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:

He found a business reviving Lexington’s shabbiest historic buildings

January 20, 2013

Chad Needham has renovated some of Lexington’s most damaged historic buildings and turned them into valuable commercial space. Photos by Tom Eblen


When Chad Needham moved back to Lexington after a few years away working in corporate marketing, he started a pizza company. Then he recognized another business opportunity all around him.

He noticed that older neighborhoods he had become familiar with while attending Bryan Station High School and Transylvania University were changing, and for the better. People were beginning to renovate classic, old buildings as places to live, work and play.

So, in 2009, the entrepreneur bought the old Spalding’s Bakery building at East Sixth and North Limestone streets. It stood across from the recently renovated Al’s Bar, which had become a popular hangout for young people interested in live music, poetry readings and good bourbon.

Needham gave the circa-1880 bakery a complete makeover, using its historic fabric, salvaged antique wood and adding some contemporary twists. The building is now leased to Arcadium, a bar featuring “vintage” arcade games.

He then turned his attention across the street to the liquor store, which was not exactly an asset to the neighborhood. After renovating that building, he leased it to the young founders of North Lime Coffee & Donuts and artist John Lackey.

Needham then took on a dilapidated Victorian house down the street. Meanwhile, others were doing similar work along the North Limestone corridor, including Brokenfork Design, Griffin VanMeter and Marty Clifford.

Needham has moved closer downtown for his seventh and most challenging project: a pair of early 1800s houses on Constitution Street that he plans to rent as offices.

“The Spalding’s Bakery was really bad, but this is worse,” Needham, 40, said as he took me through one of the houses and described how it had suffered from squatters, a fire and a long-leaking roof.

“These are the classic worst properties in good neighborhoods,” he said. “But they have a great character about them. You try to keep the good old and get rid of the bad old. And the bad old is usually the newer stuff that was added.”

He plans to have the first house finished by April. The former Transylvania soccer standout already has a lease signed for it with the Kentucky Youth Soccer Association, which is moving its office there from Chevy Chase.

“It’s going to be a cool office,” he said. “Essentially, a new structure within an old one.”

Needham is saving original doors and woodwork where possible. But the houses are getting new roofs, plumbing, heating, air conditioning and interior insulation, except where interior brick will be left exposed. Much flooring must be replaced. In one house, a new staircase is being built from reclaimed heart pine lumber salvaged from an old tobacco barn.

His business model requires that he buy old buildings cheaply and carefully watch his renovation costs, he said. He self-finances building purchases, because bank financing is rarely obtainable for a project like this until it is finished and leased.

Except for the Victorian house, which he sold, Needham has retained his other renovated buildings as commercial property. Rental income helps him finance future projects.

“The challenge of this business is that it takes a lot of money up front and it takes a lot of time,” he said. “And you have to do a lot of the work yourself. If I were to hire contracting companies, I don’t think on the other side that I could keep rents affordable.”

Needham works alongside his crew, which often includes his father, Phil Needham, who at age 71 is a competitive bicycle racer. A veteran Thoroughbred breeder, Phil Needham bred Mine That Bird, a gelding that won the 2009 Kentucky Derby as a 50-1 shot and went on to finish second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont Stakes.

“I’ve got a good crew, and what we can’t figure out we’ll subcontract out,” Chad Needham said. “I enjoy this process. It’s a creative process. I try to make each one as good as it can be, but you’ve got to figure out where to stop.”

He said his venture has been modestly profitable so far and is allowing him to create assets that will generate long-term income for his family, which includes wife Denise, a dressage horse trainer, and daughter Bella, 5.

“You really end up with a new building that has a lot of character,” he said. “But I couldn’t do this without the end-users. Everything I’ve done has found a customer.”

Needham also said he gets a lot of personal satisfaction from the work.

“I like giving these great old buildings a second life and seeing the area turn around,” he said. “It’s a nice feeling to keep investing in a neighborhood where I had fun times when I was at Transy.”

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Old house research finds childhood memories from the 1920s.

