New phone app gives architectural tour of downtown Lexington

October 20, 2015

Richard Greissman remembers sitting in the State Theatre one Saturday in March 2008 as several hundred citizens urged developer Dudley Webb not to demolish 14 old downtown buildings for his ill-fated CentrePointe project.

“We’re all sitting there going, ‘How did CentrePointe happen? How do we prevent it?'” said Greissman, who was then a University of Kentucky administrator. “I’m thinking, what’s my small part in this?”

He decided that if more people knew about the architectural and cultural significance of Lexington’s historic buildings they would be more interested in finding ways to adapt and reuse rather than demolish them.

So Greissman, who has photographed downtown for years, emailed a picture of an elaborate stone cornice on a Main Street building to a colleague, cultural geographer Karl Raitz, and asked what he could write about it.

“Twenty minutes later I get back a perfectly formed essay,” he said. “We went out to lunch and I said, ‘What do you think?’ and he said, ‘When do we start?'”

The LexArch photo app for iPhone and Android will provide a virtual architecture tour of Lexington's historic buildings. The app was developed by Richard Greissman and Karl Raitz. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Seven years later, Greissman and Raitz are launching LexArch Tour, an interactive architectural tour of downtown. The free app for iPhone and Android phones is now available for download. A launch event is planned for noon Wednesday at the Fifth Third Pavilion at Cheapside Park.

The app’s initial version includes photos, text and narration about the old Fayette County Courthouse and a dozen surrounding buildings, which are pin-pointed on a GPS map. The app also has hotlinks to a glossary of architectural terms.

“We see this as just a first version, what could be done practically in time for Breeders’ Cup,” Greissman said, adding that material is almost ready for another 20 buildings.

Greissman took the photos and Raitz wrote the text, which he narrates in small sections that can be chosen depending on the listener’s level of interest in each building. They each donated their time to the project. Beyond that, they had a lot of help. The app was built by Lexington-based Apax Software, and Prosper Media Group recorded Raitz’s narration. The $40,000 project, which includes money for updates and development over the next four years, was paid for by the mayor’s office and VisitLex, the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau. Another partner is the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

The app is designed for both tourists and locals, and the creators have big plans for expanding its functionality. “I’m hoping a lot of it is developed by folks saying, ‘What about doing this?'” Greissman said.

One model they have in mind is Street Museum, an app developed by the Museum of London in Great Britain. It allows users to hold their smart phone up to a location and see historic photos of what that place looked like over time.

The next step, they said, is to develop platforms that will let app users share their photographs and memories of downtown buildings on social media.

By next spring, they plan to have an update with many more downtown buildings, as well as historic photographs of those buildings and ones there before them. They eventually want to add video clips where appropriate.

Greissman and Raitz are talking with local game developers about how to integrate scavenger hunts and other interactive games into the app to make it more appealing to young people.

Raitz said one purpose of the app is to help people understand how cities such as Lexington are put together and evolve over time. They also want to increase architectural literacy among people who are interested in preservation but don’t know much about it.

“We want to get people out looking at Lexington in a different way,” Greissman said. “And then there’s the public knowledge and political capital it could provide for the next time some guy comes along and says, ‘Let’s tear this down.'”

Saved 75 years ago, Duncan Tavern celebrates with quilt exhibit

July 21, 2015
Kathy Stammerman's 2012 national champion quilt is displayed on a table at Duncan Tavern beneath a portrait of Julia Spencer Ardery, who spearheaded a drive to save the circa 1788 building from demolition in 1940 to make it a museum and headquarters for the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Photo by Tom Eblen

Kathy Stammerman’s 2012 national champion quilt is displayed on a table at Duncan Tavern beneath a portrait of Julia Spencer Ardery, who spearheaded a drive to save the circa 1788 building from demolition in 1940 to make it a museum and headquarters for the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Photo by Tom Eblen


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 a detail of a log cabin pattern quilt made by Patricia Conway of Shepherdsville from horse competition ribbons she won, mostly in the 1960s. It is part of an exhibit of 65 Kentucky quilts at Duncan Tavern. Photo by Tom Eblen

This is a detail of a log cabin pattern quilt made by Patricia Conway of Shepherdsville from horse competition ribbons she won, mostly in the 1960s. It is part of an exhibit of 65 Kentucky quilts at Duncan Tavern. Photo by Tom Eblen

“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: or (859) 987-1788

A crazy quilt from 1889 is part of a display of 65 antique and modern quilts from across Kentucky on display until Sept. 8 at Duncan Tavern in Paris.  Photo by Tom Eblen

A crazy quilt from 1889 is part of a display of 65 antique and modern quilts from across Kentucky on display through Sept. 9 at Duncan Tavern in Paris. Photo by Tom Eblen

Kay Thomas, left, Betty Willmott, center, and Donna Hughes helped organize a show of 65 antique and modern quilts from across Kentucky to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the restoration of circa 1788 Duncan Tavern as a museum and headquarters of the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. They are shown in the tavern's second floor hallway.  Photo by Tom Eblen

Kay Thomas, left, Betty Willmott, center, and Donna Hughes helped organize a show of 65 antique and modern quilts from across Kentucky to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the restoration of circa 1788 Duncan Tavern as a museum and headquarters of the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. They are shown in the tavern’s second floor hallway. Photo by Tom Eblen

Quilts are displayed with early Kentucky antique furniture at Duncan Tavern, a circa 1788 building that since 1940 has been a museum and headquarters of the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The quilt show, which runs through Sept. 8, celebrates the 75th anniversary of the tavern's renovation and the 125th anniversary of the DAR's founding. Photo by Tom Eblen

Quilts are displayed with early Kentucky antique furniture at Duncan Tavern, a circa 1788 building that since 1940 has been a museum and headquarters of the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The quilt show, which runs through Sept. 8, celebrates the 75th anniversary of the tavern’s renovation and the 125th anniversary of the DAR’s founding. Photo by Tom Eblen

Quilts are displayed with early Kentucky antique furniture at Duncan Tavern, a circa 1788 building that since 1940 has been a museum and headquarters of the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The quilt show, which runs through Sept. 8, celebrates the 75th anniversary of the tavern's renovation and the 125th anniversary of the DAR's founding. Photo by Tom Eblen

Quilts are displayed with early Kentucky antique furniture at Duncan Tavern, a circa 1788 building that since 1940 has been a museum and headquarters of the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The quilt show, which runs through Sept. 9, celebrates the 75th anniversary of the tavern’s renovation and the 125th anniversary of the DAR’s founding. Photo by Tom Eblen

Efforts to move, repurpose People’s Bank building are getting close

July 11, 2015
People's Bank on South Broadway must be moved or it will be demolished to make way for a 12-screen movie theater. Photo by Tom Eblen

People’s Bank on South Broadway must be moved or it will be demolished to make way for a 12-screen movie theater. Photo by Tom Eblen


The former Peoples Bank building, with its zig-zag roof and walls of glazed turquoise tile,seems to have captured people’s imaginations.

Fans of the Mid-Century Modern structure are within $75,000 of the $850,000 in cash and in-kind services they need by July 30 to save it from demolition by moving it off the South Broadway site where it was built in 1962.

“We’re in the home stretch,” said Laurel Catto, board chair of the Warwick Foundation, which plans to renovate the building into the People’s Portal, a public space for promoting cross-cultural understanding.

The building is owned by Langley Properties, which has agreed to donate it to the foundation if it can be relocated. Otherwise, Peoples Bank is slated for demolition to make way for a 12-screen movie theater.

One piece of the puzzle could fall into place July 17, when the Lexington Center board votes on whether to allow the building to be moved to the corner of West High and Patterson streets at the far front end of the Rupp Arena parking lot. The board also will consider putting $150,000 toward site preparation.

Plans call for much of that surface parking lot to be redeveloped eventually, and the Peoples Bank building would make a nice transition in scale from large, new structures to the historic Woodward Heights neighborhood to the west.

The Warwick Foundation, created from the estate of the Lexington-born architectural historian Clay Lancaster, has pledged $300,000 toward the Peoples Bank relocation and renovation.

Most of that came from a $250,000 grant the foundation must raise money to match. So far, it has raised all but $75,000 of the match. The most recent major donation, $30,000, came from the Josephine Ardery Foundation in Paris, which promotes historic preservation.

The Urban County Council has appropriated $150,000 for the project. The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation also has been active. More than $11,000 has been raised in small donations, Catto said. To give, go to:

To help with fundraising, Langley Properties will allow the foundation to give tours of the building from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on July 18, the first time it has been open to the public in years. Tours cost $20 each, with all proceeds going toward the building fund. More information: @People for the Peoples.

The planned new use for the building is something Lexington needs and Lancaster, who died in 2000 at age 83, would have loved, Catto said.

“Everybody knows Clay Lancaster as an architectural historian and preservation pioneer, and he was,” Catto said. “But he did an enormous amount of work in cross-cultural and inter-religious study. And he considered that his most important work. So it has always been baked into the Warwick mission.”

Plans call for the People’s Portal to be a public space for lectures, art exhibits, films and other events centered around promoting community values of respect, compassion, understanding and inclusion.

“You can’t pick up a newspaper today or hear the news without understanding the importance of that message,” she said.

The foundation has formed a high-profile advisory board for the People’s Portal, co-chaired by former Kentucky first lady Libby Jones and architect Tom Cheek.

Among the initiatives Catto would like to see the People’s Portal involved with is helping Lexington become a signatory to the Charter for Compassion, which has been signed by 62 cities worldwide, including Louisville and Cincinnati, and is in process with more than 200 others.

Also, she said, the People’s Portal could become an outpost for the Festival of Faiths, a 20-year-old event held in Louisville each May.

Catto thinks this building, designed by Lexington architect Charles Bayless for the People’s Federal Savings and Loan Association, is a perfect structure for this use. Modernist design has become especially popular among young adults.

“Young people have really engaged with preservation in a big way over this building,” she said. “It resonates with them, much like the Hunt-Morgan House and other Antebellum buildings did with adults in the 1950s.”

