Candlelight tours at one of Kentucky’s grandest Old South mansions

December 11, 2012

Ward Hall, completed in 1857, is considered one of the nation’s finest Greek Revival-style mansions. The foundation that owns the mansion is beginning a fundraising campaign for $850,000 in exterior renovations. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

GEORGETOWN — Central Kentucky has many elegant homes built before the Civil War, but Ward Hall is in a class by itself.

Completed in 1857 for planter and horseman Junius R. Ward, this massive mansion commands a hillside on Frankfort Road a mile west of Georgetown. Architectural historians have described it as Kentucky’s finest home, one of the grandest Greek Revival houses outside the deep South and among the 20 or so best mid-19th century buildings left in America.

“The national experts are really more excited about what we have here than are many of the locals,” said David Stuart, a Scott County lawyer and president of the Ward Hall Preservation Foundation. “It’s amazing that we sit about 12 miles from downtown Lexington and so many people are unaware of Ward Hall.”

The mansion, at 1782 Frankfort Road, is open for tours only one weekend a month, but there will be Christmas candlelight tours from 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, Sunday and Dec. 22 and 23. Admission is $5, free for children 15 and younger. (More information: (859) 396-4257, Wardhall.org.)

Ward Hall was built by descendants of prominent Scott County pioneers who achieved fabulous wealth made possible by slavery.

Junius Ward (1802-1883) was the son of Gen. William and Sarah Ward. She was the sister of Richard M. Johnson, who was vice president under Martin Van Buren, 1837-41.

Junius Ward married Matilda Viley, whose family was instrumental in making Central Kentucky the center of Thoroughbred breeding and racing. Through the Viley family, Ward became a part-owner in the legendary race horse Lexington.

Ward acquired rich bottomland in Mississippi and became a wealthy planter. He built Ward Hall on 550 acres outside his hometown as a refuge from Mississippi’s summer heat. He had the money and taste to build the very best.

Measuring nearly 75 feet square and 40 feet high, Ward Hall has more than 12,000 square feet of space on four levels. It was built with an innovative plumbing system that collected rainwater from the roof.

Those last few summers before the Civil War changed everything, the Wards entertained the Bluegrass aristocracy in grand fashion. Parties were hosted by Matilda Ward and her niece, Sallie Ward, a famous Southern belle whose exploits — including four marriages and a much-publicized divorce — could have made the fictional Scarlett O’Hara blush.

After climbing 10 limestone steps past massive Corinthian columns, visitors would enter a 14-foot-wide hall with a 14-foot ceiling. They would be welcomed into a double parlor with Carrara marble mantels, walnut woodwork and Sheffield silver fixtures.

The silver chandeliers still hang from a distemper plaster ceiling which, after 155 years, retains its original coloring. A graceful elliptical staircase ascends from the center of the hall to huge second-floor bedrooms and a third-floor attic.

The Civil War ruined Ward financially, and his Kentucky mansion and its contents were sold at a bankruptcy auction in 1867. The home passed through several owners before the Susong family bought it and 156 acres in 1945.

The Susongs put the property up for sale in 2004, and a developer bought 116 acres.

Georgetown College stepped in to ensure that the mansion and 40 surrounding acres were preserved. A non-profit preservation foundation was created to buy the property for $957,000. The money came from federal and local government grants, plus $250,000 from developer Jim Barlow.

“The rare thing about the house is that it comes to us virtually intact,” Stuart said, noting how little was changed by various owners over a century and a half.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Ward Hall is in desperate need of repair.

The Kentucky Heritage Council has approved an $850,000 plan to restore the exterior to prevent further damage from the elements. The foundation will begin a fundraising campaign for that money next year.

An additional $2 million or so will be needed to restore the mansion’s interior and upgrade infrastructure systems. Plans to rebuild the once-famous stable and restore the outbuildings and grounds will take another couple million.

The foundation’s long-term goal is to open the property as a community center and living history museum depicting Kentucky plantation life just before, during and after the Civil War. But it won’t be a sentimental treatment, Stuart said.

“We’re not going to back away from the black American experience,” he said, noting that the basement-level service areas are as intact as the grand upper floors. “This house and plantation would not have existed without the enslaved.”

