umberto Luchini of spirits company Campari America, which owns Wild Turkey, likens the award to “the Oscar of the architectural world.”

    This is De Leon and Primmer’s second win; the first came in 2013 for an operations facility at Mason Lane Farm in Goshen (Louisville Magazine, July 2013). AIA typically honors firms from “first-tier” cities like New York and San Francisco, for projects with a budget and scale far greater than the $4 million and 9,140 square feet allocated for the Wild Turkey project. De Leon and Primmer, founded in 2003, is a gang of four working out of a small workshop on Shelby Street in NuLu. “Working with unconventional materials and budget restraints always forces creative thinking, and that can make for a new kind of luxury,” lead architect Roberto de Leon says. “Natural light and landscape cost nothing.”

    A gentle slope in Versailles Road reveals the center, which sits on a bluff and offers one of the most beautiful views in the commonwealth. The land is a natural habitat for the bourbon brand’s namesake bird, so De Leon and Primmer wanted to impact the land as little as possible. The team wanted something iconic but stayed away from the usual barrels and logos that crowd the Bourbon Trail. They sought to allude to bourbon heritage instead of being literal. The client was looking at a rebranding that would appeal to both the traditional Wild Turkey customer and the new hipster small-batch aficionado. “The building had to look familiar but at the same time new,” project manager Lindsey Stoughton says. The barns the architects passed on each site visit inspired them. They wanted to take that tobacco-barn shape and make it a monolith, something that could be recognized easily and from far away. That idea cemented when they began to reference those simple but iconic hotels and houses in the game Monopoly. “There are a lot of technical issues that must be achieved in a building where nothing is hidden,” Stoughton says. “The very placement of a nut or a screw can become an issue.”

    The visitors’ center is basically just wood, steel and glass, with more than 50 percent of the materials sourced within 500 miles of Lawrenceburg. The building required 40,000 man-hours, 120 tons of steel, 3,580 square feet of glass and 800 tons of white oak, cypress, ash and yellow pine. The finished product is a steel-and-glass box, with stained cedar cladding for walls. The wood has been blackened to resemble the fungal patina common on bourbon rickhouses. (The team actually toyed with the idea of using fungus as a building material but found it unreliable.) The plume of a wild turkey inspired the stained cedar’s black chevron pattern that allows a cornucopia of light to filter into the building, which has a tasting room with a sustainable floating cork floor, Douglas fir lattices, ash wall panels and pine ceilings. This array of light-colored Southern wood contrasts with the exterior’s dark stain. AIA said the interior’s use of natural light made it a “cathedral that overlooks the Kentucky River.” A wooden support trestle mimics the bridges that span the river, which is the distillery’s water source. Soft lighting from below accentuates the amber hues in the wood, placing the visitor in Kentucky bourbon’s honey glow. If you visit, be sure to see the building in twilight, when the brilliance of this design reverses itself: the monolith lit from within, that plumage illuminated like a lantern.

    “The building,” de Leon likes to say, “is undiluted.”

    Written by Jon Lee Cope, photo by Ted Tarquinio.

    This article is courtesy of Louisville Magazine's March Issue. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. 

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