Historical Frankfort church, once threatened, is saved for a new role

June 6, 2015
Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.    Photo by Tom Eblen |

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors. Photos by Tom Eblen


FRANKFORT — When Good Shepherd Catholic Church and School moved to a new suburban campus in 2011, many people worried about what would happen to its former site, a downtown landmark since before the Civil War.

First, the old church was in the way of construction for the Franklin County Judicial Center, which took out the school gymnasium next door. In the end, the church wasn’t harmed, but the Judicial Center wrapped it on two sides.

Then there was a lack of maintenance. Water seeped through brick, damaging plaster and endangering the church’s structural integrity. Roof leaks caused sections of the heart-pine floors to rot. A tree sprouted from the bell-tower steeple.

The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation listed Good Shepherd on its 2013 “eleven at the eleventh hour” list of Central Kentucky historic buildings in danger of demolition after plans fell through to convert it into a museum.

“That building has been threatened for years, and there was a lot of concern that we were going to lose it,” said Craig Potts, executive director of the Kentucky Heritage Council and the state’s historic preservation officer.

“I was particularly concerned,” he added. “I was married in that church and live just a few doors down from it.”

Unlike some other recent preservation stories, this one seems headed toward a happy ending. Joe Dunn, an Oldham County developer who specializes in adaptive reuse of old buildings, is finishing a beautiful renovation of the circa 1850 sanctuary.

It has been leased to event venue operator Denise Jerome, who this summer will reopen it as The Lancaster at St. Clair, a place for weddings, receptions, music performances and other gatherings. A public preview is planned 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Aug. 20. Rental information:

The remaining part of the old gymnasium’s lot at the corner of Wapping and St. Clair streets is being converted into a garden-like outdoor event space enclosed by a wrought-iron fence.

After that is finished, Dunn will renovate the school building, which opened in 1923, and lease it for office space.

Dunn and his son, John, were already familiar with downtown Frankfort, having renovated the McClure Building, a 1906 office building, and the Market Square Apartments, a former Odd Fellows lodge built in the 1850s.

When Dunn first looked at the Good Shepherd campus, he was only interested in the school building. But the real estate agent insisted that he walk inside the church.

“I thought, what would I do with a church?” he recalled. “But, being raised Catholic, I thought I should look at it, and, wow! You could just feel the reverence of the place.”

Dunn was captivated by the old sanctuary’s Gothic Revival arches, colorful stained-glass windows, bell tower and working pipe organ.

“I had the same feeling he did when I walked into the space,” said Jerome, who manages several event venues in metro Louisville.

So, in May 2014, Dunn bought the church, school and what was left of the former gymnasium lot. He expects to spend about $500,000 on the church and garden renovation.

Dunn and Jerome named the venue for Father J.M. Lancaster, who came to Frankfort in 1848 to lead a 20-year-old Catholic congregation that was suddenly swelling with immigrants escaping military conscription in Germany and famine in Ireland.

The next year, he paid $5,000 for a small Presbyterian church on Wapping Street, where the congregation worshiped as its members literally built their new church around it. When the new church was finished, the old one was dismantled. Since then, Good Shepherd has played a big role in Frankfort society.

“He has done a good job with the renovation,” Potts said of Dunn. “And I think he has a good idea for its reuse that is going to help all the revitalization efforts already underway downtown. Frankfort is kind of buzzing right now.”

While restoring Good Shepherd was a big job, Dunn said the project has gone more smoothly than many do.

“There was a lot of damage, and I did have to say a few prayers, ‘Is this what you want me to do?'” Dunn said. “But the pieces fell into place pretty easily. Sometimes you feel like there are other hands guiding you.”

Joe Dunn, who is renovating the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort for use as event space, plays a few notes on the organ, which is in good working order. The building was built about 1850.   Photo by Tom Eblen |

Joe Dunn, who is renovating the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church for use as event space, plays a few notes on the organ, which is in good working order.

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.    Photo by Tom Eblen |

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.

The tower bell in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort still works.   Photo by Tom Eblen |

The tower bell in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort still works.

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.    Photo by Tom Eblen |

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space.

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The organ is in good working order. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The organ is in good working order.

The event venue in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, will be named in honore of Father J.M. Lancaster, the first priest there, who was memorialized in a stained-glass window.   Photo by Tom Eblen |

The event venue in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, will be named in honore of Father J.M. Lancaster, the first priest there, who was memorialized in a stained-glass window.

The former Good Shepherd Catholic Church, built in 1850 at the corner of St. Clair and Wapping streets, had suffered water damage from a leaking roof and deteriorating brick walls. The building was surrounded when the Franklin County Justice Center was built.   Photo by Tom Eblen |

The former Good Shepherd Catholic Church, built in 1850 at the corner of St. Clair and Wapping streets, had suffered water damage from a leaking roof and deteriorating brick walls. The building was surrounded when the Franklin County Justice Center was built.

Developer Joe Dunn, who is renovating the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, also bought the nearby parish school building, circa 1920. He plans to renovate it and lease it as office space.   Photo by Tom Eblen |

Developer Joe Dunn also bought the nearby parish school building, circa 1923. He plans to renovate it and lease it as office space.

Bequest allowed family to restore its circa 1841 ancestral home

May 26, 2015
The entry hall at Buknore.  Originally named Locust Grove, it was designed and built by Matthew Kennedy of Lexington, Kentucky's first professional architect. Photo by Tom Eblen |

The entry hall at Buknore. Originally named Locust Grove, it was designed and built by Matthew Kennedy of Lexington, Kentucky’s first professional architect. Photos by Tom Eblen


PARIS — Some families dream of still having the “old homestead” — a place where many generations could gather for holidays and special occasions to keep in touch with each other and their shared heritage.

Walker Buckner’s descendants have always had such a place, hidden within more than 1,000 acres of rolling Bourbon County farmland.

Buknore is one of Kentucky’s most beautiful Antebellum mansions, especially after a recent renovation made possible by a relative’s generous bequest and the talents of several family members and their contractors.

The house will be open for a rare public tour Sunday at the Summer Box Supper benefitting the preservation group Historic Paris-Bourbon County. The event is sold out.

“We feel so fortunate and blessed that we still have this house,” said Susan Combs of Lexington, one of seven cousins in the Buckner-Hinkle family’s sixth generation. “It was where we would go to be with our grandmother. It was something each of our parents loved so much and they kept that love alive.”

Buknore, originally called Locust Grove, was completed in 1841 for Walker Buckner (1781-1855). He came from Virginia with two brothers who also built mansions in Bourbon County.

The master builder was Matthew Kennedy, Kentucky’s first professional architect. Buknore bears his signature style: four large, two-story pilasters across the front of the house topped by a pediment with a half-round window.

Kennedy — or, perhaps in a couple of cases, his imitators — built several similar Federal-style houses in Central Kentucky. Other notable examples include Auvergne (1837) in Bourbon County; Grassland (1823) on Shelby Lane in Fayette County; and Kennedy’s own home (1813) on North Limestone at Constitution Street in Lexington, which now houses the shop Mulberry & Lime.

Buknore is one of Kennedy’s later houses and its interior woodwork reflects the Greek Revival style that became popular in the 1830s. Built a mile off Cane Ridge Road, the house has always been in the family and never suffered serious neglect.

Still, the mansion needed a lot of work, both structurally and cosmetically.

“The last time it had really been renovated was, I guess, my great-grandmother in the 1880s,” Combs said. “And it felt like the 1880s. You couldn’t sit on the furniture.”

Nancy Hinkle Holland, a Lexington physician, realized that, too. She had no children, and when she died in 2010 at age 88, she left a substantial sum for Buknore’s preservation and upkeep. The house is owned by Hinkle Family Properties.

That bequest enabled the family to do a top-to-bottom renovation, which was just completed. It included new wiring, plumbing, structural and foundation work. Later additions were removed, an original stone back porch was repaired and all of the brick was cleaned and re-pointed. Original green ash floors were restored. Some furniture that has been in the house for generations was refinished.

The old, separate kitchen was converted into an apartment and connected to the main house with a living and dining wing. A new kitchen was added between it and the formal dining room.

Playing big roles in the project were Combs and two other family members: Sally Brown Thilman, an interior designer in Chicago, and Estill Curtis Pennington of Paris, a noted art historian, scholar and author.

The professional team included project manager Ronald Little of Coppinger & Associates and architects Charles Jolly and Carol Myers, all of Lexington.

“I think we got the wonderful result we did because we had such a great team,” Thilman said. “From a design perspective, our goal was to respect the past and bring it into the present in certain ways, like building a new kitchen.”

Combs, Thilman and Pennington worked closely with their relatives to try to achieve consensus on most major issues. That mainly involved the sixth generation, all of whom live in Central Kentucky. But it also included 18 members of the seventh generation, who are scattered from New York to Portland, Ore.

The family now keeps a Google calendar to track who is using the house when. The entire family will gather at Buknore on major holidays.

“We’re just trying to take care of what we’ve been given, but also keep the family together,” Combs said. “Luckily we all get along pretty well. If we didn’t, this project would have been a lot harder.”

The entry hall of Buknore in Bourbon County. It was designed and built circa 1834-1841 by Matthew Kennedy of Lexington, Kentucky's first professional architect. Photo by Tom Eblen |

The entry hall of Buknore in Bourbon County.

The entry hall of Buknore, looking into the dining room.  It was designed and built circa 1834-1841 by Matthew Kennedy of Lexington, Kentucky's first professional architect. Photo by Tom Eblen |

The entry hall of Buknore, looking into the dining room.

The former farm office room at Buknore has been converted into a bedroom. Photo by Tom Eblen |

The former farm office room at Buknore has been converted into a bedroom.

The dining room at Buknore. Much of the furniture has been in the Bourbon County house for generations. Photo by Tom Eblen |

The dining room at Buknore. Much of the furniture has been in the house for generations.

Buknore in Bourbon County was built by Walker Buckner between 1834 and 1841. Originally named Locust Grove, it was designed and built by Matthew Kennedy of Lexington, Kentucky's first professional architect. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Buknore in Bourbon County was built by Walker Buckner between 1834 and 1841.

