Historic homes on tour next weekend in Harrodsburg, Georgetown

November 30, 2014

141122Harrodsburg-TE0004The Burrus/Trisler House is on the 23rd annual Holiday Homes Tour on Dec. 6 from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., sponsored by the Harrodsburg Historical Society.  Photos by Tom Eblen 


There’s no place like home for the holidays, especially when it is a grand old Kentucky mansion you don’t have to clean or decorate.

More than a dozen old houses, churches and public buildings in Mercer and Scott counties will be on tour next weekend. Plus, there will be candlelight tours and children’s activities at the circa 1848 Waveland mansion in Lexington.

This is the 23rd year for the Harrodsburg Historical Society’s Holiday Home Tour on Dec. 6. In addition to tours of seven Mercer County properties, there will be a mapped driving tour of the Salvisa community.

The Queen Anne-style Coleman House is owned by former state Rep. Jack Coleman and his wife, Cala. Before he bought it, Coleman didn’t know that his great-grandfather, Clell Coleman, a state auditor and agriculture commissioner, once lived in the 1880 brick-and-shingle mansion.

141125Georgetown-TE0026The Colemans have completed a restoration started by previous owners, adding their own special touches. A former porch was converted into a long, cozy kitchen with flooring salvaged from Lexington tobacco warehouses.

The attic was turned into a Western-themed den honoring Cala Coleman’s grandparents, a cowboy and postmistress in Utah. The oak postal cabinet she used now stands behind a bar.

“Everything is from our families,” Coleman said of the extensive antique collection in the house, which they plan to open next year as a bed-and-breakfast. “We say we’re the keepers of the stuff.”

Mercer County Judge-Executive John Trisler and his wife, Kay, have done extensive work on their Greek Revival farmhouse off Kirkwood Road, which dates to the 1830s and maybe earlier. They added a new kitchen and den on the back, making the elegant old place a more comfortable place to live.

Warwick, the former estate of the renowned architectural historian Clay Lancaster, will be included in the tour. The compound includes the circa 1809 Moses Jones House and two architectural “follies” Lancaster built, a tea house and a guest house based on the ancient Tower of the Winds in Athens, Greece.

Another unique property is Diamond Point, an elaborate Greek Revival structure that has been renovated as Harrodsburg’s welcome center and offices for the chamber of commerce, tourism bureau and two other local agencies.

Other stops are the circa 1850 McGee House on Jackson Pike; the 1881 Salvisa Christian Church; and Old Mud Meeting House, built in 1800 that is one the last remaining pioneer log churches in Central Kentucky.

Maps are available for a self-guided driving tour of other Salvisa-area historic homes that will not be open that day.

141125Georgetown-TE0032On Dec. 7, the Scott County Arts & Cultural Center will have its Tour of Historic Homes, featuring six properties in downtown Georgetown.

The tour is a fundraiser to restore one of Georgetown’s most interesting buildings: a Romanesque Revival jail built in 1892. Plans call for it to become an expansion of the Arts & Cultural Center now located in the adjacent old jailer’s house.

Two of the properties on tour are stately mansions built before the Civil War: the early 1800s Cantrill House beside the Georgetown College campus; and Walnut Hill, a Greek Revival-style mansion built as the summer home of James McHatton, who once owned eight plantations along the Mississippi River.

Beside Walnut Hill is a large, 1888 Italianate villa whose unusual double front door features four busts of big-busted women.

Georgetown’s 1899 City Hall, which like the Scott County Courthouse beside it is one of Central Kentucky’s most elegant old public buildings, will be part of the tour. So will Holy Trinity Church Episcopal, a Gothic Revival structure with a stone façade and red doors that has been in use since 1870.

The best option for parents with young children who want some history with their holidays may be the candlelight tours at Waveland State Historic Site, off Nicholasville Road just south of Man O’ War Boulevard.

In addition to decorations at the circa 1848 Greek Revival mansion, school choirs will perform and Santa will read stories and visit with children.

If you go

Harrodsburg Holiday Home Tour, 1 p.m. – 6 p.m., Dec. 6, $15, or $11 for seniors and groups of 20 or more. Tickets available at tour locations. More information: (859) 734-5985 or Harrodsburghistorical.org.