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Exhibit shows a century of Kentucky political memorabilia

October 30, 2012

The Georgetown & Scott County Museum has on display through Nov. 30 perhaps the largest collection ever assembled of Kentucky campaign memorabilia. Many items are one-of-a-kind. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

GEORGETOWN — Before there were TV attack ads, political campaigns were waged with posters, buttons and bumper stickers — and even thimbles, string ties and china water pitchers.

This election season, the Georgetown & Scott County Museum has assembled what organizers say is the largest-ever display of Kentucky campaign memorabilia. More than 1,200 items cover the century from 1883 to 1983.

The exhibit combines three large collections — assembled by Jerome Redfearn, Robert Westerman and Julius Rather — with artifacts held by the University of Kentucky, Western Kentucky University and several individuals.

“Many of these items, especially the early stuff, are one-of-a-kind, unless you get lucky and find the right attic,” said Redfearn, a Georgetown antiques dealer who has been collecting Kentucky campaign items for 35 years.

The museum also has published a full-color, $30 catalog of the exhibit.

The exhibit begins with a cigar box, postcard and button promoting the 1883 gubernatorial campaign of J. Proctor Knott, the namesake of Knott County. It concludes with material promoting the 1983 election of Kentucky’s first and only female governor, Martha Layne Collins.

In between, there is paraphernalia from just about every Kentuckian of that century who ran for governor, U.S. senator, vice president or president. Famous names include Alben Barkley, A.B. “Happy” Chandler, Louie Nunn, Bert Combs, Edward “Ned” Breathitt, Wendell Ford, John Sherman Cooper and three men named John Young Brown. Their names, images and slogans are reproduced on everything from buttons and hats to thimbles and “Kentucky colonel” string ties.

Among the many never-before- displayed items is a ribbon promoting the candidacy of Simon Boliver Buckner, the former Confederate general who was elected governor in 1887. His term coincided with the Hatfield-McCoy feud and the scandal over state treasurer James “Honest Dick” Tate, who disappeared with $250,000 of state money.

“That’s the only one known to exist,” Redfearn said of the Buckner ribbon. “It’s mine. Bob Westerman would love to have it, but he’s not going to get it.”

Campaign buttons and trinkets first became popular in the late 1800s, when machines enabled cheap mass production. Early buttons were covered with clear celluloid before lithography allowed color printing on tin in the 1920s. The popularity of automobiles led to campaign license plates and, later, bumper stickers.

This exhibit has many items from the notorious 1899 campaign for governor. That race pitted Republican William S. Taylor against Democrat William Goebel and the first John Young Brown, who ran on the “Honest Election Democrats” ticket in reaction to Goebel’s hardball tactics.

Taylor narrowly won, but opponents alleged vote fraud and a Democrat-controlled General Assembly gave the election to Goebel. Before he could take office, Goebel was shot in the back on the Capitol lawn, becoming the only American governor to be assassinated. Campaign items include a one-of-a-kind china water pitcher with Goebel’s portrait and a postcard bearing the slogan “Down with Goebelism!”

Lindsey Apple, a retired history professor at Georgetown College who helped organize the exhibit, said this collection also speaks to more positive aspects of Kentucky politics. Many of the names and faces displayed here became good leaders — or could have been.

“One of the things that emerges from this was how many men were well qualified to be public servants, but for whatever reason the timing just wasn’t right,” Apple said.

While the 1899 election set a standard for violence and bitterness, other races were waged by opponents who could remain friends despite their political differences.

State historian James Klotter recalled the 1915 race for governor between Democrat A.O. Stanley and Republican Edwin Morrow. They traveled the state, lambasting each other from the stump but often drinking together in the same hotel room at night.

At one joint appearance, Klotter said, the hot sun became too much for Stanley as Morrow spoke, perhaps because of their previous night’s revelry. He threw up in front of everyone.

“This goes to show you what I’ve been saying all over Kentucky,” Stanley said when it was his turn to speak. “Ed Morrow plain makes me sick to my stomach.”

Stanley won, but Morrow got his turn as governor four years later.

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