PARIS — It almost became one of those all-too-common Kentucky stories: an historic building abused and neglected for so long that most people thought it would make a better parking lot.
Fortunately, Duncan Tavern had a different fate.
The former inn, built in 1788, and an adjoining 1803 house were rescued from the wrecking ball in 1940 by Julia Spencer Ardery and an enterprising group of ladies. It became a museum, genealogy library and headquarters of the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
The DAR is celebrating the 75th anniversary of that accomplishment, as well as the national organization’s 125th anniversary, with a show of 65 antique and modern Kentucky quilts at Duncan Tavern Historic Center through Sept. 9.
“Some of the stories of our quilts are unbelievable,” said Donna Hughes, who oversees the building, where the exhibit opened in April. “This has been a main attraction for us, and very successful.”
The quilts, which range from modern pieces to a family heirloom stitched in 1844, were loaned by members of the 85 DAR chapters across the state.
“This is one of my favorite quilts,” said Kay Thomas, the DAR’s state curator, as she pointed to one made by Patricia Conway of Shepherdsville from ribbons she won at horse competitions in the 1960s.
“I’ve seen some quilts like this that were, well, tacky,” Thomas said. “But she has done a beautiful job.”
One purpose of the quilt exhibit is to draw attention to Duncan Tavern, which has a remarkable story.
Joseph Duncan built a cabin on the site in 1784, two years after receiving the land as a grant for his service in the Revolutionary War.
By 1788, four years before Kentucky became a state, he had built the biggest house in Paris, which was then called Hopewell. It had three stories and 20 rooms, including a ballroom. The walls were made of limestone at a time when almost every other building in town was made of logs.
Duncan saw a business opportunity in his location on the public square. In 1795, he turned the house into a tavern and inn called The Goddess of Liberty. Patrons included pioneers Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton.
About 1800, Duncan left his wife, Anne, and six young children to make a trip back to Virginia. “We have no record of him after he left here,” Hughes said.
With her husband vanished, Anne Duncan leased the tavern and had an adjoining house built for herself and her children, who all became educated and successful. Son Joseph Duncan Jr. moved to Illinois, where he became the state’s sixth governor (1834-1838) after serving four terms in Congress.
The inn later became a “respectable” boarding house. But by the 1930s, it was a shabby tenement that housed 13 families. The limestone had been covered with stucco and painted barn red. Paris officials condemned the building and planned to demolish it, until Ardery stepped in.
She convinced city officials to sell the property for $1, then she raised money for a seven-year restoration. The DAR furnished the tavern with donated and loaned Kentucky antiques. As other historic homes in the region were demolished, mantles and other fine woodwork was salvaged and incorporated into the tavern’s interior.
The DAR restored the adjoining Anne Duncan House in 1955, and the log-and-clapboard structure was faced with limestone. (That’s something preservationists would never do now, but it matched.)
A banquet room was added behind the tavern, and a cellar was dug out to create a large genealogy library. It is named for Bourbon County author John Fox Jr., the first American novelist to write a million-seller, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come. The library contains his desk and other artifacts.
“We had a gentleman here this morning from Idaho,” Hughes said. “He was tracing his family line and it ended up being right here in Bourbon County.”
If you go
Duncan Tavern Quilt Exhibit
Where: Duncan Tavern Historic Center, 323 High St., Paris
When: Tours at 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday through Sept. 9
Cost: $10 adults; reduced rates for seniors, DAR members, children and military
More information: Duncantavern.com or (859) 987-1788