Kentucky’s ‘paradise lost’ estate for sale for first time in 131 years.

November 3, 2015
David Meade built the octagonal parlor at right at Chaumiere des Prairies about 1823. The rest of his house was a collection of log cabins, now long gone. The Greek Revival house now to the parlor's side was built by a subsequent owner in 1840. Photos by Tom Eblen

David Meade built the octagonal parlor at right at Chaumiere des Prairies about 1823. The rest of his house was a collection of log cabins, now long gone. The Greek Revival house now to the parlor’s side was built by a subsequent owner in 1840. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

NICHOLASVILLE — A pioneer estate whose elaborate gardens attracted three U.S. presidents and virtually every other notable person who passed through the Bluegrass two centuries ago is for sale for the first time in 131 years.

Chaumiere des Prairies, 1439 Catnip Hill Road, which includes an antebellum mansion and 169 acres of farmland that once included the 40-acre gardens, will be sold to the highest bidder at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 14. If Wilson Auction Co. can’t sell the entire estate, the house and five acres will be offered separately from 164 acres of land.

Margaret Steele Rash’s grandfather bought the place in 1884 to celebrate her mother’s birth. Rash lived there for 40 years, until she died in 2013 at age 95. Her son, Lloyd McMillan, is moving to South Carolina and decided it was time to sell.

“It’s a real treasure,” McMillan said. “It’s my wife’s and my hope that there’s somebody who falls in love with this place as much as my mom did.”

Lloyd McMillan is selling Chaumiere des Prairies, a famous antebellum estate that has been in his family since 1884. The estate's builder, David Meade, entertained three U.S. presidents and many other notables there. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Lloyd McMillan

The Greek Revival mansion, built about 1840, has stellar craftsmanship. But what makes Chaumiere special is an adjoining eight-sided parlor with a 16-foot ceiling. It was built about 1823 in anticipation of the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit to Kentucky in 1825.

The parlor is the last remnant of early Kentucky’s version of “paradise lost.”

David Meade was born in 1744 to a wealthy Virginia family and was educated in England. A patriot, he helped finance the American Revolution. In 1795, he decided to sell his 600-acre Maycox plantation along Virginia’s James River, where for 22 years he had dabbled in English-style garden design.

Meade sent the eldest of his nine children, also named David, to Kentucky, where he bought 330 acres in what is now northern Jessamine County. The elder Meade, his wife, Sarah, and the rest of their family arrived the next year with 40 slaves and 50 wagons of possessions.

Meade had a log house built on his new estate, which he called La Chaumière des Prairies (or La Chaumière du Prairie), which roughly translates from French as “little house on the prairie.” (The accent mark has since been lost to history.)

By 1806, the house had grown into a cluster of log rooms connected by hallways. The heart of the home was a large, square dining room for guests. Meade was a man of leisure, always ready to entertain.

Under Meade’s direction, his slaves created the elaborate gardens. The Rev. Horace Holley, who left Boston for Lexington in 1818 to transform Transylvania into one of the nation’s best universities, described them in a letter:

“His house consists of a cluster of buildings in front of which spreads a beautiful sloping lawn, smooth as velvet,” Holley wrote. “From his walks diverge in various directions forming vistas terminated by picturesque objects. Seats, verdant banks, alcoves and a Chinese temple are all interspersed at convenient distances. The lake over which presides a Grecian temple, that you might imagine to be the home of water nymphs, has in it a small island which communicates with the shore by a white bridge of one arch. The whole park is surrounded by a low, rustic stone fence almost hidden by roses and a honey-suckle, now in full flower. … There is no establishment like this in our country.”

In addition to frequent local guests including Holley and statesman Henry Clay, Meade hosted Presidents James Monroe, Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor. When former Vice President Aaron Burr was on his way to Virginia to stand trial for treason in 1807, he spent several days at Chaumiere. (Burr was acquitted of a charge of trying to separate Western from Atlantic states and create a new nation.)

David Meade died in 1829, a year after his wife. They were buried in the gardens. Their monument, destroyed by vandals, was replaced a decade ago by a descendant.

Meade’s children decided to sell Chaumiere at auction in 1832. When farmer William Robards won the bidding, distressed neighbors posted a sign proclaiming “paradise lost.” The sign infuriated Robards, who spitefully turned his livestock loose in the gardens until they were destroyed.

The only part of Meade’s house to survive was the octagonal brick parlor built for the French general, who apparently never saw it. A subsequent owner, Edward Carter, added the fine brick house to the parlor.

Recent open houses have been well attended, Nicholasville auctioneer Bobby Day Wilson said, and several out-of-town prospects have toured Chaumiere des Prairies and have expressed interest in restoring it to glory.

Perhaps “paradise lost” may yet be found again.

Chaumiere du Prairie Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The front hall of the Greek Revival house built in 1840.

 

Chaumiere du Prairie Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Outside detail of the circa 1823 octagonal parlor.

 

The octagonal parlor at Chaumiere des Prairie was built about 1823, reportedly in the hope that the Marquis de Lafayette would be entertained there when he visited Kentucky. Longtime resident Margaret Steele Rash bought the chandelier and mirror, which came from old Lexington homes. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Inside the octagonal parlor.

 

Chaumiere du Prairie Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

A descendant helped restore the Meades’ cemetery in 2005, including new monuments.

 

Now a cattle field, the grounds around Chaumiere des Prairies were beautiful botanical gardens in the early 1800s that gained international fame. Decorative Greek and Chinese temples once stood beside the ponds. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Now a cattle field, the grounds around Chaumiere des Prairies were beautiful botanical gardens in the early 1800s that gained international fame


Lexington educator knew nation’s early presidents

February 14, 2010

It’s hard to imagine our nation’s early presidents as real people. We know them only as images of stern-faced men in funny clothes, staring back at us from history books, paintings, money – and newspaper ads for President’s Day sales.

But to Horace Holley, they were friends and pen pals. Holley was himself a president, of Transylvania University, from 1818 until a few months before his death in 1827.

I didn’t know much about Holley until recently, when I got an excited call from my older daughter, Mollie, who works in Transylvania’s public relations office.

“I held letters today written by John Adams and James Monroe!” she said.

She had been in Transylvania’s Special Collections department, doing research for a university Web site feature she writes called Transy Trivia. It sounded so interesting, I went over and spent an afternoon looking through Holley’s papers.

The carefully preserved documents reveal what a well-connected man Holley was, and they offer revealing glimpses of some early American presidents and their wives – warts and all.

Holley came to Lexington from Boston, where he knew Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams. His wife, Mary Austin Holley, was a cousin of Stephen F. Austin, a Transy alum for whom Austin, Texas, was later named. Holley was a Unitarian minister and admired educator who helped burnish Lexington’s image as the “Athens of the West.”

There are faded letters from the second president, hard to read except for the end: “… and real affection, your friend and humble servant, John Adams.”

Adams gave Holley a glowing letter of introduction to the third president, Thomas Jefferson. In September, 1824, Holley spent two days visiting Jefferson at his Monticello estate near Charlottesville, Va.

“Mr. Jefferson is a plain looking old gentleman, draped in a blue coat with yellow buttons, a buff jacket, a pair of snuff colored corduroy pantaloons, blue and white cotton stockings and black slippers up at the heels,” Holley wrote to his wife.

“He is grey, tall, square shouldered, takes long steps, and has not now a clear voice. His muscles are not vigorous, but his hand trembles little, and is not observed to tremble at all as he uses at table. He rides on horseback daily in fair weather, but walks out seldom. … He talked easily still, though 82, and preserves the faculties of his mind in vigorous operation. His memory fails of course in regard to names and more recent events, but his judgment is unimpaired.”

Holley wrote a Kentucky friend that Jefferson questioned him closely about Transylvania. At the time, Jefferson was lobbying Virginian officials for support of the new University of Virginia. He argued that if Virginia didn’t invest in a first-class university, the state’s brightest young men would leave for either Transylvania or Harvard. Of the two, Jefferson said, he preferred Transylvania.

That may have been because Jefferson had high expectations for Kentucky’s future. “The time is not distant … when we shall be but a secondary people to them,” Jefferson wrote to Adams in May 1818.

Holley’s papers include several letters from James Monroe. Holley wrote to his wife from Washington in April 1818, describing visits to Monroe’s White House, which only recently had been rebuilt after British troops burned it during the War of 1812.

Holley bragged that Monroe wrote him a letter of introduction to the governor of Virginia: “He voluntarily gave it, and the offer of it took me by surprise.” But he devoted most of the letter to detailed descriptions of what Mrs. Monroe and other ladies were like and were wearing.

“Mrs. Monroe … appeared so much handsomer to me in full dress than she did the evening before in common dress and a cap that was not becoming,” he wrote. “She is … 52 years old, and I never saw a woman of that age appear so young.”

Monroe and Andrew Jackson visited Lexington on July 4, 1819, and heard Holley preach. In 1823, the Holleys went to Nashville, Tenn., where they spent several days at The Hermitage as guests of future President Jackson and his controversial wife, Rachel.

In a letter to his father, Holley described Jackson as “one of the most hospitable men” in Tennessee. “The general gave me many anecdotes of his wars with the Indians. … He is a prompt, practical man with very correct moral feelings.”

Holley added: “Mrs. Jackson is not a woman of cultivation, but has seen a great many people, has fine spirits, entertains well and is benevolent. She is short in her person and quite fat.”

At the end of several such letters, Holley asks that his observations be treated with discretion. Nearly two centuries later, the letters are more enlightening than embarrassing. They show that American icons were people, too.