Frankfort preservation leader ready to tackle plate full of projects for Kentucky city

Published 5:30 am Tuesday, March 16, 2021

When her husband took a job in the Chicago area in the late 1980s, Vicki Birenberg and her family moved into what she described as an ideal starter home in the nearby community of Wilmette, Illinois.

“We found this beautiful little arts and crafts bungalow on a street full of bungalows that had a lot of similarities,” Birenberg said. “It looked like they were related somehow.”

After her family had settled into the neighborhood, Birenberg — who started serving as Frankfort’s historic preservation officer in January — noticed something that upset her about the surrounding area.

“It became apparent that it was a very desirable community for speculative developers to come in and buy small houses like the one we had just purchased and tear them down and build, from lot line to lot line, a ‘McMansion’ in the middle of a street of small houses,” Birneberg said.

“McMansion” is a term popularized by McMansion Hell, a blog that humorously criticizes the perceived excesses and design shortcomings of large, mass-produced American homes.

“It looked like these houses were dropped from outer space,” Birenberg said. ”That kind of activity was disruptive to the neighborhood’s context and character. It didn’t add anything aesthetically, but it also made me sad because I knew that even though these houses were bigger, they weren’t being built with the quality of materials and attention to detail that these older houses were.”

So began Birenberg’s career in historic preservation.

She spoke with experts and the local preservation commission and decided to apply to put her street on the National Register of Historic Places.

She succeeded, and now Wilmette’s Oak Circle Historic District covers 2.6 acres and 26 properties.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing, but it kind of opened the door to my interest,” Birenberg said.

Since then, Birenberg became heavily involved in community preservation matters, eventually deciding to make a career of it by getting her master’s at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2009. Moving to Frankfort shortly thereafter, she’s been working in historic preservation on a statewide level for 11 years.