Buknore in Bourbon County was built by Walker Buckner between 1834 and 1841. Originally named Locust Grove, it was designed and built by Matthew Kennedy of Lexington, Kentucky's first professional architect. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Buknore in Bourbon County was built by Walker Buckner between 1834 and 1841.

Can North Lexington revival avoid the pitfalls of gentrification?

April 24, 2015

Rand Avenue. Rock Daniels   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.comRecently renovated houses on Rand Avenue off North Limestone Street. Photo by Tom Eblen


My column last Monday about the quickening pace of renovations in the North Limestone corridor generated some heated discussions on social media about “gentrification.”

In case you aren’t familiar with the term, it was coined in the 1960s to describe the displacement of poor residents when people with more money move into a neighborhood, leading to higher property values, rents and taxes.

It is a politically charged word sometimes used to try to shame people interested in historic preservation, or who want to improve property in neighborhoods where they wish to live or invest.

As urban living has regained popularity in Lexington after decades of suburban sprawl, re-investment in old neighborhoods has led to worries about gentrification.

It is a legitimate issue, because business practices and trickle-down economic policies have created a widening gap between rich and poor. Many hard-working people struggle to make ends meet after years of stagnant wages.

But gentrification can be subjective and complicated, because it involves touchy issues of class, race and capitalism. There are no easy solutions.

Two thoughtful essays about gentrification in Lexington were written by Bianca Spriggs in Ace Weekly last June and Joe Anthony in North of Center in May 2012. Both are worth reading online.

Here’s my view:

Neighborhoods are not static. They are constantly changing for many reasons. Some of those changes are good and others are bad, depending on your perspective. I see a lot more good than bad happening in North Lexington these days.

Many of these neighborhoods were created a century or two ago for wealthy and middle-class homeowners. Suburban flight led to disinvestment, deterioration and crime. A lot of owner-occupied homes became low-income rentals owned by people who didn’t take care of their property.

There are many good houses and commercial buildings there worth preserving and reusing. There also is a lot of community fabric and culture worth respecting and nurturing.

The return of more owner-occupied housing in these neighborhoods is a good thing. It is a fact of life that homeowners have more political clout than renters. That often results in more investment, better policing and less crime in neighborhoods with a significant share of owner-occupied homes.

That doesn’t mean rental property is undesirable. In many neighborhoods, such as mine, renters contribute a lot to community life.

Thanks to investment by new residents, businesses, non-profit groups such as the North Limestone Community Development Corporation and some professional renovators, many of North Lexington neighborhoods are becoming safer and more economically diverse places to live.

That doesn’t mean I like every house-flipper’s craftsmanship or tactics. But some of them are doing good work.

It is inevitable that some renters will be displaced. But I think renovators and re-sellers have a moral obligation to treat people fairly and, when possible, help longtime residents stay in the neighborhood.

Lexington is still small enough that business people’s reputations precede them. Quality work and good ethics will pay off for those who practice it, especially if others in the community speak out about bad actors.

Some absentee landlords will be displaced, too, and that is a good thing. Poor people often pay high rents and utility costs for substandard housing — and then get kicked out if they complain to Code Enforcement.

There are better solutions to affordable housing than steadily deteriorating homes owned by absentee landlords. The Urban League, Community Ventures, Habitat for Humanity, AU Associates, churches and others have done a lot of good work on affordable housing over the past two decades.

This wave of private investment in North Lexington, and the city’s new affordable housing trust fund, provide a good opportunity to address some of these gentrification issues in new and creative ways.

For one thing, people who choose to live in urban neighborhoods rather than more homogenous suburbs are seeking cultural diversity. That’s because diverse neighborhoods are more interesting places to live.

How can the city, non-profit groups and developers work together to keep low-income people in these neighborhoods, while at the same time improving the quality of housing they can afford? How can neighborhood revitalization work for everyone?

Neighborhoods are like any natural environment: The more diverse they are, the more healthy they are and the more sustainable they will be over time.

Rand Avenue renovations add to North Limestone renaissance

April 19, 2015

150416RandAve0008Real estate entrepreneur Rock Daniels has been buying, renovating and reselling former rental houses in the first block of Rand Avenue. His contractors are basically rebuilding many of the century-old bungalows, which were structurally sound and have nice architectural detals, but had badly deteriorated after years as rental units.   Photo by Tom Eblen


First it was downtown mansions. Then East Lexington bungalows. Now, North Lexington cottages. The popularity of in-town living has brought another wave to Lexington’s home renovation market.

With most of the antebellum houses and Victorian mansions redone and selling for more than $500,000, a good business has developed in complete renovations of homes built a century ago for working-class families.

The wave that started in neighborhoods such as Hollywood, Kenwick and Mentelle has washed up North Limestone.

150408RandAve0022Rock Daniels, a real estate agent who twice ran unsuccessfully for the Urban County Council, is buying and virtually rebuilding early 1900s houses in the first block of Rand Avenue, just north of Duncan Park, as well as some houses on nearby streets.

Laurella Lederer was doing the same thing before him. Having redone much of Johnson Avenue, she is now working on the second block of Rand.

Broken Fork Design has redone several houses and multi-family units, including the Fifth and Lime Flats. It was a much-needed renovation of an apartment complex built after the 1963 demolition of Thorn Hill, a circa 1812 mansion where Vice President John C. Breckinridge was born.

Chad Needham, who redid the old Spalding’s Bakery at East Sixth and North Limestone and the building that now houses North Lime Coffee & Donuts across from it, has done several other houses and commercial buildings in the area.

Needham’s most recent project is especially impressive: an early 1800s house at the corner of North Limestone and West Fifth Street that became commercial space long ago and had fallen into terrible shape. Beautifully renovated, it now houses Fleet Street Hair Shoppe.

Rand Avenue, created in 1892, still has most of its original houses. A notable exception is No. 264, a vacant lot since about 2001. It was the childhood home of Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007), whose father was a plumbing contractor.

Hardwick left Lexington for New York in 1939 and became a famous fiction writer, essayist and critic, a founder of the New York Review of Books and wife of poet Robert Lowell. She was recently inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

Since the 1980s, though, Rand Avenue has largely been rental property. Broken Fork did one of the first renovations there — the house where the Spalding family started frying their famous donuts in 1929.

Daniels, who lives in the Hollywood neighborhood, saw Rand Avenue as a promising area for young professionals who wanted to live near downtown, wanted a house and yard rather than a condo, but couldn’t afford larger renovated houses.

The first house he renovated sold in November for $182,500. He is now doing nine more on Rand, three of which are already under contract, two to medical school residents and one to a physical therapist, he said.

Daniels showed me through one of them, a circa 1910 frame cottage with about 1,200 square feet. It had been a rental house for years. He bought it for $36,000, is investing about $80,000 in renovation and hopes to sell it for about $165,000. His nearby renovated houses are priced around $145,000.

With each house, his contractors install a new roof, take the house down to the studs and make any needed structural improvements. They preserve what historic fabric they can. But except for restored heart-pine floors, most things will be new: windows, wiring, plumbing, heating and air, insulation, kitchens and siding on the non-brick houses.

Many houses have small interior coal chimneys that can’t be reused. They are removed for a more open floor plan, but the bricks are reused for walks.

“We try to save and repurpose as much as possible,” said Daniels, who grew up in a National Register historic house in Bristol, Tenn.

Daniels wants to buy all of the rental houses he can on the street, he said, but none that are owner-occupied. In fact, he said, he has offered to make improvements on those houses at cost.

He will soon be building a new porch for homeowner Janice Hamilton and her husband. She has lived there since 1981 and likes what is happening on her street.

“When I first moved here it was a lot of older people, most of them homeowners,” Hamilton said. “And then a lot of them died out and it became rental property. So it became a little this and that.

“Now I’m glad to see it coming back to the way it used to be,” she said. “A lot of people give Rand Avenue a bad rap. We had some bad tenants years ago. But it’s quiet, it’s close to town. Everybody looks out for each other. I’m looking forward to new homeowners.”

Daniels sees a lot more potential for restoring North Lexington neighborhoods.

“Of course, we’re looking for what the next Rand Avenue is going to be,” he said. “There are so many people who want to move downtown.”

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A Lexington landmark saved, but Georgetown treasure may be lost

April 14, 2015

150410OddFellows0064Ben Kaufmann, left, and Rob Rosenstein joked with each other April 10 while inspecting the 1869 Odd Fellows Temple at 115-119 W. Main St., for the first time.  “As long as you’re smiling, I’m OK,” Rosenstein told Kaufmann. Photos by Tom Eblen


For people who care about Kentucky’s history, culture and irreplaceable architecture, the past week was one of highs and lows, thanks to two good guys and one who should be ashamed.

First, the good guys:

“Let’s chase the ghosts away!” Ben Kaufmann said as we entered the front door of the Odd Fellows Temple at 115-119 West Main Street last Friday morning, setting off a burglar alarm.

Kaufmann, a real-estate investor and financial adviser, had bought the 1870 Italianate and Second Empire-style building 10 days earlier at a Master Commissioner’s sale and was getting his first look inside the $750,000 investment.

150127OddFellows0006The building housed Bellini’s restaurant until it closed Jan. 1. The building and restaurant owner, NGS Realty, was in bankruptcy last year and neglected the building. In late January, city Code Enforcement officers stepped in to board up missing and broken windows to protect the building and passing pedestrians.

Kaufmann and Rob Rosenstein, former owner of Liquor Barn, plan to renovate this landmark, designed by noted Lexington architect Cincinnatus Shryock, and then rent it, mostly as restaurant space.

Over the decades, the building housed offices, restaurants, bakeries, bars and stores, most notably Skuller’s Jewelry, which was there for more than 70 years. Skuller’s recently restored sidewalk clock has been a downtown icon since 1913.

The building’s hidden treasure is the third-floor ballroom, which hasn’t been used publicly for years because it lacked an elevator and modern stairway. But it may be the best-preserved part of the building, whose last major rehab was in 2000.