December 26, 2012

My house when it was new in 1907 and photographed for a marketing booklet. Below, Maxine Harding Comley, who lived there from 1924-43. Below, a recent photo of the house. Photos by Tom Eblen and Thomas Knight (above).


I called Maxine Harding Comley with many questions. But before I could ask, she had one for me: “Have you found my secret hiding place?”

Every old house has a story. I was told that this 90-year-old lady in Frankfort could tell me a lot about mine.

A year ago, my wife and I bought one of the five original houses on Mentelle Park, a street whose developers promoted it in 1907 as Kentucky’s prettiest and most modern subdivision.

Early on, my house had a series of occupants: a road contractor, a cabinet maker, a traveling salesman, a doctor and an insurance executive.

Then, in 1924, the house was bought by Bob Harding, a locomotive engineer with Louisville & Nashville Railroad. He was a widower with two daughters when he married his second wife, Jewel. They had a daughter, Maxine. The family moved to Mentelle Park when she was 2.

After our phone conversation, I visited Comley and brought her recent photographs of the house. After a few tears, she shared fond memories of her childhood home and neighborhood.

She recalled that the manager of the old Lafayette Hotel (now city hall) lived in a big house on the corner. The people next door owned Congleton Lumber Co. The Congletons had several children who were among her many playmates.

“We had 20 or 25 children in the neighborhood, and we had a lot of fun,” she said, recalling kickball games by the stone pillars at the end of the street and hide-and-seek games in the bushes along the grassy, tree-shaded median.

“Kick the can was a good game to play out in the middle of that street,” she said with a wry smile. “The neighbors didn’t care much for it at night.”

Because Comley’s father was often away, driving coal and lumber trains through the Eastern Kentucky mountains, her mother converted three downstairs rooms into a rental apartment. The front window of what is now my study was turned into the apartment’s outside door.

“We had some nice tenants,” she said. “But we all shared one bathroom. That wasn’t fun.”

As we thumbed through my photos, Comley described how each room used to look. “You can still see the old house in these pictures,” she said, noting the fancy mantels and woodwork, the leaded-glass window in the living room and the bathroom’s claw-foot tub.

The Hardings installed gas heaters in the coal-burning fireplaces. Still, the house’s cottage-style roof kept the upstairs bedrooms cold in winter and hot in summer. Comley recalled sleeping summer nights on the floor of a small upstairs room, putting her pillow on the floor-level window sill to try to catch a breeze.

Her stories made me thankful that the couple we bought the house from installed central heat and air conditioning, plus an upstairs bathroom. Comley said walking down that steep staircase to the bathroom in the middle of the night wasn’t easy.

Finally, I showed Comley photos of an upstairs bedroom with solid pine wainscoting around the walls. “This was my room!” she said. “It was so nice and big.”

Then she told me about her hiding place. Between the dormer and another front window, she said, one of the wooden panels could be removed, creating a child-size entrance to a “secret” room behind the wall.

“My friends and I would hide in there,” Comley said, her eyes twinkling. “No telling what’s back in there.”

Comley lived in our house for nearly 20 years, until she married Bob Comley in December 1943. The next spring, she graduated from Transylvania University with a degree in music and economics.

While her husband ran restaurants in Frankfort, Comley taught first grade at the old Bridgeport School for 25 years and played the organ at Highland Christian Church for 50 years. The Comleys recently celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary. They have seven children and so many grandchildren and great-grandchildren that she has lost count.

Bob Harding died in 1952, eight months after retiring from 45 years of railroad service. Two of the Comleys’ children lived with her mother while they were students at Transylvania. Jewel Harding died in 1971.

The house was rented for a couple of years before the Rev. John and Margaret Therkelsen bought and renovated it. He died in 2011, a few months before we bought the house and began our own renovation.

Last week, I found time for a closer inspection of Comley’s childhood bedroom. I had noticed one panel of wainscot that didn’t fit quite right. I chipped away some paint, removed a screw, and the panel popped out.

Behind it was a space about six feet long and two feet wide, undisturbed for decades. On the floor were a few once-colorful pages from a 1920s carpet catalog and an empty antique Ball Mason jar, all covered with a thick layer of dust.