Scott County Arts & Cultural Center’s Tour of Historic Homes, 1 p.m. – 5 p.m., Dec. 7. $10. Tickets available in advance and at tour locations. More information: (502) 570-8366.

Waveland candlelight tours, 6 p.m. — 9 p.m., Dec. 5-6. $7 adults, $6 seniors, $4 students. Free for age 6 and younger. More information: (859) 272-3611.


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NY photographer explores historic Bluegrass homes in new book

May 24, 2014

140525KyBook0009The walled garden and orchard at Gainesway Farm was added by owner Antony Beck, a longtime friend of photographer Pieter Estersohn.  Beck suggested that Estersohn do the book, Kentucky: Historic Houses and Horse Farms of Bluegrass Country, which has just been published.  Photo by Pieter Estersohn / Courtesy of Monacelli Press


Central Kentucky’s grand mansions and horse farms have been fodder for pretty picture books for more than a century, at least since Thomas A. Knight’s Country Estates of the Bluegrass came out in 1904.

Of the many books I have seen, the best has just been published: Pieter Estersohn’s Kentucky: Historic Houses and Horse Farms of Bluegrass Country (Monacelli Press, $60).

The photographs are stunning, as they should be. Estersohn, 53, is one of America’s top “shelter” magazine photographers. He has shot covers for Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, Southern Accents, Metropolitan Home and many other big magazines. This is his 23rd book.

140525KyBook0008What makes this book especially interesting and authentic are the places Estersohn chose to photograph. There are only a few of the usual suspects, too important to omit: Waveland, Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate.

Many of the other 15 properties are not well-known, even to many Kentuckians, but they are some of the most precious architectural gems of the Bluegrass. That didn’t happen by accident. Estersohn had inside help.

In a telephone interview, Estersohn said he and Antony Beck, owner of Gainesway Farm, have been best friends since they were 19. The New York-based photographer said he and his son, Elio, 10, have been visiting the farm regularly for years.

“It’s sort of like our home away from home,” he said. “It’s just such a magical environment to be on that farm. Antony’s landscaping is amazing.”

Beck suggested the book, and Estersohn quickly agreed. For more than a year, the photographer made quick trips to Kentucky between other jobs, scouting locations and making pictures. The initial focus was on equine culture, but the emphasis soon shifted to the much-loved examples of historic preservation Estersohn found.

“I wanted to find a balance,” Estersohn said, “between some things that were more humble and some things that were more extravagant and some things that were really over the top.”

Beck opened doors for Estersohn, and his key local contact was antiques dealer Gay Reading, owner of The Greentree Tea Room. Reading, who wrote the book’s well-informed introduction, has a curator’s eye and extensive local connections.

“He wanted a variety of styles and periods, and I chose places I thought were special and different,” Reading said. “Unless you’re a friend, you don’t get to see many of these gems. They are places where people are really living.”

140525KyBook0006Estersohn said he was charmed by the houses he photographed, their owners and the houses’ varied stages of restoration. He was especially impressed by Ward Hall in Georgetown, one of the nation’s largest and finest Greek Revival mansions.

Other highlights were Walnut Hall, where Margaret Jewett has preserved the ornate Victorian decorations her grandfather put there in the 1890s, and Elley Villa, an elegant Gothic Revival mansion near the University of Kentucky campus that was condemned before being lovingly restored by James and Martha Birchfield.

“I loved Mary Lou’s place,” Estersohn said of the 1792 farmhouse restored in the 1960s by horsewoman and socialite Mary Lou Whitney. “It’s sort of like a time piece. It’s a very specific expression of decoration, which I think is amazing.”

Other featured properties include Gainesway Farm; the Simpson Farm in Bourbon County, built in 1785 as a pioneer station; Welcome Hall near Versailles; Clay Lancaster’s Warwick estate in Mercer County; Overbrook Farm; the Alexander Moore and Thomas January houses downtown; and Liberty Hall in Frankfort.

Estersohn photographed Botherum as its new owners, garden designer Jon Carloftis and Dale Fisher, were beginning their restoration. And he was moved by the much- damaged Pope Villa, the most significant house designed by America’s first great architect, Benjamin Latrobe.