The white ballroom is stunning: 40 feet wide and nearly 60 feet deep, with a vaulted ceiling 25 feet high and original plasterwork. Tall, arched windows look out on Main Street, although the view is now dominated by the idle CentrePointe pit.

A quick inspection revealed few structural problems in the building and only a couple of small roof leaks behind the ballroom, where interior walls had been torn out for a renovation that was never completed.

The first floor, where Bellini’s operated, has beautiful mosaic tile floors, vintage tin ceilings and two long, handsome bars. The second floor also had been partially stripped out for renovation. It originally housed law firms and, in recent years, apartments.

“Watch out what you wish for, you might get it,” Kaufmann joked as he added up renovation costs in his head.

“As long as you’re smiling, I’m OK,” Rosenstein kept saying with a laugh.

These guys enjoy teasing each other, but they realize the Odd Fellows Temple is a diamond in the rough. When polished, it should be a hot property. Old downtown buildings have become the preferred location for upscale restaurants and bars.

Kaufmann and Rosenstein are good businessmen looking for a profit. But they also are doing Lexington a favor by saving one of its architectural gems, a place that holds generations of memories and should create many more in the future.

“This is an important building,” Kaufmann said. “I want to restore it to its original beauty.”

Lexington is lucky to have these guys. If only Georgetown were so lucky.

Sanders-Kocher copyScott County is about to lose its first brick house, a Georgian mansion that early Thoroughbred breeder Robert Sanders built on Cane Run Creek south of town in 1797. The house has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973.

The property’s condition has deteriorated since a company owned by Kenneth A. Jackson of Kentuckiana Farms acquired it in 2007. The Scott County PVA values the house at $121,120 and its 25.5 acres at $202,299, according to the Georgetown News-Graphic. United Bank of Georgetown holds a mortgage on the property.

Preservationists say Jackson has rebuffed their attempts to help him protect the house or find a buyer at a reasonable price. Jackson recently sold adjoining parcels for development. A salvage crew has been removing fine interior woodwork — the house’s most distinguished feature — with demolition scheduled to follow.

Efforts to save the house did not appear to be fruitful by late Tuesday afternoon, said Jason Sloan, director of preservation for the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

All indications are that the house will be torn down Wednesday, Sloan said.

Some people would say this is Jackson’s property and he should be able to do with it as he pleases. But when someone buys a National Register house of this significance, I think he assumes a responsibility to Kentucky’s heritage, whether he likes it or not.

To neglect this house for years and then demolish it in the hope of pocketing a bigger profit may be legal, but it’s not right.

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It won’t be cheap, but Lexington must renovate old courthouse

March 24, 2015

141231Downtown0070The old Fayette County Courthouse. Photo by Tom Eblen


Remember the old TV commercials for Fram oil filters? An actor dressed as an auto mechanic would explain how a costly repair could have been prevented with regular oil changes.

His punch line: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

Those ads came to mind as I read the report about all that is wrong with the old Fayette County Courthouse and what must be done to fix it. The building is well into “pay me later” status, and any further procrastination will make things worse.

Lexington’s EOP Architects and Preservation Design Partnership of Philadelphia spent six months cataloging decades of serious abuse and neglect of an iconic building that has defined the center of Lexington for more than a century.

This Richardsonian Romanesque temple of limestone, completed in 1900, symbolized the idea that public buildings should be beautiful as well as functional. It had a 105-foot-tall rotunda with a bronze-plated staircase paved in white marble. The dome was illuminated by then-new electric lights, and the cupola was crowned with a large racehorse weathervane.

But by 1930, growing Fayette County government needed more office space. Rather than branch out to annexes, more and more was crammed into the courthouse. The ultimate architectural insult came in 1960-61, when the rotunda was filled in and most of the elegant interior gutted to add elevators and more office space.

Building updates were ill-conceived. Little was spent on maintenance. The weathervane, damaged by a storm, was taken down in 1981.

The courts moved out in 2000 to new buildings two blocks away. The old courthouse was handed off to the Lexington History Museum and left to leak and crumble. Concerns about lead paint contamination prompted its closure in 2012.

The old courthouse is just one example of how Lexington squandered a rich architectural inheritance. For decades, “out with the old, in with the new” was city leaders’ motto. Much of the new was poorly designed and cheaply built.

There were many short-sighted demolitions, such as Union Station and the Post Office on Main Street, plus “modernizations” that now look ridiculous. New schools and office buildings were often cheap imitations of contemporary architecture. The city allowed many handsome buildings to be razed for parking lots.

There also was a lot of “demolition by neglect”, a trend that sadly continues at such places as the 1870 Odd Fellow’s Temple that most recently housed Bellini’s restaurant. It’s no wonder, since the old courthouse such a visible example.

Mayor Jim Gray deserves credit for trying to change things. The Downtown Development Authority and its consultants have put together an excellent, no-nonsense plan for a public-private partnership to renovate the old courthouse as a visitors’ center, public events venue and commercial space.

The cost of fixing and upgrading the building for new uses won’t be cheap: about $38 million, although about $11 million could come from historic preservation tax credits.

But what other choice do we have? The old courthouse is a black hole in an increasingly vibrant downtown that will soon include a 21C Museum Hotel in the restored First National building.

The consultants’ report says the old courthouse is basically sound structurally, but the damage so severe that a purely commercial restoration isn’t feasible.

That means city leaders must finally face up to their responsibility, just as they had to do when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forced the city to fix long-inadequate sewer systems that were polluting neighborhoods and streams.

Fortunately, many Urban County Council members have expressed support for restoring the old courthouse. They recognize it as an investment in Lexington’s future. But you can bet some will vote “no” to try to score political points, just as three members did on the necessary sewer rate increase recently.

After all, what’s the alternative? Tear down the old courthouse? Imagine the bad publicity that would bring Lexington, especially after city officials in 2008 allowed the Webb Companies to destroy an entire block nearby to create a storage pit for idle construction cranes.

Demolition of the old courthouse would tell tourists that the “city of horses and history” doesn’t really care about its history. And it would tell potential residents and economic development prospects that Lexington is too cheap and short-sighted to care for its assets or invest in its future.

I think most Lexington leaders are smart enough to bite the bullet and do the right thing here. And if they are really smart, they also will make other investments to avoid big taxpayer liabilities in the future. As the old courthouse and EPA consent degree have painfully demonstrated, “pay me later” is rarely a wise choice.

Montessori school renovates 1840s home with a rich history

November 15, 2014

141110Montessori0099Calleigh Kolasa, 13, left, Maya Pemble, 12, top right, and Gus Glasscock, 13, trim blackberry bushes outside Providence Montessori Middle School, now located in an 1840s house that for 119 years was the Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers. The school uses agriculture to teach everything from science to entrepreneurship. Photos by Tom Eblen

When the House of Mercy opened in 1894, the secluded old home at 519 West Fourth Street seemed like a good place to help “fallen” women. It was in an out-of-the-way part of town, near what was then called the Eastern Kentucky Lunatic Asylum.

What became the Florence Crittenton Home did a lot to help pregnant girls and young mothers with infants for 119 years until last November, when changing state social-work policies forced it to close for lack of funds.

Over the past couple of years, that out-of-the-way neighborhood has been experiencing a rebirth, with a heavy emphasis on education.

The former site of what is now called Eastern State Hospital is becoming the campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College. Transylvania University has turned an old industrial strip into an athletics complex.

So it is fitting that the old House of Mercy, a handsome brick home that dates to around the 1840s, has been beautifully transformed for a new life as Providence Montessori Middle School.

The school recently completed an extensive renovation, accomplished quickly so fall-term classes could begin. The result will be on display from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday during a public open house. The presidents of Transylvania and BCTC are scheduled to attend.

“This summer was a blur,” said Vivian Langefeld, the Montessori school’s director. “We worked day and night.”

Despite a higher offer from Transylvania, the Florence Crittenton Home board last March sold the 2.5-acre property to the Montessori school for $400,100 — well below market value — to make sure the historic structure wasn’t demolished.

With a combination of donations, fundraising and loans, the school did an extensive renovation led by Matthew Brooks, a principal in the Lexington architecture firm Alt32, and Chip Crawford and Drew McLellan of Crawford Builders. Their work recently earned a Community Preservation Award from the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

“It would have been a shame to have lost this place,” Langefeld said.

In addition to the tight schedule, Brooks said the biggest challenge was opening up space and light in the building, which had been added to three times since the late 1800s, without compromising structural integrity. The school’s requirement for big, open spaces was much different from the many small rooms the Crittenton Home needed.

Old carpets were pulled up and hardwood floors, including many of the original poplar planks, were restored. Original fireplaces were kept and structural brick was exposed on many interior walls to add to the charm.

Alt32’s staff also designed and built the school’s furniture and lockers from birch plywood, using a high-tech router capable of precisely replicating intricate shapes.

Brooks had a special interest in the project: his daughter will be a student there next year. He said the light-filled space now reminds him of Lexington’s original Montessori school in the St. Peter Claver Catholic Church Parish Hall down the street, where he attended kindergarten in 1972. (In another bit of neighborhood improvement, the church is now restoring and building an addition to that hall.)

In Montessori schools, children learn by doing in an environment with a lot of freedom and self-direction. This school, which has 38 students in 7th and 8th grades, uses small-scale urban agriculture as a vehicle for teaching everything from science to entrepreneurship.

Langefeld said the next step will be to fill the campus grounds with vegetable gardens, rain gardens, berry bushes and fruit trees. Chicken coops and beehives will be added in the spring so students can care for them and sell the eggs and honey.

“We do an entrepreneurial program where they all learn about supply and demand, profit and loss and so forth,” she said.

The house came with a good commercial kitchen, which students use for baking products to sell and fixing their own lunch once a week. A large room on the back will be turned into a shop with woodworking tools.

The school also hopes to develop cooperative programs with Transylvania and BCTC, and to engage residents and businesses in the surrounding neighborhood.

