Centennial celebration planned Saturday for historic Duncan Park

August 25, 2015
A cyclist rode up North Limestone Street past an entrance to Duncan Park at the corner of Fifth Street. Many young people are moving into neighborhoods around the park and fixing up long-neglected old houses. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

A cyclist rode up North Limestone Street past an entrance to Duncan Park at the corner of Fifth Street. The park originally was a wealthy merchant’s estate. Photos by Tom Eblen


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.”

A cyclist rode up North Limestone Street past the old columned entrance to the 1810 Morton House in Duncan Park. Many young people are moving into neighborhoods around the park and fixing up long-neglected old houses. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

A cyclist rode up North Limestone Street past the old entrance to the 1810 Morton House in Duncan Park. Many people are moving into nearby neighborhoods and fixing up long-neglected houses.

The Morton House, built in 1810 and once owned by emancipationist Cassius Clay, sits in the middle of Duncan Park. Since the city bought the property in 1913, it has housed social service agencies. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The Morton House, built in 1810 and once owned by emancipationist Cassius Clay, sits in the middle of Duncan Park. Since the city bought the property in 1913, it has housed social service agencies.

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.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


Habitat works with Lexington to restore foreclosed homes

December 17, 2012

Neema Dominic puts in volunteer hours painting a foreclosed home on Savoy Road that is being renovated by Habitat for Humanity.  Habitat has renovated four foreclosed homes in Lexington this year and will do a fifth next year as part of a city program to keep foreclosed homes from becoming vacant liabilities in their neighborhoods. Photos by Tom Eblen


Lexington has a couple of big housing problems: there is too little affordable housing, and there are too many vacant houses in neighborhoods all over the city, especially since the wave of foreclosures that followed the 2008 financial crisis.

A partnership between city government and Habitat for Humanity has offered small help for both problems, but it has left officials optimistic that it could lead to bigger solutions.

On Wednesday, Mayor Jim Gray will help dedicate a renovated house at 224 Savoy Road in a well-kept, middle-class subdivision off Versailles Road. After a foreclosure in 2010, that house and another down the street sat empty for more than two years. That worried neighbors, including Urban County Council member Peggy Henson, who lives around the corner.

“These were sturdy, good, well-built homes,” Henson said. “But they weren’t going to stay that way the longer they sat empty.”

Those two houses were among 10 foreclosed, vacant properties the city was able to acquire with federal stimulus money through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008.

The city turned the 10 properties over to Habitat for Humanity for $1 each. Five had homes that could be renovated; the others will become building sites for new Habitat homes. Four of the renovations have been completed; the fifth will be done next year, as will the new construction.

Habitat for Humanity, the Georgia-based non-profit organization made famous by former President Jimmy Carter’s volunteer efforts on its behalf, builds affordable homes for low-income people willing to put in hundreds of hours of “sweat equity” to become homeowners.

In Lexington, Habitat has typically built new homes, usually in neighborhoods north of Main Street in the East End, West End and Winburn, where inexpensive lots were available. This venture was Habitat’s first at renovating existing homes in other neighborhoods, and Rachel Smith Childress, the organization’s Lexington executive director, said it turned out to be a winner for everyone.

“Our families like them because they’re in other nice neighborhoods and have amenities that aren’t typically part of our homes,” she said. “Plus, it removes vacant houses from neighborhoods, increases property values for everyone and increases property tax revenues for the city.”

For example, the house at 224 Savoy Road, which was built about 1960, is brick with hardwood floors and vintage knotty pine paneling. The kitchen includes a dishwasher. None of that is in a new Habitat house.

But the house needed work, including bathroom and kitchen remodeling, which was done by Habitat staff, volunteers and future Habitat homeowners. Whirlpool donated other needed kitchen appliances.

Money for the renovation was donated by business sponsors Paul Miller Ford, Ford Motor Co., PNC Bank and the PNC Foundation. Support for the other renovations has come from Ashland Inc., Calvary Baptist Church and Back Construction.

More than 500 hours of work was performed by the new owners of 224 Savoy Road, Emmanuel Katchofa, and his wife, Marceline Ilunga. He was a physician in the Congo before they and their five children fled the war-torn country and were resettled in Lexington by the U.S. State Department and Kentucky Refugee Ministries. Katchofa and Ilunga both now have jobs, although he is unable to practice medicine because his license is not valid in this country.

Legal refugees from the Congo and other troubled African nations now make up about half of the 15 or 20 Lexington families Habitat is able to help become home owners each year. That is because refugees come here without bad credit histories and with strong motivation to succeed, Childress said.