“For Pope Villa, I hope we can elicit some financial attention so that it can be further renovated,” Estersohn said. “It is a very, very, very important piece of American architecture.”

Estersohn said he photographed the houses with a large-format digital camera. He used mirrors to even out natural light and illuminate dark corners and cavernous rooms.

Each chapter is accompanied by text that is well-researched and tightly written. Inexplicably, though, there is no text with the final chapter to explain the Iroquois Hunt Club.

“I thought the biggest challenge was going to be enrolling people to have their private residence shot, which is oftentimes the issue shooting for magazines in New York,” Estersohn said. “But I think there was such a regional pride and appreciation. Every single person was enthusiastic and wanted to contribute to the book.”

The photographer said what he enjoyed most about this project was “developing a very intimate experience” with the Bluegrass.

“I really feel like I know the area,” he said. “I can get around there very easily now. I know all the pikes. I know how to say Versailles.”

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Airy Castle on tour to benefit Historic Paris-Bourbon County

October 15, 2013


Airy Castle in Bourbon County was built in 1872-73 by George Washington Bowen in the Italianate-Second Empire style. It will be on tour Oct. 20 to benefit Historic Paris-Bourbon County.  Photos by Tom Eblen 


PARIS — Jack and Sonja Brock, physicians who have lived in New Mexico for 35 years, came to Central Kentucky a decade ago looking for a house and land where they could someday retire with their pleasure horses.

After an extensive search, they found a huge Victorian mansion surrounded by 80 acres of rolling Bourbon County farmland. The Brocks envisioned their own little slice of heaven, but Airy Castle needed a hell of a lot of work.

“When we first saw the house,” Jack Brock said, “the basement had a foot of water in it.”

That was just the beginning. Plaster was peeling in every room. The porches were rotten. The plumbing was bad. The electrical system was worse. The attic was filled with birds, raccoons and tubs to catch water leaking from the roof.

“I had made an offer and then gotten out of it because the house didn’t pass any inspections at all,” Brock said.

“Sonja was real upset,” he added. “We drove back out to look at it. She was standing in the driveway and there were tears in her eyes and she said, ‘It’s this place or no place.’ That settled it.”

Thus began a long and expensive odyssey to restore Airy Castle. While the Brocks still have a couple of rooms to finish, the public can see the spectacular results of their work on Oct. 20, when the house will be open for tours to benefit the preservation organization Historic Paris-Bourbon County.

Airy Castle was built in 1872-73 in the Italianate-Second Empire style by George Washington Bowen, a Bourbon County merchant and Confederate veteran. It was the centerpiece of his 600-acre estate and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1888, the property was sold to the Larue family, which renamed it Wyndhurst and owned it for more than a century.

While Airy Castle had suffered from neglect and deferred maintenance, it was structurally sound. It also retained its ornate woodwork and much of its other historic fabric — quite literally. Original drapes still hung in one front parlor.

The Brocks hired Keith Buchanan, a contractor who had restored his own landmark 1850 home in Millersburg. He began by digging out and reflooring the basement. Then came new plumbing, wiring, heating and air conditioning. The hardest part, Buchanan said, was repairing plaster throughout the house.

The Brocks continued to live and work near Albuquerque for several years, but they had Buchanan convert the third-floor attic into an apartment where they could stay on visits without disturbing the renovation work.

When they returned to Airy Castle one weekend in 2006 for their son’s wedding in Louisville, they asked relatives to stay with them. But when Sonja Brock showed her guests to a second-floor bathroom where they could shower, the ceiling fell in.

Buchanan spent a year rebuilding the house’s extensive porches, carefully replicating original decorative details. He also reduced the porches in size from the inside to make room for four additional bathrooms and an elevator.

Delbert Isaacs of Berea installed a new slate roof, replicating the original. An impressive modern kitchen was built in the combined space of the old kitchen and a butler’s pantry.

While contractors worked, the Brocks scoured antique shops for period furniture, carpets and art. Looking at Airy Castle now, you would never know what a wreck it had been. As for the cost of the renovation, Brock would say only that it was “more than I care to talk about.”

Once Buchanan finishes restoring two front parlors and the entry hall, the Brocks plan to open the house as a bed and breakfast. They will continue to live in their cozy third-floor apartment.

Future projects include renovating a brick barn and a brick, two-story tenant house behind the mansion.

“I don’t know what it was about the house that first attracted me,” Sonja Brock said of Airy Castle. “It just struck me. It has personality. But it did look like a haunted house when we first bought it.”

If you go

Airy Castle house tour

When: 2 -5 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 20.

Where: 368 Larue Rd., Paris

Benefits: Historic Paris-Bourbon County

Cost: $15, $10 for members of Historic Paris-Bourbon County.

More information: Hopewellmuseum.org

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Mansion of Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister to become a museum

August 28, 2012

Helm Place on Bowman Mill Road. Photos by Tom Eblen


Do political disagreements make things tense in your family? It could be worse. You could have been Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.

They were in a tough spot: He was leading the Union through the Civil War. She had 14 brothers and sisters from Lexington; most were Southern sympathizers, and three were killed in Confederate service. Lincoln threatened to jail one of his wife’s sisters when she came to visit, but she still kept smuggling contraband to the South.

Hardest of all was the strain war created between the Lincolns and their favorite Todd relatives: half-sister Emilie Todd Helm and her husband, Benjamin Hardin Helm, a Confederate general.

After Helm was killed in battle, his grieving widow and her three children made tense visits to the White House. Lincoln’s political enemies howled that he was sheltering a traitor. Even the children quarreled: Tad Lincoln said his daddy was the president, but little Katherine Helm insisted the real president was Jefferson Davis.

You know how most of this story ends: The Union prevails; Abraham Lincoln is assassinated; Mary Todd Lincoln struggles with mental illness. But what about her favorite little sister, Emilie, the prettiest of the Todd daughters? The Kentucky Mansions Preservation Foundation will soon be able to tell that story.

Helm Place, the Greek Revival mansion on Bowman Mill Road where Emilie and her children spent the last decades of their lives, has been donated to the foundation to become a museum. There is a lot of renovation and fund-raising ahead, but the mansion already contains enough Lincoln, Helm, Todd and other local artifacts to get off to a great start.

The foundation will celebrate the gift at a dinner and presentation about Helm Place on Sept. 18 at Malone’s Banquets, 3373 Tates Creek Road. Tickets are $38 for members, $42 for others. For reservations, call (859) 233-9999 by Sept. 10.

“This place is a treasure, and we’re excited about the possibilities,” said Gwen Thompson, executive director of the Mary Todd Lincoln House, which also is operated by the foundation.

Mary Genevieve Townsend Murphy, a co-founder and longtime board member of the foundation, left Helm Place to it in trust after her death in 2000 and the death of her husband, Joseph, in April 2011. The foundation took control of the 150-acre property in March and has spent the past few months installing a high-tech security system and live-in caretaker.

Oddly enough, the first white settler on the property was the Todd sisters’ grandfather Levi Todd, who built Todd’s Station fort there in 1779. But because of Indian attacks, Todd abandoned the claim and moved closer to Lexington.

The land later went to Abraham Bowman for his service in the Revolutionary War. In the 1850s, one of Bowman’s descendants built the mansion, originally called Cedar Hall, which sits on a hill at the end of a majestic lawn.

Emilie Todd Helm and her grown children bought the mansion in 1912 — almost exactly a century before the foundation acquired title. Katherine, an accomplished painter, did several family portraits for the house and painted a dining room mural depicting nearby South Elkhorn Creek at sunset. One of her portraits of Mary Todd Lincoln now hangs in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House.

Emilie Helm remained an unreconstructed Confederate until her death in 1930. When Elodie, her youngest daughter, was getting old, she sold the house in 1946 to William H. Townsend, a Lexington lawyer, author and accomplished Lincoln scholar and collector. His daughter Mary moved in with Elodie, who died in 1953. Mary married Joseph Murphy in 1960.

William Townsend, who died in 1964, amassed an amazing collection of Lincoln and early Kentucky artifacts, many of which remain in the house with the Helm family’s possessions. They include several portraits by Matthew Jouett; a table made by Abraham Lincoln’s father; writer James Lane Allen’s desk and documents signed by Lincoln and Henry Clay.

The foundation’s next step is to conduct a study of the mansion’s possibilities as a museum, decide on a plan and raise the money to make it happen. Thompson said she didn’t know how long it would be before Helm Place could welcome visitors.

“Our big priority since March has been making sure the property is secured and cared for,” she said. “We’re just taking it a step at a time.”

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Historic home threatened by unneeded parking lot

October 31, 2010

LONDON — This is one of those stories that drives preservationists crazy: an historic home is about to be demolished for a parking lot. But it also is a story that should drive every taxpayer crazy, especially those angry about wasteful government spending.

It is a story about a project that would spend nearly $1 million in state money — and perhaps millions more in federal money — to provide more parking space in a downtown that already seems to have plenty of it.

The story has its roots in the massive courthouse construction program that since 2000 has built 65 new judicial centers around Kentucky at a cost of more than $880 million.

The Herald-Leader published a series of stories in 2008 questioning the high cost and management of that program. Kentucky lawmakers and John D. Minton Jr., who inherited the program when he became the state’s chief justice last year, have vowed to look for savings and improve oversight.

Laurel County’s new $23 million Judicial Center opened this summer. In a special meeting Sept. 21, the Laurel County Fiscal Court approved the Judicial Center Project Development Board’s request to spend $930,000 in “leftover” money from the courthouse bond issue to buy a residential block across Broad Street for parking.

The sale would require the current property owners to remove four houses and all trees on the block so it could become a gravel lot. Eventually, county officials hope to get federal money to build a parking structure for the Judicial Center and the nearby federal courthouse.

This deal outraged some Laurel County citizens, because one of the four houses to be demolished is one of the few 19th century houses left downtown. The Pennington House is thought to have been built in 1875, but possibly as early as 1847. It is a handsome Victorian building once owned by Dr. Henry Pennington, who founded what is now Marymount Hospital.

The Pennington House would be demolished for parking for the new Laurel County Judicial Center unless plans change. Photo by Tom Eblen

The Pennington House is owned by Tom Weatherly, who uses it for his law office. He has taken good care of the house, but he has been trying to sell it for years. The county would pay him $397,750 for the property, but he must clear the land.

On Friday, more than a dozen people attended a Fiscal Court meeting to ask for time to figure out how to save the Pennington House, either by finding another site for a Judicial Center parking lot or moving the house.

“Any community can have a gravel parking lot, but only London can have the Pennington House,” Chris Robinson told Fiscal Court members. He spoke on behalf of the booster group London Downtown and the Cumberland Valley Board of Realtors.

“It may need lots of work and rehabilitation, but once it is gone the history inside is gone forever and cannot be replaced,” Robinson said. “Every avenue should be explored before the wrecking ball is taken to any structure.”

Robinson said the house could be moved to another site and restored, and the Realtors’ board is willing to help. He asked for more time to explore possibilities and perhaps raise money for a costly move.

But Donna Horn-Taylor, a local architectural designer, said there are many alternative parking sites. Indeed, there is plenty of vacant or under-utilized land around the Judicial Center, and the county already owns much of it.

“The best thing is to leave the house where it is,” Horn-Taylor said. Then money could be raised to buy it from Weatherly and adapt it to enhance the downtown, which has made progress toward revitalization.

Laurel County Judge-Executive Lawrence Kuhl, who also is on the Judicial Center Project Development Board, promised to meet with citizens this week to discuss alternatives. He also acknowledged at the meeting that downtown has plenty of parking space, although it would require lawyers, jurors and Judicial Center employees to make a short walk.

In fact, three short blocks away, there is a fancy brick-and-concrete parking structure built four years ago with $5 million in public funds. There were only a few other cars when I parked there Friday, and several London residents told me it is rarely more than half-full.

It would be a tragedy to see the Pennington House demolished. It is the kind of historic building that towns across America are restoring for new uses that boost civic pride and the local economy.

As state government faces painful budget cuts, and the federal government grapples with massive debt, it also would be a tragedy to waste millions of public dollars on parking space that isn’t needed.

If state lawmakers and court officials are serious about reining in Kentucky’s costly courthouse building spree — and citizens really want to cut wasteful government spending — an unnecessary parking lot in downtown London would be a good place to start.

Bourbon home has two centuries of family history

September 25, 2010

Ed and Kay Thomas were born and raised in Bourbon County but spent 42 years in Pennsylvania, where he worked for GE/Lockheed Martin. As he was nearing retirement, they got to live in England for a couple of years.

But as Christmas Eve 2004 came to Yorkshire, and the Bourbon County Citizen-Advertiser arrived in the mail, they knew they would be coming home soon. Ewalt’s Crossroads was for sale.

Kay’s great-great-great-grandfather, Henry Ewalt, came to Kentucky from Pennsylvania in 1788. He bought 200 acres northeast of Paris and built a home at what is now the corner of U.S. 27 and Clay Kiser Road in 1792, the year Kentucky became a state.

The beautifully restored home, which includes a trove of antiques that the Thomases have collected over the years, will be open as a fund-raiser for Historic Paris-Bourbon County.

The home has been called Ewalt’s Crossroads since at least the 1840s, and it has never left the family. The Thomases bought the home from Kay’s cousin, Joe Ewalt, who acquired it in the 1990s.

At that time, the house was in bad shape, and Ewalt and his wife, Joanne, did significant restoration. They fixed the foundation and front façade and replaced all of the home’s major systems, among other things. They also built an addition with a family room and a first-floor master bedroom.

“Joe baked the cake; what we are doing is the icing,” Kay said. The couple work on the home constantly, and it shows. “We don’t play golf and we don’t play tennis,” she said. “This is our hobby.”

The Thomases, both 71, had restoration experience, having renovated a circa-1840 house in Chesapeake City, Md., that they used as a weekend getaway. Kay made most of the window treatments for Ewalt’s Crossroads, and Ed has been kept busy with carpentry projects.

The 1792 frame portion of Ewalt’s Crossroads retains much original detail: a fortified rear door, made to protect against the Indian attacks that were a serious threat in the area 218 years ago; horizontal cherry board paneling and walnut woodwork, which has always been painted to keep the house from being dark; and fancy crown molding in the front parlor.

A circa 1815 stone addition to the home has walls 22 inches thick and includes an entry hall/formal dining room and a kitchen, dining and family room, where the Thomases spend much of their time.

In the formal dining room, there is a small stairway leading up to a “travelers’ room,” where weary strangers could be offered lodging. The room locked from the outside, though, to keep any of those strangers from leaving in the middle of the night with the silverware.

Don’t expect to see the travelers’ room on the tour; the Thomases use it for storage. “I don’t think we’ll live long enough to ever get it cleaned up,” Kay said.

There’s nothing stuffy about this historic house, because of both its human scale and the Thomases’ classy and humorous decorating. It is an attractive blend of old and new that makes you feel at home. For example, the kitchen table is a 13-foot-long antique from a Paris upholstery shop, and it’s surrounded by modern, shiny aluminum chairs.

Is that an ancestor’s portrait over the parlor fireplace? No, just a regal 18th-century gentleman whose painting the Thomases bought in England.

“We don’t have a picture of Henry (Ewalt), but I like to think he would have looked like this in his later years,” Kay said. “We do have a picture of his son, Sam. He wasn’t the most handsome guy, let’s just say, so he’s hung in a dark corner of the hallway.”

The Thomases brought many treasures to Ewalt’s Crossroads, but the house is constantly revealing its own.

While having fireplaces restored, the Thomases discovered Civil War newspapers stuffed in chimney spaces. When replacing paneling, Ed found a heap of junk stuffed in an interior wall: old shoes, tools, hickory nuts, peach pits and a wicker torch, all well over a century old. The items are now on display.

The surrounding five acres has yielded many pieces of china and pottery dating to the early 1800s. They are displayed in an antique platter made into a table in front of the parlor fireplace.

“We dig things up in the garden all the time,” Kay said. “When I find that stuff out in the yard, I can’t blame it on anybody else. It was my family!”

If you go

Ewalt’s Crossroads tour

When: 2-5 p.m. Oct. 3

Where: U.S. 27 at Clay Kiser Rd., Bourbon County

Cost: $15, $10 for Historic Paris-Bourbon County members

Other: Refreshments served

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