“Montessori’s vision for the adolescent was a non-institutional setting,” Langefeld said. “So this is perfect for that kind of environment, where it feels like they are more a part of a community.”

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‘Lost Lexington’ a reminder of great buildings and people

November 1, 2014

The cover of Lost Lexington explains why Peter Brackney’s new book is so timely: It shows a mothballed old courthouse in desperate need of renovation beside the gigantic crater that has replaced the city’s oldest business district.

141102LostLexington002Brackney, a lawyer and writer of the local history blog, said the plight of the old Fayette County Courthouse and the CentrePointe boondoggle were big motivations for writing his book.

So was the University of Kentucky’s controversial demolition this summer of several significant mid-century modern buildings on his alma mater’s campus to make way for new construction.

“Everywhere you see a parking lot, something once stood,” Brackney said in an interview. “I think the more you learn about some of these historic structures, the more you appreciate what we have left.”

Brackney focuses on what is gone, and it is an impressive collection of special buildings and places once central to community life. They include elegant mansions, a racetrack, an amusement park, a football stadium, railroad stations and a private garden that early settlers referred to as “paradise.”

Lost Lexington (The History Press, $19.95) includes a forward by Mayor Jim Gray and many photographs. But what makes it most interesting is Brackney’s thorough research into these places and the remarkable people associated with them. I know a lot about Lexington history, but I learned some things.

Brackney begins with Lexington’s best-known preservation story: the 1955 demolition of the 1798 Hart-Bradford House for a parking lot. That act, and fears that the 1814 Hunt-Morgan House across the street would be next, led to creation of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation and the city’s first preservation laws.

“If you looked at the Hart-Bradford House and didn’t know a thing about who lived there, you would think there was nothing special about it, just a nice two-story brick house,” Brackney said.

brackneyBut, as the book explains, that house was built by Henry Clay’s father-in-law, Thomas Hart, a Revolutionary War veteran and influential land speculator. The next resident was John Bradford, Kentucky’s first newspaper publisher and a major civic leader. Clay was married in that house, and Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan may have been, too.

Few people now remember another longtime resident of the house: Laura Clay, an early champion of women’s rights. She learned about the subject the hard way: watching her father, emancipationist Cassius Clay, cheat her mother out of property after their divorce.

Among the several fabulous, long-gone estates featured in the book is Chaumiere des Prairies, where three U.S. presidents were entertained and the traitor Aaron Burr was held under arrest.

Col. David Meade’s estate was famous for its beautifully landscaped gardens. When he died in 1832, a farmer who bought the property destroyed them with grazing livestock, prompting neighbors to post signs about “paradise lost.”

Brackney tells the stories of such 20th century landmarks as the Phoenix Hotel, Union Station, the Southern Railway depot and Joyland Park. Joyland Park was famous for its amusement rides and the huge dance pavilion where Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw and other big band leaders performed.

One interesting story was about how, for 23 years, the afternoon Lexington Leader gave every white kid in town free swimming lessons at Joyland’s public pool. In those segregation days, the newspaper provided free swimming lessons for black children at Douglass Park.

The book tells about two sporting venues that no longer exist: the Kentucky Association racetrack and Stoll Field/McLean Stadium, the home of UK football games and other community events before Commonwealth Stadium replaced it in 1972.

UK’s recent demolitions and the CentrePointe project, which destroyed more than a dozen downtown buildings and 51/2 years later is nothing more than a hole in the ground, were a wakeup call for historic preservation in Lexington.

But Brackney, who lives in Jessamine County, laments that many other communities still haven’t gotten the message. Nicholasville’s oldest Main Street commercial building, built in the early 1800s, was recently demolished.

“While we do have to balance preservation and progress, we have to make sure there’s an understanding that people lived and worked in each of these places; they’re not just bricks and mortar,” he said.

“Drive down Nicholasville Road, drive down Richmond Road, and there’s nothing that separates them from Glendale, Ariz., or any new city,” Brackney added. “There’s nothing that makes them unique. And it’s Lexington’s history and uniqueness that helps make it a great city.”

If you go

Peter Brackney will speak and sign copies of Lost Lexington:

5:30 p.m. Nov. 3: Thomas Hunt-Morgan House, 210 N. Broadway, hosted by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. The event includes a panel discussion about historic preservation in Lexington.

2 p.m. Nov. 9: The Morris Book Shop, 882 E High St.

6 p.m. Nov. 9: Barnes & Noble bookstore, Hamburg Pavilion.

7 p.m. Dec. 2: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington Green.

Reconsider demolition of UK lab that played role in space race

April 22, 2014

WG1 The Wenner-Gren Research Laboratory opened in 1941 to do aeronautical research. Designed by Ernst Johnson, its front resembles an airplane cockpit.  Photos by Tom Eblen

I have made several trips to the University of Kentucky campus over the past year to take a good look at some of its iconic architecture before administrators demolish it.

The most recent trip was to see Wenner-Gren Research Laboratory. It is unique among the several mid-20th century buildings designed by noted Lexington architect Ernst Johnson that may soon meet a wrecking ball.

Swedish industrialist Alex Wenner-Gren, who got rich selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners, gave UK $150,000 in 1940 to build a laboratory for aeronautical research.

The mission called for a structure about as utilitarian as you could get: thick, strong walls to contain aircraft engine tests and funnel out the exhaust. But Johnson found a way to give his building style.

The long, narrow building resembles an airplane, with tail fins on the back roof and a curved front façade of glass block and fine brick work that reminds you of a cockpit. Form elegantly reflected function.

Wenner-Gren is one of the area’s few remaining examples of Streamline Moderne architecture. The style, which also was used in everything from steam locomotives to toasters, reflected mid-20th century Americans’ hopeful visions of a space-age future.

In the 1950s, the lab’s mission evolved from aircraft to biomedical research. In 1959, the lab got an Air Force contract to train chimpanzees, the first astronauts of the Mercury Space Flight program.

During a recent visit to Lexington, retired Space Shuttle astronaut Story Musgrave recalled doing biomedical research in Wenner-Gren while earning degrees in physiology and biophysics that prepared him for his future NASA missions.

wg2As with many older UK buildings, renovation and updating of Wenner-Gren over the years looks to have been basic and minimal. A water leak in the annex recently damaged a display case chronicling the lab’s significant scientific history.

Eli Capilouto, who became UK’s president in 2011, deserves a lot of credit for moving swiftly to play catch-up to longtime facilities needs, from student housing to academic buildings. But that rush has at times reflected a narrow vision of campus improvement, with little regard for history or architecture.

Architects and preservationists have complained about the planned demolition of several Ernst Johnson dormitories to make way for generic-looking residence halls outsourced to a private contractor.

Dining services also are to be outsourced to a major corporation willing to invest in new facilities. That has drawn criticism from students and others concerned about UK’s commitment to the local food economy and worker wages.

UK also plans to demolish Hamilton House, an 1880 Italianate mansion, to make way for a residence hall. Mathews Garden, a unique plot of diverse plant life managed by the biology department, along with two adjacent early 20th century houses, may be destroyed for a proposed expansion of the law school complex.

UK plans to replace Wenner-Gren with a new science classroom building. The dozen research labs now housed there will be moved to a College of Engineering building when this semester ends.

Critics have urged UK to preserve all or some of Wenner-Gren as part of the new science building. One good idea: Turn it into a cafeteria, café and coffee shop whose architecture and illustrious history could help inspire future scientists.

But UK administrators have shown little interest in investing much imagination or money in such adaptive reuse projects. So far, the architecture of the new buildings is nothing special.

You would think that, in their master-planning process, UK administrators would have involved their in-house experts, the College of Design professors who train most of Kentucky’s architects and historic preservation specialists. Well, no.

“I find it extremely disappointing that UK, as the flagship state university and our state’s keeper of culture, is letting accountants make decisions about what is architecturally and historically significant,” said Robert Kelly, a Lexington architect and longtime UK adjunct professor who has advocated for preservation of Wenner-Gren and other significant Ernst Johnston buildings.

“I find it analogous to asking your hairdresser how to perform cardiac surgery,” he said. “Hmm, that doesn’t look important — you can probably remove it.”

Building movie complex in historic district would set bad precedent

March 1, 2014

House1The theater developer’s plans call for moving the John Lowman House from the West High Street bluff, where it has been since 1808. Photos by Charles Bertram.


The good news is that a proposed 10-theater IMAX movie and restaurant complex would be a great addition to downtown Lexington. The bad news is that the developer wants to build it in the wrong place.

Dallas-based Look Cinemas is proposing this huge complex for the southeast corner of West High Street and South Broadway. The site is within one of Lexington’s most significant historic districts, which homeowners have painstakingly restored after decades of demolition, abuse and neglect.

If city officials approve Look’s plan without substantial changes, it could undo a half-century of preservation efforts and undermine legal protections for all 15 Lexington historic districts.

Look has yet to make a formal application to the city, but it has been working on the project for a year. It has met with the South Hill neighborhood and others to try to address concerns and minimize the impact on adjacent homes.

The complex is well-designed, but it is too massive for that location. It fills virtually the entire one-acre site and rises as high as 70 feet above street level. Plans would require moving a 206-year-old house that is one of the last remaining on the High Street bluff.

At an informal design review last Wednesday, the three architects and one engineer who serve on the city’s Board of Architectural Review made it clear that this project, as now envisioned, meets none of the legal guidelines for construction in a Lexington historic district.

Board members all but rejected the developer’s plan to move the 1808 John Lowman House a half-mile away to the Western Suburb historic district. They also expressed skepticism about moving it within South Hill to one of two parking lots across from Dudley Square at Mill and Maxwell streets.

Board members noted that much of the house’s historic significance has to do with its location on High Street. They also expressed concern about the movie complex’s proximity to the 1895 George Lancaster House on South Broadway. Both houses are some of the last examples of the 19th century mansions that once lined both streets in that neighborhood.

Board member Graham Pohl, an architect, said moving the Lowman House off High Street is a “non-starter,” and he warned that this entire plan has serious implications beyond South Hill. “It sets a terrible precedent for every historic district in town,” he said.

Indeed, this would be the first case of moving a house in a historic district since the early 1980s, when legal protections were more lax. A few houses were moved before city historic districts were created, to keep them from being demolished. They include the circa 1784 Adam Rankin House, Lexington’s oldest house, which was moved off High Street to South Mill Street, directly behind where Look Cinemas now wants to build.

“This area has been gnawed on since the ’60s,” said board member Sarah Tate, an architect. “I think there’s a time when you just have to say, ‘Stop. This neighborhood can’t be infringed on anymore.'”

Here’s what Tate was referring to: When Rupp Arena and Lexington Center were built 40 years ago, most of the historic South Hill neighborhood was demolished to create a massive parking that lot city officials now want to redevelop. The fraction of the neighborhood that remained was given city historic district protection.

Most of those old buildings have since been restored into valuable, owner-occupied homes and condos. Many South Hill structures date from the early 1800s and are architecturally significant. If this incursion is allowed, what will be next?

The Board of Architectural Review is unlikely to approve Look’s plan unless the 1808 house stays and the cinema complex gets smaller. But the board could be overruled by the Planning Commission, which is more susceptible to economic and political pressures. That would be a tragedy.

The good news is that there is a much better site for this complex: across South Broadway on the huge city-owned parking lot where the rest of the South Hill neighborhood once stood.

Look Cinemas’ complex is just the kind of private development Mayor Jim Gray wants and needs on that lot to help pay for the proposed $328 million renovation of Rupp Arena and Lexington Center.

Look officials told the board they prefer their site, in part because the Rupp redevelopment process is still in its early stages. They said they can’t wait. Developers always say they can’t wait.

Here is what needs to happen: City officials must quickly figure out how to speed up their process and relocate Look Cinemas to the Rupp lot or some other downtown site. What they cannot do is further damage South Hill and risk setting a precedent that could jeopardize the investments made in all Lexington historic districts.

Yes, downtown needs new development like Look Cinemas. But Lexington will never “save” downtown by continuing to destroy the irreplaceable historic fabric that makes it unique.  

lotDevelopers hope to build an IMAX theater in this block bounded by West High Street at the bottom, South Mill Street on the left, and South Broadway on the right. 

1910 Coal & Feed Co. building redone as corporate headquarters

February 24, 2014

140218BCWood0016Brian C. Wood, founder and CEO of BC Wood Properties, stands in the lobby of the company’s headquarters as Jeannette Crank works behind the front desk and a meeting is conducted in a second-floor conference room. Wood said the renovated circa 1910 Elmendorf Coal & Feed Co. building has been a perfect space for the business. Photos by Tom Eblen 


A couple of years ago, Brian Wood, the founder and CEO of BC Wood Properties, took the company’s president, King Offutt, down West Fourth Street to show him where Transylvania University, his alma mater, was building new athletic fields.

That part of town was beginning to see dramatic change, including conversion of the huge Eastern State Hospital property into a new campus for Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

While driving around, they turned down Henry Street, a byway that connects to West Third Street. It runs along railroad tracks and old grain elevators near Newtown Pike.

Then they saw it: a hulk of a brick building. It had been built in 1910 by the legendary millionaire horseman James Ben Ali Haggin to house his Elmendorf Coal & Feed Co. Since then, though, it had suffered at least two fires and years of vacancy.

“We had been looking for a building for a couple of years” to house the growing company’s headquarters, Offutt said. “We wanted a building with character.”

140218BCWood0032At the time, the company worked out of Eastland Shopping Center, one of more than 30 retail properties with 5.5 million square feet of space that BC Wood Properties now owns and manages in eight states.

“It was love at first sight,” Wood said of the three-story building. “A diamond in the rough.”

After they looked around the outside and in a few windows, Offutt reached for his cellphone and called the owner. “We want to buy your building,” he said.

Considerable work and a couple of million dollars later, BC Wood Properties has one of the coolest office spaces in Lexington: foot-thick, exposed brick walls; warm wood everywhere, including massive hewn posts and beams; big windows that fill the space with natural light.

The company’s in-house construction experts did most of the renovation. Local craftsmen made long trestle tables for shared conference space between offices and custom metal signs.

140218BCWood0025A huge wooden sliding door was preserved on one wall. Casual seating around the building includes old wooden pews bought on eBay from a Wisconsin church. The façade along Henry Street preserves the painted sign for another long-ago tenant, Central Kentucky Blue Grass Seed Co.

“It works really well,” Offutt said of the building. “It’s certainly improved morale among our employees. They love the building and coming to work in it.”

The building had a modern metal addition on the back, which Wood turned into an employee gym and basketball court. The company pays for a fitness trainer to come in three times a week to work with employees, and the benefit has proven popular, he said.

Preserving the building’s industrial character was their approach to the renovation, Wood said.

“We wanted to keep the essential historical nature, and not try to turn it into something it’s not,” Wood said, noting that is a key principle of the company itself.

Wood started BC Wood Properties 20 years ago and has focused on a specific niche: modest shopping centers in high-traffic locations where middle-class people shop regularly for things they need to live. He said the strategy has worked well: its properties remained more than 90 percent leased throughout the economic slump.

It also helps that the company handles all management, construction and maintenance in-house, rather than outsourcing it, to ensure that properties stay in good shape. That requires a strong team, Wood said, which includes a full-time staff of 18 in Lexington and another 14 employees elsewhere.

Last year, the company raised a $43 million private equity fund for acquisitions, about one-third of it from local investors. That allowed it to purchase 11 shopping centers in five states last year, Wood said.

Wood and Offutt are both 41-year-old Lexington natives, and they said they enjoy being part of the revitalization of Lexington’s northwest end.

“This building reflects who we are,” Wood said. “We didn’t want a high-rise presence. We enjoy being on Henry Street beside grain bins and Blue Stallion Brewery. This is us.”

Added Offutt: “This area is going to change so much in the next five years, it’s going to be fun to watch.”

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UK shouldn’t destroy unique teaching garden with 350 species

February 11, 2014

140210MathewsGarden0009AJames Krupa, a UK biology professor, stands in the dormant, snow-covered Mathews Garden beside the now-vacant Mathews house. The garden contains about 350 species of native plants, including many rare ones. Below, a rare American elm tree stands in the garden near the College of Law building. Photos by Tom Eblen


Mathews Garden at the University of Kentucky doesn’t look like much in its winter dormancy, covered with snow.

Dr. James Krupa, a biology professor, says UK administrators have long complained that the garden doesn’t look like much any time of the year. But that’s not the point.

The century-old garden may be the most biologically diverse half-acre in Kentucky, Krupa said, with about 350 species of mostly native plants and trees. The garden provides a unique teaching facility, allowing students to see and compare many unusual plants that rarely grow together.

But like some of its plant species, Mathews Garden is endangered. A proposed renovation of UK’s College of Law building would destroy this unique garden, as well as two adjacent houses, built in 1900 and 1920.

When the $65 million law school renovation was announced in 2012, administrators said the project would claim both houses and the garden. Krupa said he was told recently that the garden is doomed.

But UK spokesman Jay Blanton said no decision about the fate of the garden or houses has been made and won’t be made until after state and private funding are secured for the much-needed renovation. “Those decisions would be part of the design process,” he said.

140210MathewsGarden0004AWhen the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation last month released its annual list of Central Kentucky’s most-endangered historic places, every one was owned by UK. Mathews Garden and the two adjacent houses were on the list for the second straight year. The group also complained that UK had demolished a circa 1800 house at Spindletop Farm without notice or warning.

UK trustees have approved plans to demolish several buildings designed between the 1940s and 1960s by noted architect Ernst Johnson, as well as a circa 1880 Italianate mansion, to make way for new dormitories that will be built and leased by a private contractor.

Architects have complained about the loss of the “architecturally significant” buildings, as well as poor design and construction quality of the new dormitories.

Clarence Mathews, a UK professor of botany and horticulture, created the garden in his back yard after he built a frame house at the edge of campus in 1900. Mathews’ daughter, Ruth, transferred the property to UK in 1968, but continued to live there. She died in 1986.

The Mathews house and the Ligon house next door have been used for UK offices. But the Mathews house is now vacant and showing signs of exterior decay from lack of maintenance.

Krupa said he volunteered to restore the garden in 2000. He said he began by removing 20 truckloads of honeysuckle and other invasive species.

Over the years, Krupa said he has spent countless hours and more than $41,000 in UK funds and his own money improving and maintaining the garden, which he said is used by classes with 1,500 students each year. He has added plants, trails, benches and plant identification markers.

Krupa said the garden is a living botany textbook, with every Kentucky variety of dogwood, azalea, hydrangea and viburnum and other plants. It has dozens of native wildflowers and several rare trees, including roundleaf birch, Georgia oak and striped maple.

The garden has a rare reproducing American elm tree. More than 75 percent of the once-ubiquitous American elms were lost to Dutch elm disease in the mid-20th century. Krupa thinks this may be the last one on campus.

“It’s really amazing that so many species are here in this one place,” Krupa said.

But Blanton said: “The question now is should a facility of dense undergrowth be in the center of campus or more appropriately relocated to a research tract on farms owned by the university?”

Krupa said the garden could not be relocated successfully. “Half of the biological diversity is in the soil,” he said.

Rather than expand sideways and take the garden and old houses, Krupa suggests that the law school expand back, which would displace a parking lot and a small, non-descript 1950s building.

“Administrators have always called this a weed patch,” Krupa said of Mathews Garden. “But it’s only a weed patch if you’re ignorant. I’m up against ignorance, arrogance and a lot of faculty that are afraid to take on the administration.”

For an institution of higher learning that trains many of Kentucky’s architects and historic preservation specialists, UK administrators are showing little regard for either discipline. Let’s hope they don’t flunk botany, too.



The entrance to Mathews Garden. The century-old home and garden were built by Clarence Mathews, a UK botany and horticulture professor.


Clay Lancaster’s Warwick open Sunday for a rare tour

January 14, 2014

Warwick1Clay Lancaster’s Warwick estate. Photo by Helm Roberts/Warwick Foundation.


There is a special place in Central Kentucky that I have wanted to visit for years. I will finally get a chance Sunday, and so can you.

Warwick, on Oregon Road in Mercer County, is an estate near the Kentucky River where Moses Jones built a brick house in 1809. In more recent years, it was the home of Lexington native Clay Lancaster, a noted architectural historian, prolific author and all-around Renaissance man.

Lancaster (1917-2000) spent much of his career in New York City, but he moved back to Kentucky in 1978 when a friend, former Herald-Leader reporter Bettye Lee Mastin, let him know that Warwick was for sale.

Lancaster had always loved Warwick, and he bought it, restored it and moved there.


Clay Lancaster at Warwick’s Guest House.

Warwick has Lancaster’s library, as well as two “follies” he built: the Tea Pavilion, which has 18th-century architectural features and a large banquet table, and the Guest House, a three-story octagonal structure modeled after the first-century B.C. Tower of Winds in Athens, Greece.

Lancaster wrote more than 20 books and 150 articles, from scholarly tomes to children’s books. His books include, Old Brooklyn Heights: New York’s First Suburb, which the New York Times said “provided the historical and intellectual ammunition for the successful argument in 1965 that Brooklyn Heights should become the city’s first historic district.”

Lancaster is best known in Kentucky for his photographs and research documenting antebellum homes in the Bluegrass. His scholarship added immeasurably to public knowledge and efforts to preserve Central Kentucky’s pre-Civil War architecture.

I never got to meet Lancaster, but I have read several of his books. I use them frequently as reference, especially these three: Ante Bellum Houses of the Bluegrass (1961), Vestiges of the Venerable City (1978) and Antebellum Architecture of Kentucky (1991)

Lancaster grew up in Lexington’s Bell Court neighborhood, where his father built two homes. They helped spark Lancaster’s interest in that era of residential architecture, which led to his book The American Bungalow (1985).

In 2007, James Birchfield at the University of Kentucky put together Clay Lancaster’s Kentucky, a book of Lancaster’s photos of historic Kentucky homes, many of which are no longer standing.

Lancaster’s wide-ranging scholarship included 19th- and 20th-century architecture in Kentucky, New York and Massachusetts. His other enthusiasm was art and ideas from the Far East. His 1983 book, The Japanese Influence in America, remains a classic. He taught about art and architecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Columbia University, Vassar College, UK, the University of Louisville and Transylvania University.

After Lancaster’s death, the Warwick Foundation was formed to manage Warwick and perpetuate his legacy of education, cross-cultural understanding and advocacy for historic preservation.

The foundation will open Warwick for a free open house, tour and book sale from noon until 4 p.m. Sunday. Warwick has rarely been open to the public in recent years, but foundation members hope to change that with several events in 2014.

Warwick is on Oregon Road, about six miles off U.S. 127 near Salvisa. For more information about Sunday’s event, email or call (859) 494-2852. For more information about Warwick, go to



New film marks centennial of Kentucky Governor’s Mansion

January 11, 2014


Gov. Steve Beshear and his wife, Jane, are shown on a video monitor in circa 1914 formal attire Jan. 5 during filming of a re-creation of the gala ball that opened the then-new Governor’s Mansion 100 years ago this month.  Members of Lexington Vintage Dance performed ballroom dances from the period. Photo by Tom Eblen 


FRANKFORT — The Governor’s Mansion turns a century old this month, and preservationists have organized a bipartisan celebration to raise money to help keep “the people’s house” in good shape for another hundred years or more.

Events begin this week with the premiere of a film about the mansion’s role as both a temporary home for governors and a venue for public hospitality and economic development. The film is narrated by ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, a Kentucky native.

A symposium about the mansion is planned Jan. 22. There will be a reception March 5 after festivities marking the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 march on Frankfort. And a Centennial Gala ball is planned June 7. For details and event tickets, go to:

The documentary, Kentucky Governor’s Mansion: A Century of Reflection, was produced by Lexington filmmaker Michael Breeding and paid for by Marion Forcht of Corbin and the Forcht Group. It premieres Jan. 15 at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort and Jan. 16 at the Kentucky Theatre in Lexington.

140105GovsMansion0022“I wanted the film to tell the inside story of what has gone on in that mansion over the years,” Breeding said. “There’s a lot of history and stories, and part of it is a restoration story.”

The film opens with a re-enactment of the ball Gov. James McCreary gave Jan. 20, 1914 to open the mansion. That scene was filmed last Sunday evening with a cast of amateur actors in period attire. They included Gov. Steve Beshear, his wife, Jane, and members of Lexington Vintage Dance.

The Beshears seemed to have as much fun as everyone else, dressing up in vintage clothing to “party” in front of cameras. “I guess it’s OK to be seen having makeup put on now that I don’t have to run for re-election,” the second-term governor joked.

The film includes interviews with the Beshears and 30 other former governors, their family members and mansion staff. The full interviews will be preserved at the Kentucky History Center.

I sat in on part of the interview with Steve Collins and Marla Collins Webb, children of Martha Layne Collins, Kentucky’s first and only female governor, 1983-87.

“We all worked together as a family,” Steve Collins said, noting that his father, dentist Bill Collins, handled his duties as Kentucky’s “first man” with good humor and hosted “varmint” dinners for outdoorsmen. “They even roasted a raccoon one time,” Collins recalled.

One memorable event was a lavish but secretive dinner Gov. Collins gave in 1986 for Toyota executives when she was trying to get the assembly plant for Georgetown. The secret got out to everyone in Frankfort when the event concluded with a fireworks show.

140112GovMansion-Stock0022McCreary, for whom McCreary County is named, was the first of 24 governors who have lived in the mansion. He also was the last to use a horse and buggy. The film recalls that his successor, Augustus O. Stanley, preferred a newfangled automobile. But the mansion’s location on a steep bluff east of the Capitol proved problematic.

One Sunday morning as the Stanleys were getting ready for church, a staff member brought the sedan to the mansion’s back door and left it running unattended. Within minutes, the car rolled backward over the cliff.

Stanley is said to have walked out, looked down at what was left of his car and stoically said, “There’s another $1,500 gone to hell.”

Mansion construction began in 1912 after the General Assembly appropriated $75,000 to replace the previous governor’s home, built in downtown Frankfort in 1798. Five years ago, the old mansion got a $1.5 million, privately financed renovation and is now used as a state guest house.

Architect brothers C.C. and E.A. Weber of Fort Thomas designed the new mansion in the Beaux-Arts style, mimicking the Petit Trianon villa at Versailles (France, not Kentucky). Clad in Bowling Green limestone, the 18,428-square-foot mansion came in $20,000 over budget, so landscaping was postponed for years to save money.

The mansion, decorated with a rotating collection of borrowed fine art, is one of only a few state governors’ homes regularly open for public tours. Because more than 12,000 people visit each year, the mansion gets a lot of wear and tear.

The first major renovation began in 1982 during Gov. John Y. Brown Jr.’s administration after a fire marshal declared the place unsafe. Phyllis George Brown raised private money for much of the work and elegant furnishings, as Glenna Fletcher did 25 years later when the mansion needed another updating.

Jane Beshear and David Buchta, state curator of historic properties, thought the centennial was a good opportunity to both celebrate the mansion and raise money for an endowment to help with upkeep. Their goal is to raise $1 million for the non-profit Kentucky Executive Mansions Foundation before the Beshears move out.

Mike Duncan and Terry McBrayer, Kentuckians who have held top jobs in the national Republican and Democratic parties, co-chair the Mansion Centennial Celebration Committee.

Among its fundraising efforts is the “county seats” project. Each county is being asked to give at least $1,000 toward 120 new ballroom dining chairs that are being made by student artisans at Berea College. So far, Buchta said, nearly half the state’s counties have agreed to contribute.

“This is so much more than the governor’s house,” said Ann Evans, the mansion’s executive director. “It has become an important tool for economic development, tourism and just making people feel welcome in Kentucky.”

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Harrodsburg home tour features variety of architecture

December 3, 2013


Janette and Carter Johnson’s circa 1896 home in Harrodsburg was a former funeral home. Janette Johnson loves to decorate for holidays.  Photos by Tom Eblen


HARRODSBURG — When Carter and Janette Johnson retired and sold their tourist hotel on the Polynesian island of Tonga, they decided to move half a world away and begin restoring old Kentucky homes.

Janette Johnson is from Australia, but her husband is from Laurel County. They first moved to Danville, fixed up an old house, sold it and went looking for another. They ended up in Harrodsburg, where they have restored three houses, doing most of the work themselves.

The largest of those places is the circa 1896 Queen Anne mansion at 538 Beaumont Ave., where they now live. For 54 years before the Johnsons bought it in 2002, the house was a funeral home.

“As soon as I walked in, I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” Janette Johnson said. “We worked on it 10 hours a day, six days a week for 17 months.”

The former embalming room is now a luxury kitchen; the casket storage area has a pool table and guest suite. The rest of the house has been restored to its original Victorian splendor, as it looked a century ago when former owners Frank and Louise Curry entertained Harrodsburg society with frequent teas, balls and candlelight dinners.

The house is one of seven historic buildings open Saturday during Harrodsburg’s 22nd annual Holiday Home Tour. The tour is an annual benefit for the Harrodsburg Historical Society and the James Harrod Trust.

Harrodsburg has only 8,500 residents. But as the oldest permanent English settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains, established in 1774, the seat of Mercer County has an amazing variety of architecture.

While the Johnsons’ home is finished, the 200-year-old home of Seth and Matthew Singleton at 222 E. Lexington St. is still a work in progress. When they bought it in June 2012, the building had housed the offices of a regional mental health agency for three decades.

Known as The Old Tavern, the much-altered timber-frame house was a tavern and inn for many years under many different names, including the Rough and Ready House, The Union House, Yates Tavern and the Wright House. In 1851, the inn advertised 15 “comfortable” guest rooms.