I called Comley to tell her I had found her hiding place. “It’s not a secret anymore!” she said with a laugh, then apologized for not leaving more valuable treasure.

“It’s a wonderful house,” she said. “You take good care of it for me.”

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

December 11, 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Annual historic home tour features Bourbon’s Bethlehem Farm

October 17, 2012

A Greek Revival addition in1858 created a new front to Bethlehem Farm’s farmhouse, which dates to the early 1800s. Photos by Tom Eblen


PARIS — When Sandra Renfro White was growing up in Texas as the horse-loving daughter of Kentucky-born parents, she dreamed of owning a Bluegrass horse farm.

“This is my childhood dream,” White said of 50-acre Bethlehem Farm. “I come out in the morning with my coffee and look at my horses. Peace and beauty. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

This land just south of Paris and its 200-year-old mansion have been home to many dreamers.

Jacob Aker, a Revolutionary War veteran, settled here and built a small but elegant story-and-a-half brick home in the Federal style around 1810-20. As his family’s fortunes grew, a grand Greek Revival-style expansion was added in 1858, creating a new front entrance.

White bought Bethlehem Farm in 1995 from Vanessa Dickson, an active historic preservationist who is now a state district court judge. Her research got the farm added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993 as an example of the high-quality construction common on prosperous farms in antebellum Bourbon County.

The public will get to see the beautifully restored house Oct. 21, when Bethlehem Farm hosts the annual Fall Home Tour fund-raiser for Historic Paris-Bourbon County. The preservation group, among other things, operates the Hopewell Museum in Paris, one of Central Kentucky’s lesser-known gems.

Refreshments will be served during the home tour, and rides will be offered in a wagon pulled by a pair of Belgian draft horses.

The original part of the Jacob Aker house is thought to be an early work by John Giltner, a Bourbon County architect and builder known for his fine Flemish-bond brickwork.

Limestone was dug from a quarry on the farm for the foundation of the house and two outbuildings — an office or slave quarters that has yet to be restored and a springhouse that is now little more than a pile of rocks.

Most of the original house is now used as a kitchen and family dining room. The fireplace was restored for use, and White had craftsmen reproduce black walnut cabinet doors to match original ones still in the kitchen.

Greg Fitzsimons, a Lexington architect who specializes in historic preservation, designed a master suite for White using the foundation footprint of the original house’s breezeway and separate kitchen.

The original house’s back porch was converted into a sunroom, where the old brick wall showcases photographs from the Center for Women in Racing, a non-denominational Christian ministry White started in 2000 to help troubled women who have worked in the horse industry.

Fitzsimons recreated the missing front porch from the 1858 expansion by examining old column outlines on the front wall and other physical evidence. The porch was built by mason Ron Carter of Carter and Witt, and Mike Gresham of Gresham Millwork & Supply, both of Paris. The porch’s octagonal columns echo the newel post of the expansion’s grand staircase, which, like most of the home’s woodwork, is original.

White chose the home’s interior palette of reds, blues, yellows and browns from a late 1700s piece of Italian needlework she acquired that depicts the infant Moses being found on the Nile River. Jonathan Moore of Lexington painted many of the walls using a rich, layered technique called Venetian plaster.

The farm has a cemetery with the graves of Aker and six family members who died between 1841 and 1865. A few yards away are several graves with rough, unmarked headstones, thought to belong to slaves.

“The house is very functional now,” said White, who shares the farm with son Daniel and daughter Susanna, both students at Lexington Christian Academy, as well as 14 horses, four cats, two dogs and a pair of canaries, Placido and Domingo.

As her children near college age and she contemplates the future, White is thinking about another long-held dream: making the Center for Women in Racing a more sustainable organization, with permanent facilities where Thoroughbred race horses can retire and female track workers can seek temporary shelter.

White said she has talked with the board of Bethlehem Farm Inc., her non-profit foundation, about buying much of the land around the house for center facilities.

“Or it may be time for me to retire, and allow someone else the privilege of owning this treasure and taking it to the next phase of historic preservation,” she said. “Either way, my dream has been for me, and many others, a lovely reality.”

If you go

Fall Home Tour, annual fund-raiser for Historic Paris-Bourbon County.

When: 2-5 p.m., Sunday

Where: Bethlehem Farm, 795 Bethlehem Rd., Paris

Admission: $10 for HPBC members, $15 non-members.

More information: (859) 987-7274 or

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The story behind fabulous Spindletop Hall, now celebrating its 75th

October 9, 2012

Spindletop’s double staircase when the mansion was new in the late 1930s.  Photo Provided

Pansy Yount wanted only the best for herself and her daughter. So when Texas oilman Frank Yount’s widow decided in 1935 to buy a Kentucky horse farm and build a mansion, the result was jaw-dropping.

This month, Spindletop Hall celebrates the 75th anniversary of its completion and the 50th anniversary of its conversion into a country club for University of Kentucky faculty, staff, alumni and friends.

The Club at Spindletop Hall is hosting three anniversary events: a Texas barbecue on Oct. 19, a gala dinner dance on Oct. 20 and a horse and carriage brunch on Oct. 21. (Some tickets are available to the public; call (859) 255-2777 for more information.)

The 1,050-member club hopes to use the celebration to attract a couple hundred new members and raise money to continue restoring the mansion and improving the club.

“She’s a beautiful lady, but there are some things we need to address for the future,” club manager Gerald Marvel said of Spindletop Hall.

Among those attending the events will be Kathryn Haider of suburban Chicago, who has her own name for Spindletop: Grandma’s house. In a telephone interview, Haider recalled idyllic summers spent at Spindletop: fishing, riding ponies and spending time with her grandmother.

“She was an absolutely wonderful woman,” Haider recalled. “I just adored her. She was a great mentor to me.”

Spindletop is named for the salt dome near Beaumont, Texas, that became a fabulously rich oilfield after Anthony Lucas drilled the first “gusher” in 1901. Initial reserves played out within a few years. But Miles Franklin Yount, a mechanically inclined Arkansas farm boy who moved to Texas to seek his fortune, thought there was more oil to be had if only he could drill deep enough. In 1925, he did.

Yount died in 1933. When his Yount-Lee Oil Co. was sold in 1935, his widow and teenage daughter, Mildred, received a fortune that today would be worth about $208 million. Pansy Yount decided to move to Lexington and indulge her passion for American Standardbred horses.

She bought Shoshone Stud and several surrounding parcels off Ironworks Pike north of Lexington and renamed it Spindletop. As the centerpiece of the 1,066-acre farm, she built a 45,000-square-foot mansion that cost the equivalent of about $17 million today.

Durability was a priority: a massive foundation and steel beams supported the brick-and-stone building, which even had “fireproof” concrete decking in the attic and roof.

“It’s almost built like a bomb shelter,” said David Graham, a recent club president.

Yount imported craftsmen from Europe to carve woodwork, mold plaster and paint art on the walls. In the entrance hall, there were enormous curved staircases. The huge Gothic library had a hammerbeam roof and a mantel salvaged from an English castle. Yount built a music room for her talented daughter, whose instrument collection included a concert harp and two Stradivarius violins.

The music room also housed the console for a Kimball reproducing organ, which could be played manually or with paper rolls of “recorded” music. It sent music throughout the mansion, which was literally designed around it. The club has begun restoring the organ.

Pansy Yount was a strong-willed woman who could be both demanding and generous. Lexingtonians were shocked in October 1942 when she donated Frank’s Duesenberg, one of the most expensive automobiles of the time, to a World War II scrap drive.

Haider recalled the time her grandmother went Christmas shopping at Woolworth’s on Lexington’s Main Street. She was especially well treated by the sales ladies, so she invited them all out for dinner at Spindletop.

“Grandma treated them just like royalty,” she said.

Yount was too independent and egalitarian to get along with some of the wealthy elite of Beaumont and Lexington. Although she had little formal education, she developed excellent taste and a voracious appetite for books.

“She was extremely independent, and a very savvy business woman,” Haider said. “She thought out everything she did. If some people didn’t like it, she didn’t care.”

In 1949, Young married her farm manager, horse trainer William Capers “Cape” Grant. They divorced a decade later, and she had decided to move back to Texas.

When Yount decided to sell Spindletop, she called Lexington friend Fred Wachs, then publisher of the Herald and Leader, for advice. He suggested she donate it to the university. UK President Frank Dickey flew to Texas and negotiated the sale of the farm and mansion for the gift price of $850,000, payable over 10 years.

Yount died in 1962, the year UK converted her mansion and 50 surrounding acres into a private club with a dining room, tennis courts, swimming pools and other amenities. Over the years, other land has been used for offices and facilities for UK agriculture and energy research.

UK owns the mansion, which is operated by the club. They both contribute to maintenance and improvements. Haider said she is pleased with the interest they are now showing in preserving Spindletop Hall.

“Everyone is so devoted to the place,” she said. “That home is truly a gift to Kentucky.”

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Old courthouse needs renovation, new purpose and a business plan

July 21, 2012

The old Fayette County Courthouse is a Lexington icon — a Richardsonian Romanesque temple that since 1898 has dominated the center of downtown.

It was designed to be Lexington’s pride and joy back when public buildings reflected a community’s aspirations. For more than a century, it was a center of local government. For the past decade, it housed several small history museums.

For the past week, it has been a massive limestone box officially unfit for human occupancy.

City officials closed the building indefinitely July 13 after environmental testing found dangerous levels of lead-paint dust. It also has asbestos, and maybe mold. Officials are assessing the problems and repair costs.

But the old courthouse deserves more than hazard remediation. It needs to be completely renovated — and re-imagined. We shouldn’t put it off any longer.

This once-magnificent building needs a bigger purpose, one that will serve the present and future as well as memorialize the past. It also needs a business plan to help pay for its restoration and provide for a sustainable future.

If you have been inside the old courthouse in recent decades, you probably were not impressed. That’s because renovations in 1961 and 1972 made it more functional as a courthouse but ruined its interior beauty.

Ceilings were lowered to be more energy-efficient and to make room for more courtrooms and offices. The central rotunda was filled in with elevators and restrooms. Originally, the rotunda held a grand staircase and rose more than 100 feet to a blue, lighted dome decorated with paintings and carvings.

After new courthouses were built in 2001, there were dreams of converting the old building into a $22 million art and history museum, complete with underground galleries with skylights. That effort fell apart after the 9/11 terrorists attacks and the economic slump that followed.

Since then, the building has housed the Lexington History Museum, the smaller Lexington Public Safety Museum and the Kentucky Renaissance Pharmacy Museum. They display eclectic collections of artifacts and sustain themselves largely through the efforts of passionate volunteers. The Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum of local African-American history moved out last summer after the building’s heating and air-conditioning systems quit working.

The good news is that modern heating, air-conditioning and elevator technology would allow the building’s interior to be restored to its former glory. The largely intact dome could be uncovered and restored.

The bad news is that a complete renovation would cost about $15 million.

In the past, Lexington has “saved” popular old buildings through city bond financing, then scrambled to figure out a use for them. Some, such as the Lyric and Kentucky theaters, are arts and entertainment venues. Others, such as the Carnegie Center, Loudon House and Morton House, are used by worthwhile non-profit organizations.

But building upkeep is expensive, and city funds are scarce. The result is often less-than-adequate maintenance. (The city has spent more than $231,000 maintaining the old courthouse since July 2006, plus utility costs that recently have run between $20,000 and $45,000 a year.)

A new business model is needed, and the old courthouse provides an excellent opportunity to develop it. What could that building become? Mayor Jim Gray should ask the public for ideas.

Here are a few to get the discussion started:

I see the old courthouse as Lexington’s visitors center — and more. It should be the first place tourists stop. They could see a smaller, more-focused Lexington History Museum and small exhibits from other local museums. A centrally located “museum of museums” would encourage visits to out-of-the-way gems such as the Headley-Whitney Museum and The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky.

Now that Cheapside is one of Lexington’s hottest restaurant districts, a portion of the old courthouse’s first floor could be rented out as a restaurant, with outdoor dining on the surrounding terrace. Upstairs space could be rented as offices.

Converting some of the building to commercial space could make the building eligible for new market tax credits. Combined with historic preservation tax credits, this could go a long way toward offsetting renovation costs. Rent payments could go toward utilities and maintenance. A non-profit organization or limited-liability corporation could be created to manage the city-owned building.

The old courthouse is an architectural treasure that needs saving. But unless Lexington finds a meaningful use for it and a business model to support that use, it will just need “saving” again and again.

Kentucky bourbon baron’s great-grandsons trying to save his Lawrenceburg mansion from ruin

June 12, 2012


Thomas Beebe Ripy completed this Queen Anne-style mansion in 1888.


LAWRENCEBURG — When cousins Tom Ripy and George Geoghegan were boys in the 1940s, their great-grandmother’s home on Main Street was the center of activity for their large extended family.

Sallie Ripy was then a spry woman in her 90s, and she shared her 11,000-square-foot mansion with several of her 11 children and their spouses.

On Christmas Day, the great-uncles would give each child in the family a silver dollar. One great-aunt kept a drawer full of candy and taught all of the children how to blow bubble gum, “much to our parents’ disgust,” Tom Ripy recalled.

The biggest treat of all was climbing up into the house’s four-story tower, which offered a commanding view.

“It was a very happy place,” Ripy said. “We all felt at home there.”

So it was with great alarm that Ripy and Geoghegan watched in recent years as the house, which was sold out of the family in 1965, fell into extreme disrepair. In 2010, the cousins, both retired government lawyers, pooled their resources and bought it at foreclosure.

“There were rumors that somebody would buy it and sell it for salvage,” said Ripy, who lives in Arlington, Va. “So I left my wife in Virginia and brought her checkbook.”

“That’s literally true,” confirmed his wife, Minnie Sue Ripy.

Minnie Sue Ripy, Tom Ripy and George Geoghegan

The bank gave them a good price — $186,000 — because the Thomas Beebe Ripy mansion wasn’t just any house. Completed in 1888 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, the Queen Anne-style house might be the grandest of a string of mansions that bourbon barons built along Main Street when this was a center of Kentucky’s whiskey industry.

T.B. Ripy (1847-1902) bought, sold and ran several distilleries, including the one on the Kentucky River at Tyrone where Wild Turkey is now made.

“He was a wheeler-dealer, alternately well off and broke,” Ripy, his great- grandson, said. “Frankly, I’m not sure I would have wanted to do business with him.”

Ripy, 73, and Geoghegan, 69, bought the family homeplace with the hope of finding someone with the resources to restore it and put it to good use. “We certainly didn’t buy it to live in,” Geoghegan said.

Until they find a suitable buyer, they are trying their best to clean up the place, which has been quite a chore.

They hired a crew to clear five acres of brush and trees that had almost swallowed the house.

“I was going to recommend it for the next Jurassic Park movie,” Geoghegan said. “It was that bad.”

They hauled out tons of junk. They replaced roofing and gutters that had let rain flow into the house. Mildew was everywhere, but, fortunately, the thick brick and plaster walls had kept out mold, Geoghegan said.

The cousins brought in a bee keeper to remove an active hive, 8 feet wide and 2 feet thick, in the grand second-floor hallway. They continue to battle bats, which fly in from the attic through holes in ceiling plaster.

With cleanup almost complete, the next step is a costly restoration. There is a lot to work with: sumptuous woodwork of mahogany, walnut and cherry, and amazing stained-glass windows. The main floor has 14-foot ceilings and a grand mahogany staircase.

“At this point, we’re doing it with our own money, but retired government lawyers are not exactly members of the 1 percent,” Ripy said. “Before I die, I would like to see this place restored as an asset for the community.”

The most likely scenario is for someone to buy the mansion for a commercial use, which would make the property eligible for federal and state tax credits to help with restoration costs.

Lawrenceburg is now an important stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a successful effort by the Kentucky Distillers Association to attract tourists to distilleries. Association members will discuss the Ripy mansion’s potential at their June 26 meeting, said Eric Gregory, the executive director.

“It’s a treasure,” said Gregory, who has restored several old houses. “As fast as our industry is growing, there is always a need for event space. Mansions like this with ties to the bourbon industry don’t come around very often.”


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School Lafayette revisited is now new homes

March 12, 2012

The new apartments in the old Lafayette Academy building have more than granite countertops, travertine bathroom tile, classic architecture and modern appliances; they have a unique bit of history.

If those walls could talk, they would echo with the voice of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution, thanking Lexington schoolgirls for entertaining him with an afternoon of poetry and song.

After more than three years of renovation, real estate investor Allen Schubert is about to reopen the 195-year-old school building at 333 South Upper Street as five luxury apartments. Schubert is keeping for himself a sixth unit that includes the building’s restored three-story, self-supporting staircase.

“On my bucket list of things to do has always been a historic renovation,” said Schubert, 57, a Lexington native who spends most of his time in Louisville. “This place has some history to it.”

Lafayette Academy was built between 1817 and 1820 for John P. Aldridge’s Lancasterian Academy. His students included the future architect Gideon Shryock, who designed Transylvania University’s Old Morrison and the Old State Capitol in Frankfort.

Aldridge’s building soon became Col. Josiah Dunham’s Lexington Female Academy, whose students came from 11 states and included the daughters of Lexington’s most prominent families. By 1825 — the height of Lexington’s fame as the “Athens of the West” — the academy had 135 pupils, nine instructors and a governing board that included statesman Henry Clay and Transylvania President Horace Holley.

That star power is probably what led the 67-year-old French general to stop by for a tribute on the afternoon of May 16, 1825. He was visiting Lexington as part of a celebrated tour across the grateful nation he helped create.

Lafayette arrived with a military escort and the governors of Kentucky and Tennessee in tow. Dunham’s pupils sang patriotic songs and recited verse in both English and French. “It was here that as successful an effort was made to gratify our visitor as has been attempted in any quarter of the union,” the Kentucky Gazette reported.

Lafayette was moved, according to another published account. “Well may this heart, old, but warm in its feelings, palpitate, at the sound of your patriotic and affectionate accents,” he told the young ladies.

In honor of the general’s visit, Dunham had renamed his school Lafayette Female Academy. Enrollment grew and the building’s rear wing was added about 1830.

Luther Van Doren purchased the building in 1834 and set up “collegiate academies” for boys and girls. Over the years, the building was remodeled with Greek Revival, Italianate and Victorian touches. It was a school, a home and, after 1936, increasingly downscale apartments. On Aug. 1, 2006, a fire gutted one of nine apartments there and the building was shuttered.

Schubert bought the building three months later for $250,000. He won’t say how much he has invested in renovating and enlarging it. But he noted that three masons spent nine months in the basement just repairing the foundation.

“It was falling down when I got here,” said Jesse Riddell, the construction manager.

Now, as work nears completion, the building is a beautiful mix of historic fabric and contemporary improvements. The design incorporates exposed beams, interior brick walls and restored architectural gems such as the Georgian front door and a third-floor Palladian window. A rear addition houses a large, contemporary-style apartment.

Albert + Burnworth Architecture of Lexington and Andover Construction oversaw the project. “The architects did a real nice job,” Schubert said. “And it has finished out very well.”

Schubert, whose company also is redeveloping the dilapidated 1970s Sonnet Cove apartment complex at Richmond and New Circle roads, said he would like to sell the Lafayette Academy units as condos when the market improves.

But, for now, Schubert will spend a couple of nights a week in his unit and rent the others for between $1,300 and $2,800 per month. Andover Management Group is handling the property, which manager Susannah Sims notes is within easy walking distance of downtown and the University of Kentucky campus.

The city’s Division of Historic Preservation worked closely with Schubert and is pleased with the result, although a few parking and lighting issues remain. “It’s a significant building that has needed a lot of help for a long time,” said Bettie Kerr, the division’s director. “They’ve handled it nicely.”


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