BGT deTours: Oldham House

The Blue Grass Trust’s deTours  is a group of young professionals (and the young at heart).  The program provides behind-the-scenes tours of  historic buildings, places, and sites in central Kentucky.   BGT deTours are free and open to the public. They occur on the first Wednesday of every month.

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Five bay, 2 story Federal Style house ca.1835 at 245 South Limestone.

This month we were able to tour a Federal style house widely reported as the first built by a free African American in Lexington.  Though it was extensively renovated in recent years and retains little of its original interior decoration due to prior years of neglect, the building is a remarkable link to the even more remarkable story of an even more remarkable individual.

These are the facts:

In 1826, Lexington was a major slave trading center. The same year, a slave named Samuel A. Oldham bought his freedom.

Working as a barber, Oldham was able to save enough money to purchase the freedom of his wife, Daphney Harris Oldham, and their children in 1830.

By 1835, he was able to build them a large and elegant home less than a mile from Cheapside, the largest slave-trading location in Kentucky and one of the most well known slave market districts in the South.

The property was sold in 1839 and records from 1840 show that Oldham had purchased the freedom of at least three more individuals.

gilpin masonry before

The Samuel Oldham House before renovations began. Image via Gilpin Masonry

In 2004, the house at 245 South Limestone sat vacant, condemned, and slated for demolition, when it was “discovered” by the playwright, Ain Gordon. Gordon was visiting Lexington by invitation of LexArts, which asked him to delve into the cities past as a part of his series, In This Place…  Gordon’s goal was to “find forgotten historic stories and theatrically remember them, rescuing them from a vanished past.”

“I started walking around downtown and saw all of those historic plaques,” said Gordon. “My first reaction was, it’s all been taken care of. There’s nothing for me to do. This town is covering its history.”

But then he started to think about the plaques and how in most cases they couldn’t possibly tell the whole story of what happened at each site. That’s when he noticed 245 South Limestone, which didn’t have a marker despite being obviously older than some buildings that were marked. He did some research and reported that he’d found the first house built by a freed African American in Lexington.  (According to 1978 National Register nomination of the South Hill Historic Distirct, this is not the case. Michael Clark a “house joiner and freed man of color,” built a log cabin in the same neighborhood in 1807 and later replaced it with a brick house in 1818. The caveat may be that Oldham was the first to both own the land and house – it is unclear).

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A framed newspaper article describing the history of the Oldham House and Callaway’s purchase of the property proudly hangs in the “break room” of the downstairs office space.

“Following a multi-year development process, including numerous interviews with local historians and archival research, Gordon wrote and developed “In This Place…,” which imagines the Oldham’s lives and 19th century Lexington through the eyes of Samuel Oldham’s wife, Daphney. In the play (that stars Michelle Hurst), Daphney comes back as a ghost striving to remember her “living days,” and her history. Interwoven images of her after-life and a phantom Lexington populated by the famous and the disappeared, a land where every building that ever stood — still stands. In fact, Gordan’s efforts and the original production saved the Oldham house from demolition. “In This Place …” imagines the full story behind these bare facts from Daphney’s perspective and underscores via a quote: “A forgotten man is still better remembered than his wife,'” according to the Philladelphia Tribune.

In 2006, the property was purchased by Coleman Calloway III in order to save it from demolition and preserve its history. The building was in a sad state. It featured evidence of vagrant camps, small fires, vandalism, and looting.

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The new historical marker is the perfect place for a mini-preservationist to hide.

The the same year, Gordon’s play, In This Place… premiered  in Lexington and a “new-concept historic marker [was] unveiled at the house. Rather than try to encapsulate the history into a paragraph like the familiar bronzed signs dotting downtown do, the new marker direct[s] viewers to a Web site full of research Gordon did while writing In This Place ….”  Reportedly, the site also showcased “video from and for the play’s production shot by Lexington documentary filmmaker Joan Brannon.”  The historical marker still stands in front of the house, unfortunately, the website http://www.OldhamHouse.org no longer exists less than 6 years later.

Gilpin Masonry

“We stripped the paint, replaced the mortar and rebuilt the chimneys.” – Gilpin Masonry

Calloway did a remarkable job renovating the building for modern day use.  The house is located less than a block from Lexington’s central business district in a highly sought after high traffic location, therefore Calloway adapted the first floor for office space and created a spacious two bedroom/two bath apartment on the second level.

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First floor office space.

Original interior elements were maintained when possible and most interior changes to the floor plan are reversible so that it could easily be returned to a one family dwelling in the future.

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Spacious living room in the apartment occupying the second floor.

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Modern kitchen in the upstairs apartment.

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The original grande central staircase currently leads to nowhere – the apartment is accessed by way of a modern stairway at the back of the building. The wall at the top of the original stairs is designed to be removed easily.

It is currently on the market for a respectable $725k (a rumored loss to Calloway, who thinks of the project as as true labor of love).

To see posts about past deTours click here or visit the Kaintuckeean.  If you’re in Lexington and would like to come to a future deTour or learn more about the program, check out deTours’ Facebook page for details.

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4 comments

  1. kaintuckeean

    Great article and – obviously – I’m a huge fan of the “mini preservationist” photos! Might have to use those!

  2. mshe

    looks like a beautiful restoration. I was a student in Lexington in the early 1970s. So glad of the efforts toward preservation of historic buildings, and the area history.

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