It also may have been Harrodsburg’s first drive-through business. According to the late historian George Chinn, a tavern patron once rode his horse through the front door and up to the bar, ordered his drink and rode back out.

Seth Singleton is a University of Kentucky law student and his partner, Matthew Singleton, works for a Lexington law firm. They moved to Harrodsburg because they are originally from Mercer and Boyle counties, and because real estate there is much cheaper than in Lexington.

“We knew it needed a lot of TLC,” Seth said of The Old Tavern, whose last major renovation in the 1880s included the addition of an Eastlake Victorian porch. “But it was just a lot of cosmetic work. The core of the house is pretty solid.”

The Singletons have furnished their home with family pieces and antiques from other Harrodsburg historic homes that they bought at estate sales.

Also on the tour are the homes of Kathy and Danny Mobley, 825 Southgate Dr., and Judy and Rod Helton, 497 Beaumont Ave.; Mt. Pleasant Presbyterian Church, 446 Mt. Pleasant Pike; and the Old Mud Meeting House on Dry Branch Road, three miles southwest of Harrodsburg. That circa 1800 building was the first Low Dutch Reformed Church in the West.

The tour also includes a gem in the rough that the James Harrod Trust is raising money to polish. Earlier this year, the Trust became the 31st owner of the Pawling House, which deed records show was built before 1828.

While the house needs a lot of work, it is in remarkably sound after years of neglect. The solid-brick walls are Flemish bond, and the original hardwood floors are in excellent shape. The house has beautiful original woodwork that may have been carved by the famous local artisan Matthew P. Lowery.

Thanks to holes that have yet to be repaired in some walls and ceilings, visitors can see more of the Pawling House than in typical on an old-house tour.

“It’s like an onion: You keep peeling back the layers,” said Amalie Preston, who works with the Trust. “With a new house in the suburbs, there is no mystery.


Harrodsburg Holiday Homes Tour

When: 1 p.m.—8 p.m. Dec. 7

Cost: $15, $11 for seniors and each person in groups of 20 or more. Buy tickets in advance or at a location on the self-guided tour.

More information: Harrodsburg Historical Society (859) 734-5985, Tourism Commission (800) 355-9192, or

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Longtime cook, maid finds fans when historic home opened for tour

November 4, 2013


Cozene Hawkins came to Airy Castle, then called Wyndhurst, in 1961 to work for Corrilla English. She stayed more than 35 years. Photos by Tom Eblen


PARIS — I recently wrote about Airy Castle, whose new owners restored the 1870s Victorian mansion and opened it for a tour to benefit the preservation group Historic Paris-Bourbon County.

That tour two Sundays ago drew a large crowd, but the elegantly restored mansion wasn’t the only treat. A friend who attended said an interesting thing happened when an elderly black lady in a dark pants suit walked through the door.

As Cozene Hawkins slowly made her way down the hall, she was stopped several times by older white women wanting to shake her hand. They asked if she remembered them and raved about her cooking, especially her beaten biscuits. They treated her like a star.

“That’s the way I felt!” said Hawkins, 79, who worked 35 years as cook and housekeeper for the mansion’s previous owner.

“It made me feel good after all those years that people remembered,” Hawkins said when I visited her in her own small home. “To be back in that house and see what the new owners have done; it’s remarkable! They restored so much. It brought back so many memories.”

HawkinsHistoric preservation is more than saving unique architecture and bygone craftsmanship. It is about preserving our collective memory. Old buildings are powerful links to the past, helping us realize how much society has changed. They also help us remember the valuable contributions of people like Cozene Hawkins.

Hawkins first saw Airy Castle in 1961. The oldest of 10 children, she was a young wife and mother working part-time as a domestic for a prominent Bourbon County family. She needed more work.

Hawkins was recommended to Corrilla English, whose grandparents bought Airy Castle in 1888 and renamed it Wyndhurst. English lived there with her grown son, Woodson. Hawkins was soon working full time for the Englishes.

“I never learned to drive,” she said. “Every morning Mrs. English picked me up at 8:30 and she brought me home at 2:30. And after she began to age, the men who worked on the farm would come in and get me.”

Hawkins spent much of her time cleaning the huge house and polishing an extensive collection of sterling silver. She also prepared a big noon meal each day. English was an excellent cook, and she taught Hawkins.

“As the years went, I learned so much,” she said. “Mrs. English loved to entertain with lunches for just women. That’s when she taught me to cook the finer dishes. We had to get out the fine china and the sterling silver and the crystal.

“She taught me to make a fabulous corn pudding; we made a lot of cheese souffles and her chicken salad,” she said. “And the famous dessert was egg kisses — meringues — and we always served those with sliced, fresh strawberries and homemade whipped cream, because they had their own cows.”

English also taught Hawkins to make beaten biscuits, a Southern delicacy that required dough to be beaten on a marble slab and run through rollers over and over for a half-hour until it popped. The hard, bite-size biscuits were served as country ham sandwiches.

“It never bothered me that whenever Mrs. English entertained I had to wear a white uniform,” Hawkins said. “And I could never wear pants out there. No woman in pants. No!”

Hawkins said the mansion was a pleasant place to work.

“Not a cross word was ever said to me from Mrs. English,” she said. “I was able to cook and please her, keep house and please her. She never had to tell me to do anything; I just knew.”

The only thing that bothered Hawkins was her low wages. It wasn’t as if English couldn’t see twice a day that she and her eight children — seven sons and a daughter — lived in a public housing project, which has since been demolished.

Corrilla English died in 1996 at age 96. Woodson English moved to an assisted-living facility and died in 2004.

“They were good days; I regret none of it,” Hawkins said. “It has a lot to do with the way you’re treated. I was always treated with respect. I learned so much, too.”

Hawkins now lives with a son, Darrell. Most of her other children are in Central Kentucky, too. She has lost count of all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“She did a good job raising us; taught us all to cook,” son Steve said. “We all turned out well.”

Hawkins still likes to cook at church. “They’re trying to make me sit down,” she said, “but I refuse!”

Physicians Jack and Sonja Brock bought Airy Castle in 2003 and began an extensive restoration that is almost finished. They plan to retire there and open a bed-and-breakfast inn.

“It was awesome to go into each room and see what the Brocks have done,” Hawkins said. “The only thing that threw me off was my kitchen. Oh mercy! That new kitchen is so nice. I wouldn’t have had to roll beaten biscuits; they probably would have had an electrical roller.” 

CentrePointe 5 years later: still no building, but lots of impact

March 10, 2013


 The CentrePointe block awaits development. Photo by Charles Bertram


For a project yet to be built, CentrePointe has had a big impact on Lexington.

The most immediate impact was the election of Mayor Jim Gray in November 2010. Were it not for the controversy surrounding CentrePointe, I doubt then-Vice Mayor Gray would have run against, much less unseated, Mayor Jim Newberry.

What Gray understood — and Newberry didn’t — was that CentrePointe focused many people’s longtime frustrations about development in Lexington. People didn’t like the secrecy, the politics and the often-mediocre results.

Most of all, people wanted more say in how their city looks. They didn’t want Lexington’s architectural heritage bulldozed at a developer’s whim. Development occurs on private property, but everyone must look at it and live with it.

Five years later, CentrePointe is still a grassy field waiting for developer Dudley Webb to find financing and tenants. But the project has taught Lexington some valuable lessons.

One lesson is the value of historic preservation. Webb was quick to demolish an entire block, including some buildings that were more than a century old and could have been renovated into unique, valuable space within his larger development.

Lexington’s biggest development trend since then has been for entrepreneurs to renovate fine old buildings and adapt them for new uses — restaurants, bars, stores, offices and homes. These projects make economic sense and preserve Lexington’s history and unique charm.

Another lesson is that good design matters. With CentrePointe stalled and Gray in the mayor’s office, Webb felt pressure to hire top architectural talent and get public input to redesign his project. That work dramatically improved his development plan.

The CentrePointe redesign also helped pave the way for Louisville-based 21c to decide to build one of its acclaimed hotels and contemporary art museums across the street.

The 21c Museum Hotel will be in the century-old Fayette National building, which will get an extensive renovation.

That momentum helped Lexington attract world-class talent to design competitions for two public projects that could transform downtown: the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District and Town Branch Commons.

The arena area plan calls for renovating Rupp Arena, building a bigger convention center and gradually redeveloping more than 30 acres ofunderused, city-owned surface parking lots.

The winning plan for Town Branch Commons would turn marginalized downtown property into a linear park along the historic path of Town Branch Creek. Such projects in other cities have created popular amenities that have attracted many times their cost in new private investment.

Gary Bates, a highly regarded American architect now based in Norway, was chosen to develop the arena district plan.

The winning Town Branch Commons plan was designed by Kate Orff of New York, one of landscape architecture’s rising stars.

Why is such world-class talent suddenly being attracted to Lexington? Because the city has set the bar higher. Why is that important? Because if Lexington wants to attract the best employers, it must create an environment where the best and brightest people want to live and work.

One final lesson from CentrePointe is that Lexington needs better laws and processes to both encourage good development and prevent bad development, especially downtown.

A city task force has spent a lot of time studying “design excellence.” Now, with new leadership from Councilman Steve Kay and help from a consultant, task force members have begun trying to figure out how to turn talk into action.

That won’t be easy. It is not just a matter of creating laws and systems to keep developers from doing bad things. It is about creating laws, systems and incentives so developers can do great things. This will require rules that provide both clarity and flexibility. It will require high standards, but also processes that minimize hassle and unnecessary costs for developers.

I don’t know if the Webb Companies will ever succeed in building CentrePointe. And I worry that the longer the block sits empty, the harder it will be to attract outside investment for other major downtown projects.

But something will eventually be built on the CentrePointe block, and now is the time to make sure that it and other new construction downtown enhances the city rather than detracts from it.

 Watch a video about the CentrePointe block’s demolition:

Time lapse: Tearing down a block, one building at a time from David Stephenson on Vimeo.

To read previous CentrePointe columns and see photos of the project as it evolved, click here.

A CentrePointe gallery: