There’s a party Saturday to celebrate the centennial of Duncan Park, a piece of land that has reflected the changing character of Lexington for more than twice that long.
Four nearby neighborhood associations are sponsoring the public celebration from 3 to 7 p.m. at the five-acre park at North Limestone and East Fifth Street. There will be live music, food trucks, family activities and exhibits by community organizations.
“We just want people to come out and enjoy the park,” said James Brown, the new First District member of the Urban County Council.
Duncan Park has a fascinating history.
It was part of 20 acres that William Morton acquired in the early 1790s. He built one of Lexington’s first mansions there in 1810, and that mansion dominates the park. The federal-style house has oversized proportions to make it look good from a distance.
The Englishman, who came here in 1787 and opened a store, became a wealthy merchant and financier. Because of his aristocratic bearing, everyone called him “Lord” Morton, but probably not to his face.
Morton gave away a lot of his money, creating Lexington’s first public school. He also was a benefactor of what is now Eastern State Hospital and Christ Church Episcopal.
Two years after Morton died in 1836, his property was bought by Cassius Marcellus Clay, the fiery emancipationist who published an anti-slavery newspaper, The True American, and was Lincoln’s ambassador to Russia during the Civil War.
Clay sold the place in 1850 to his wife’s uncle, Dr. Lloyd Warfield, who subdivided three-fourths of it to create the neighborhoods now north and east of the park.
The house and five acres were bought in 1873 by Henry T. Duncan, editor of the Lexington Daily Press and the city’s mayor. Because of how well he and his wife maintained the grounds, it was known as “Duncan Park” long before their daughter, Lucy Duncan Draper, sold it to the city as a park in 1913.
A month before the park officially opened, it was the site of a May 1915 rally by women seeking the right to vote. That was fitting: Clay’s daughter, Laura, was a national leader in the women’s suffrage movement.
Duncan Park was a happening place for more than four decades, with a baseball field, tennis courts, ping-pong tables and playgrounds.
The Lexington Leader reported in 1925 that three young girls were forming a girls’ club at Duncan Park. One of them was Elizabeth Hardwick, 8, who lived on nearby Rand Avenue. She later moved to New York and became a famous literary critic, novelist and founder of The New York Review of Books.
City officials have always struggled over what to do with the Morton house. Early plans called for it to become a museum or a girls school. More recent proposals have included a black history museum and an official home for Lexington’s mayor.
Instead, the mansion has always housed social service agencies. In 1914, it became a “milk depot” for Baby Milk Supply, a new charity. Now called Baby Health Service, the organization cares for uninsured children at a clinic beside St. Joseph Hospital.
The Morton house was a Junior League “day nursery” in the 1930s and then was the city children’s home until better accommodations were built on Cisco Road in 1950. In recent years, it has housed The Nest Center for Women and Children.
Until the 1950s, Duncan Park was only for white people. The city built Douglass Park on Georgetown Street for black residents in 1916. By the time city parks were legally integrated, a different kind of segregation was taking place.
Lexington’s suburban sprawl contributed to white flight from the neighborhood. In August 1972, 200 black people marched from Duncan Park to city hall to protest the closing of inner-city schools and the busing of black children to the suburbs.
As owner-occupied homes surrounding Duncan Park became poorly maintained rentals, crime soared. Things have slowly gotten better, especially since last year’s fatal shooting of Antonio Franklin in the park prompted his mother, Anita Franklin, to organize well-attended monthly “peace walks.”
Many people attribute the drop in crime to a renaissance in the North Limestone area. Many old houses are being restored and reconverted from low-income rentals to owner-occupied homes.
The Martin Luther King Neighborhood Association has focused on improving Duncan Park since 2001. Discussions are now under way about adding more features to the playground and basketball courts.
Travis Robinson, the association’s president, said the park is becoming safer thanks to better policing and more use by area residents. Regular activities include potluck suppers and story-telling programs for kids.
“It’s a community asset that has been underutilized,” said Vice Mayor Steve Kay, who lives nearby. “More people are coming to live in the neighborhood, and that is making a difference.”