Many things about Paducah make our hometown unique. One of the most striking is our unique and historically significant architecture. PADUCAH LIFE asked Sharon Poat and Randy Davis to help us with a series dedicated to “studies in style.” We begin with the beautiful Smedley-Yeiser house at 533 Madison Street.
In 1821 the first families settled at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, where Paducah is now. By 1856, the village had grown to more than 2,500 people and had become a third-class city.
During the time Paducah was developing as a frontier town, between 1820 and 1860, the Greek Revival style became THE architectural style in America. The Greek Revival style was first employed by pre-eminent architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe in a Philadelphia bank in 1798. The style featured prominent, full-length columns under a deep entablature at the roofline, echoing the design of the Parthenon and other Greek temples. The style was used widely in banks, churches, governmental, and other public buildings. It was an architectural expression of the affinity Americans felt with the ancient Greeks and their democratic ideals.
In his Antebellum Architecture of Kentucky, Clay Lancaster says of the Greek Revival style: "the objectives were bigness, spaciousness, graciousness, security, and consistency. " Several popular pattern books reprinted throughout the first half of the nineteenth century offered architects and craftsmen sample options for columns, front doors, mantels, and other stylistic elements. These were combined and adapted not only in public buildings but also in high-style and in more modest homes. A Field Guide to American Houses notes that the style was passing out of fashion on the eastern seaboard by the 1840s but that it continued to be used inland and in rural areas until the 1860s, especially in the South.
Paducah's Smedley-Yeiser House, ca. 1860, is a later but typical example of Greek Revival residential architecture. With its 13' ceilings and 10' doorways, it manages to feel spacious in a relatively small footprint. The interior walls, like the exterior walls are solid brick, 16" thick. These contribute to a sense of security and solidness, as does the massive and detailed trim work. Inside and out, the home is Paducah's finest example of mid-nineteenth century Greek Revival architecture and one of only a handful of remaining pre-Civil War buildings.
Why is it called the Smedley-Yeiser House?
Several generations of Paducahans have known and loved the home on the corner of North 6th and Madison Streets as the home of an active Young Historians group and the Alben Barkley Museum. Interestingly, the home has no connection with the Veep. When the museum dissolved several years ago, the collection went to the George Rogers Clark Market House Museum. Without its museum identity, the house is more accurately known by its historic name.
The typical naming convention is to call a historic building by the name of its initial owner. In this case, the home was built by William Smedley, a wharf boat captain and commission merchant in this river town. His eldest daughter Missouri Smedley Byrd and her family owned and likely lived in the home in the 1860s.
In 1892 Mayor David Yeiser purchased the house and lived there a short time with his family. His widow and adult relatives returned to the house in the 1920s. During his first term as mayor of Paducah from 1891-1897, Yeiser oversaw the laying of the first sewer system, installation of 200 arc lights replacing the gas street lights, and the construction of three new fire stations and a school.
During his later terms from 1901-1908, Paducah's population was large enough that the town was able to proudly call itself "a second class city." He oversaw the first paving of city streets: in 1906, 48 miles of streets were gravel and 4.18 miles were paved. Since Yeiser was a significant subsequent owner of the home, naming convention suggests that his name be added to the original owner's to finalize the historic name–the Smedley-Yeiser House.