Lexington neighborhood project results in history book

January 8, 2013

Every place has a story. When residents of Lexington’s Fairway neighborhood began researching the story of their place, they got a lot more than they expected.

They chronicled some fascinating history. But they also grew closer as neighbors, and they created a model for other neighborhoods interested in doing the same thing.

The idea began when Robert Figg was president of the Fairway Neighborhood Association in the late 1990s. He moved to the subdivision off Richmond Road in 1965, thinking he had found his family a starter home. That was 48 years and three home renovations ago.

Figg had heard many colorful stories about the neighborhood and its history, and he wanted to record interviews with longtime residents before the memories faded.

In 2008, the neighbors discovered that the Kentucky Historical Society offers technical assistance grants to train oral history interviewers and loans recording equipment. After training, the interviewers gathered some great material, now archived at the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History.

But some memories conflicted, and the more information interviewers gathered, the more they realized they needed to fill in gaps to complete the neighborhood’s story. That process turned into a book, Fairway, A Living History ($35 hard cover, $20 paperback. More information: Fairwayneighborhood.org.)

I have seen other neighborhood histories, but none that are as well-researched, well-written and well-illustrated. Even for readers with no ties to Fairway, it offers a fascinating glimpse into Lexington’s rich history.

The neighborhood historians had some good help: a five-member advisory board included four professional historians and archivists and one of the nation’s most respected journalists: Fairway resident John Carroll, retired editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times.

“In many ways, this little piece of land is a microcosm of more than two centuries of American history,” said Valerie Askren, a member of the five-person committee that researched and wrote the book.

In examining the neighborhood’s 118 acres, the book outlines the early history of much of southeast Lexington. The story begins with a 1779 Virginia land grant to John Todd, one of three brothers who were among Lexington’s first settlers. Their descendants included Mary Todd, wife of Abraham Lincoln.

The land changed hands several times during the 1800s, including one time that underscored Kentucky’s racial and gender politics before the Civil War.

John Todd’s daughter and heir, Polly, was forced to give title to her land to her second husband, Robert Wickliffe, to secure freedom for her mixed-race grandson, Alfred Russell. That was because, upon her marriage to Wickliffe, Russell had legally become his slave. Once freed, Russell left Kentucky for Africa, where he later became president of Liberia.

Wickliffe’s heirs eventually subdivided and sold the land for residential development, creating the neighborhoods of Mentelle Park, Kenwick and, beginning in 1926, Fairway.

Fairway’s mix of traditional-style homes, built in the 1920s to 1950s, range from modest apartments and ranch houses to mansions. Several were designed by three well-known Lexington architects who built their own homes in Fairway: War field Gratz, Hugh Meriwether and Robert McMeekin.

Fairway’s development included two Kenwick elementary schools, the second built in 1937 and renamed in 1963 for its longtime principal, Julia R. Ewan. It is now the Lexington Hearing and Speech Center.

One little-known chapter of Fairway’s history is the military base that once occupied 12 acres north of the school along Henry Clay Boulevard. The Army Remount Station bought and processed military horses from 1920 until the cavalry was mechanized during World War II. It was also home to Troop B of the 123rd Kentucky Cavalry, a National Guard unit.

The Fairway Neighborhood Association paid for the book’s printing by soliciting $250 and $100 sponsorships from residents and others and from businesses with ties to the neighborhood. More than 400 books have been sold, with proceeds generating several thousand dollars for the neighborhood association.

Figg, Askren and Sandra Ireland, the book’s three principal authors, said their effort was particularly successful because Fairway has many longtime residents, including several generations of some families. But they encouraged other neighborhoods to follow their example.

“While working on this project,” Askren said, “I got to know my neighbors so much better.”

Mansion of Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister to become a museum

August 28, 2012

Helm Place on Bowman Mill Road. Photos by Tom Eblen


Do political disagreements make things tense in your family? It could be worse. You could have been Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.

They were in a tough spot: He was leading the Union through the Civil War. She had 14 brothers and sisters from Lexington; most were Southern sympathizers, and three were killed in Confederate service. Lincoln threatened to jail one of his wife’s sisters when she came to visit, but she still kept smuggling contraband to the South.

Hardest of all was the strain war created between the Lincolns and their favorite Todd relatives: half-sister Emilie Todd Helm and her husband, Benjamin Hardin Helm, a Confederate general.

After Helm was killed in battle, his grieving widow and her three children made tense visits to the White House. Lincoln’s political enemies howled that he was sheltering a traitor. Even the children quarreled: Tad Lincoln said his daddy was the president, but little Katherine Helm insisted the real president was Jefferson Davis.

You know how most of this story ends: The Union prevails; Abraham Lincoln is assassinated; Mary Todd Lincoln struggles with mental illness. But what about her favorite little sister, Emilie, the prettiest of the Todd daughters? The Kentucky Mansions Preservation Foundation will soon be able to tell that story.

Helm Place, the Greek Revival mansion on Bowman Mill Road where Emilie and her children spent the last decades of their lives, has been donated to the foundation to become a museum. There is a lot of renovation and fund-raising ahead, but the mansion already contains enough Lincoln, Helm, Todd and other local artifacts to get off to a great start.

The foundation will celebrate the gift at a dinner and presentation about Helm Place on Sept. 18 at Malone’s Banquets, 3373 Tates Creek Road. Tickets are $38 for members, $42 for others. For reservations, call (859) 233-9999 by Sept. 10.

“This place is a treasure, and we’re excited about the possibilities,” said Gwen Thompson, executive director of the Mary Todd Lincoln House, which also is operated by the foundation.

Mary Genevieve Townsend Murphy, a co-founder and longtime board member of the foundation, left Helm Place to it in trust after her death in 2000 and the death of her husband, Joseph, in April 2011. The foundation took control of the 150-acre property in March and has spent the past few months installing a high-tech security system and live-in caretaker.

Oddly enough, the first white settler on the property was the Todd sisters’ grandfather Levi Todd, who built Todd’s Station fort there in 1779. But because of Indian attacks, Todd abandoned the claim and moved closer to Lexington.

The land later went to Abraham Bowman for his service in the Revolutionary War. In the 1850s, one of Bowman’s descendants built the mansion, originally called Cedar Hall, which sits on a hill at the end of a majestic lawn.

Emilie Todd Helm and her grown children bought the mansion in 1912 — almost exactly a century before the foundation acquired title. Katherine, an accomplished painter, did several family portraits for the house and painted a dining room mural depicting nearby South Elkhorn Creek at sunset. One of her portraits of Mary Todd Lincoln now hangs in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House.

Emilie Helm remained an unreconstructed Confederate until her death in 1930. When Elodie, her youngest daughter, was getting old, she sold the house in 1946 to William H. Townsend, a Lexington lawyer, author and accomplished Lincoln scholar and collector. His daughter Mary moved in with Elodie, who died in 1953. Mary married Joseph Murphy in 1960.

William Townsend, who died in 1964, amassed an amazing collection of Lincoln and early Kentucky artifacts, many of which remain in the house with the Helm family’s possessions. They include several portraits by Matthew Jouett; a table made by Abraham Lincoln’s father; writer James Lane Allen’s desk and documents signed by Lincoln and Henry Clay.

The foundation’s next step is to conduct a study of the mansion’s possibilities as a museum, decide on a plan and raise the money to make it happen. Thompson said she didn’t know how long it would be before Helm Place could welcome visitors.

“Our big priority since March has been making sure the property is secured and cared for,” she said. “We’re just taking it a step at a time.”

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A short walk shows Lexington’s Civil War divisions

May 29, 2012


I first became fascinated with Civil War history as a boy in the 1960s, soon after the centennial celebration.

Many of the books I found in the Lexington Public Library — then located in the Carnegie building in Gratz Park — made that history seem remote. They told of epic battles in Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland and Pennsylvania. They showed pictures of Atlanta, Charleston and Richmond — the one in Virginia, not the one down the road.

I had no idea then how much Civil War history lay just beyond those library walls.

America is now in the midst of a more nuanced commemoration of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. There is less focus on gallant cavaliers and more reflection on the causes and legacies of that terrible, transformative war.

That makes this the perfect time to take a short history walk through downtown Lexington. There are no forts or battlefields to see. But it would be hard to find another few blocks of American soil so intimately associated with the Civil War’s key political figures, central issue and deep divisions.

Begin your walk in Gratz Park at the James Lane Allen fountain. This is where Transylvania’s main building stood in the 1820s when Jefferson Davis was a student. After a couple of years, Davis transferred to West Point. He later became a U.S. senator from Mississippi and the only president of the Confederate States of America.

Transylvania’s main building burned in 1829. Years later, former student Cassius M. Clay revealed that the mysterious fire was started by his slave, who fell asleep with a candle burning while polishing his master’s shoes. Clay, the son of one of Kentucky’s largest slaveholders, became one of slavery’s most outspoken critics. In the 1840s, he published an abolitionist newspaper, The True American, from an office on Mill Street near the corner of Main.

Walk through Gratz Park to the corner of Market and Second streets. There is the Bodley-Bullock House, an 1814 mansion that served alternately as Union and Confederate headquarters when each army occupied Lexington during the Civil War.

Walk across the park to another 1814 mansion, at the corner of Second and Mill streets. It was the home of Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a cavalry raider known as the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy.” It is now a museum owned the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. (Hours and information: BluegrassTrust.org.)

Before proceeding on Second Street, look down Mill Street toward First Presbyterian Church. It surrounds a small brick building that was the law office of Henry Clay, America’s most influential politician of the early 19th century.

Clay negotiated political compromises over the expansion of slavery that delayed the Civil War for nearly four decades. (Learn more about Clay at his Ashland estate: HenryClay.org.)

At the corner of Second and Broadway, you will see a parking lot that was the site of Transylvania University’s renowned medical school, which closed in 1857. The building burned in 1863 while being used as a Union Army hospital.

Look down Second Street and you will see a marker outside the last home of John C. Breckinridge, whose career illustrates how the Civil War divided the city and the nation. This Lexingtonian was the 14th vice president of the United States, then a presidential candidate in 1860. When war came, Breckinridge sided with the South, becoming a Confederate general and secretary of war.

Walk down Broadway toward Short Street. You will see the Opera House, built in 1886. Before the Civil War, this was the site of a business operated by W.A. Pullum, one of the city’s many “negro dealers.” Lexington was one of the South’s biggest slave-trading centers.

Take a right on Short Street, past Saints Peter & Paul School and St. Paul’s Catholic Church, and you will see a marker noting the birthplace of Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln. Her grandmother, Eliza Parker, lived next door. Neither house remains.

Lincoln visited his wife’s family in the fall of 1847. The man who would later abolish slavery was then a freshman congressman from Illinois, just beginning to grapple with the issue. That visit to Lexington might have given Lincoln his most close-up look at the South’s “peculiar institution.”

From the Parker house, historian William Townsend wrote, Lincoln easily could have looked past the spiked fence into Pullum’s compound, which had rows of eight-foot-square slave “pens” and a whipping post.

Follow Short Street to Jefferson Street, turn left and cross Main. The Mary Todd Lincoln House museum in a restored home where the future first lady lived from 1832, when she was 13 years old, until she moved to Illinois in 1839. (Hours and information: MTLHouse.org.)

That’s a lot of Civil War history in less than a mile.

The Fountain of Youth, a gift to the city from the estate of the writer James Lane Allen, is on the north end of Gratz Park on the site of the original building of Transylvania University.  Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, studied in that building in the 1820s before transferring to West Point.  Photos by Tom Eblen

A groundskeeper last week prepared for Transylvania University’s graduation. In the foreground is Gratz Park, the former site of Transylvania’s main building, where Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, studied in the 1820s.



The Bodley-Bullock House, built in 1814, served as headquarters for both Union and Confederate armies when control of Lexington changed hands during the Civil War. The house is across Gratz Park from Hopemont, home of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan.

Hopemont, built in 1814, was the home of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a notorious cavalry raider.

Hopemont was saved from demolition by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation in 1855 and is now a museum.

Transylvania University’s Medical Hall stood where this parking lot is now at the corner of Broadway and Second streets. The building was being used as a Union Army hospital during the Civil War when it burned in 1863.

The Lexington Opera House, built in 1886, on Broadway just north of Short Street, stands on the site that in the 1840s was Pullum’s slave jail. Abraham Lincoln’s closest personal exposure to slavery may have been seeing Pullums while visiting his wife’s grandmother, who lived on Short Street adjacent to the jail.

A plaque noting Mary Todd Lincoln’s birthplace stands outside her former home on Short Street. The house in the background replaced an earlier one that was home to her grandmother, Eliza Parker.

The Mary Todd Lincoln House is where Abraham Lincoln’s wife lived from 1832, when she was 13, until 1839, when she moved to Illinois, where she met Lincoln. The house, originally built in 1806 as an inn, is now a museum.