Henson said she and her neighbors are happy to have the vacant house on Savoy Road restored and occupied.

“It was a real blessing to the neighborhood,” she said. “Those properties are looking great now, and it will be really good to have folks living there.”

Although federal stimulus money is no longer available, Henson and Childress hope Habitat’s partnership with the city on rehabilitating vacant houses or building on abandoned lots can find new ways to continue.

“We’re talking with the city about property and buildings and partnerships,” Childress said. “But the need for affordable housing goes beyond home ownership.

“Everyone is not going to be a homeowner. We really have a huge gap in decent rental housing that is affordable in Lexington. It’s a huge need.”

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo and read caption:

Dilapidated YWCA cleared to create Parkside

January 30, 2012

In the early 1960s, this place was the Cabana Club, and 5-year-old Holly Wiedemann came here to learn how to skate on Lexington’s only ice rink.

In the early 1970s, it was The Aquatic Club, and Wiedemann came here to swim with the Greater Lexington Swim Association and play on the adjacent putt-putt miniature golf course.

Now, this 6.2-acre site in southwest Lexington’s Gardenside neighborhood is called Parkside, a stylish new development whose first phase opened last week with 36 beautiful apartments for low-income people and offices for two social service agencies.

Parkside required creating a complicated network of public-private partnerships and financing, and it was organized and built by Holly Wiedemann.

Wiedemann, 56, is president of AU Associates, a Lexington development company that specializes in restoring old buildings and converting distressed properties into affordable housing. Over the past 21 years, the company has done $63 million worth of projects throughout Kentucky and in West Virginia with 350 housing units and more than 100,000 square feet of commercial space.

Many previous AU Associates projects have involved creating affordable housing by restoring old school buildings in small towns. She also developed the upscale Artek Lofts on Old Georgetown Street and is now working on The Bread Box, which involves converting an old Rainbo Bread bakery on Jefferson Street into a craft brewery, artist studios and the Broke Spoke Community Bicycle Shop.

Parkside was different than most AU Associates projects. Rather than “adaptive use” — that’s what AU stands for — of an existing building, the old swim and skating facility had to be demolished. Parkside’s three new, connected structures were built on the former putt-putt course.

Gardenside has changed a lot in the decades since it was a new, upscale development, then on the edge of Lexington. Back then, Wiedemann could ride her pony to the club from her family’s farm at the end of Beacon Hill Road.

The YWCA acquired the private swim club in 1977 and operated the pool and a fitness center until early 2006, when it abruptly closed because of the organization’s financial problems. After dropping affiliation with the national organization, the YWCA became the Brenda D. Cowan Coalition for Kentucky, named for a firefighter killed while responding to a domestic-violence situation.

The coalition’s plans to turn the center into affordable housing stalled, and vandalism and neglect made the facility irreparable and a threat to neighbors in the 1960s-era apartment buildings around it. AU Associates acquired the property and put together the deal to build Parkside.

Parkside’s one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments will rent from $500 to $700 per month to individuals and families earning 60 percent or less of the area median income. The apartments feature energy-saving construction and appliances, plus fancy design touches rarely seen in low-income housing.

Wiedemann said the project created 108 direct jobs, and she tried to use local suppliers when possible. For example, all of the kitchen cabinets were made by a small company near Hodgenville.

The buildings’ first floors will house rent-free offices for two non-profit organizations: Bluegrass Domestic Violence and Sunflower Kids, which works to help children maintain safe relationships with non-custodial parents.

Parkside was financed by Citizens Union Bank of Shelbyville, affordable housing tax credits and trust funds from the Kentucky Housing Corp., the Community Affordable Housing Equity Corp. and the city’s Division of Community Development. City Studios Architecture of Cincinnati designed the contemporary-style project. If Parkside is successful, an additional phase is planned on the adjacent swim-club site.

“What I think you have here is market-rate housing at an affordable price,” said Mark Offerman of the Kentucky Housing Corp. “It’s some of the nicest in the neighborhood.”

At Parkside’s dedication last Wednesday, Mayor Jim Gray also hailed it as a great example of urban infill redevelopment that revitalizes neighborhoods and preserves Lexington’s unique farmland by avoiding suburban sprawl.

“Whatever Holly Wiedemann touches is going to have a transformative effect on our city,” Gray said. “Holly has this extraordinary sense of great design. When we build a city around great design, it lasts a long time.”

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo: