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.
The Woodward Heights neighborhood, a quirky and eclectic area between Maxwell and High Streets, has been experiencing a slow, but steady revitalization since the 1980s. Today, it is posed to become the most coveted neighborhood in downtown Lexington – because downtown is happening these days. And I don’t mean happening as in the cliched, 1960s “it’s a happenin’ place,” but that it is HAPPENING. It’s coming into its own, it’s developing into a vibrant space filled with people and business and opportunity! And Woodward Heights is right in the thick of things. It is within walking distance of the city center, Rupp Arena, the new Distillery District, and boarders the proposed path of the Town Branch Trail/Commons. It is also the latest subject of the BGT’s walking tour series, so with that in mind, we slipped on some comfy shoes to learn about this historic district’s roots and to meet some of the neighbors that are safeguarding its future (a few gracious folks even let us take a look inside their homes!)
The neighborhood has a long and rich history. Much of it sits on a 400-acre tract of land first granted in 1776 to Colonel Robert Patterson, one of Lexington’s key founders. At its heart sits what is left of the Botherum estate, an eclectic romantic-revival house and gardens built in 1851, which was subdivided in the late 19th century to create the neighborhood. The result of the subdivision is today a largely intact area filled with an almost complete spectrum of late 19th century/early 20th century Lexington architecture: large front porches, carriage houses, elaborate mill work, stained glass, turrets, shingles, bay windows, contrasting brick work… you name it. Greek Revival to bungalow, Woodward Heights has it. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and became a local, regulated historic district in 1987.
As you might expect from a neighborhood as steeped in history as Woodward Heights, the neighborhood has quirk and charm in spades.
First, there are the place names. The neighborhood and its street names reflect its history. Merino Street is named for the soft-wooled sheep that were the “craze” in the early 1800s. A local businessman invested heavily. Though he never saw returns on that investment, the name remains all these years later. Madison Place is named for Colonel Madison C. Johnson, the eccentric who built Botherum. (More on him later!) The neighborhood itself takes its name from developer J.C. Woodward, who is responsible for creating the neighborhood. He bought 36 acres from Johnson’s heirs, which he subdivided into individual plots. As the plots were sold and developed by individual owners, Woodward Heights was born!
The original residents of Woodward Heights were mostly successful businessmen and tradesmen. No bankers or lawyers or politicians, but printers, grocers, saloon keepers, policemen, carpenters, the owners of mills and livery stables, etc. It was a squarely middle class affair. Therefore the houses are large, but not palatial (though still still big by today’s standards). Fashionably ornamented, but not ostentatious.
And then there are the residents! First, let’s take Colonel Madison Johnson of Botherum. Of course he wasn’t really a resident of Woodward Heights, as the neighborhood was developed after his death, but he’s so interesting! First of all, he graduated from Transylvania University at the age of 15! After becoming a successful banker, lawyer and businessman, he hired a prominent local architect, John McMurtry, to design his house. McMurtry included Roman Classical style, with Corinthian columns and porticoes; Gothic touches such as bay windows, diamond panes in the french doors and a Gothic rib-vaulted ceiling in the drawing room; and an unusual octagonal cast iron open belvedere on the roof where Colonel Johnson observed the stars with his telescope. The house was Johnson’s tribute to his late wife and is sometimes referred to as Lexington’s Taj Mahal. While Botherum is mostly famous for its design, which is one of the outstanding examples of romantic architecture in America, it is also famous for its Henry Clay tree. The massive Ginko that shades the front portico, was supposedly a gift from the statesmen to Johnson. If that wasn’t enough, Botherum has literary ties as well! Supposedly, Johnson named the estate for a Counsel Botherum in one of Henry Fielding‘s plays and the estate was the setting for James Lane Allen‘s Two Gentlemen of Kentucky. The faithful servant, Peter Cotton, in Allen’s story, was based on Botherum’s gardener. And finally, Botherum is now the home of garden-designer-to-the-stars, Jon Carloftis. He and his partner, Dale Fisher, have been in the process of restoring/renovating the property since they bought it last Spring.
According to one former Woodward Heightsian, famed race car driver and automobile pioneer, Barney Oldefield, once called Woodward Heights home. Oldefield was the first man to drive a car at 60 miles per hour on an oval, which led to the expression “Who do you think you are? Barney Oldfield?” (Though, I must confess, I’ve never heard the expression!) Oldefield went on to star in several silent film about racing. Unfortunately, his residence on W. High was destroyed by fire some years ago.
Speaking of films, the 1970s mini-series Black Beauty was filmed in the neighborhood. The Riggs-Bain House on Madison Place was used to film some scenes. Built in 1888, it is a late Italianate/Romanesque house. The classical porch was added around the turn of the century. Has anyone out there seen this particular adaptation? Do you remember this house? Or it’s stable?
Lastly (for this post at least!), Fire Station #3 at the corner of Merino and Maxwell (see photo collage below) was the last Lexington station to use a horse-drawn response unit. Though horses have not been used since July 26, 1926, a horse-drawn unit is featured on the LFD emblem to this day. The Woodward Heights station was constructed in 1920, and is currently being repaired.
Preservation and Green Space
As I mentioned, many properties were allowed to fall into disrepair by the 1980s. Fortunately, the residents of the area not only took note of the neglect, but worked to have the neighborhood designated as a historic district in hopes of saving it. Since then, many have expended significant effort to restore the houses. Though there a few that remain in disrepair, most are well-kept and beautifully maintained. Once the home to the middle-class, it is now an economically diverse neighborhood. The spectrum runs from the successful and wealthy (like Jon Carloftis) to university students (several of the larger homes have been subdivided into apartments).
My favorites element of the neighborhood, the crowning jewel, in my opinion, is its green space. Merino and Madison Place are book-ended by traffic medians filled with an assortment of flora including roses, yucca, poppies and day lilies. And most of the neighbors have also established beautiful front gardens. When one looks down the street, the impression is of a lush, green, quiet oasis. It’s difficult to believe you’re standing just a few short blocks from downtown!
A few neighbors were gracious enough to let us into their homes. Below is the Ella F. Williamson House, which was placed on the National Register in 1989. The house was slowly restored and renovated by architect Tom Cheek and his wife, Fran Taylor. The entry hall features elaborate mill work, paneling and a grand staircase (top right, and bottom center right). The beautiful paneling is also found in the dining room (center left), which is large enough to accommodate a table set for ten and a cozy sitting area near the the fire place. The front hall, dining room and parlor feature some of the most intricate mantels I’ve ever seen (shown in the top left photo and bottom, center left photo). The abundant use of wood (all cherry!) in the house reflects its occupants’ connection to the East End Planning Mill on the Town Branch. If you’d like to learn more about the Williamson House or its restoration, check out this wonderful article recently featured in the local newspaper.
I know much less about the second house we visited, 312 Madison Place. As you can see, I was way in the back of the crowd and couldn’t quite hear the introduction. I scanned the National Register nomination for any mention of this house specifically, but came up empty handed. If any of you know more about it, please let me know! Currently, it is inhabited by local artist Helene Steene. It has the massing of a romantic revival, but the details are Colonial inspired. Doric columns, similar to those that adorn the porch, are also found inside. They are used around several fireplaces, to separate the entry hall from the parlor and from the staircase (middle photograph, bottom right, and bottom left). As might be expected, the decoration on the staircase is more subdued than that of the Williamson House, as effusive decoration was falling out of favor by the turn of the century (center top, and bottom left). Simple decoration can be found on the newel post (top center), windows (top right), and the pretty tile floor on the front porch (photo under window). However, my favorite aspect of Ms. Steene’s home is not the house, but its garden. Check out the roses growing up the two story back porch (bottom center and center right)! That is the stuff of fairy tales, right there!
As always, the deTour was a lot of fun. Thank you to everyone who came out and everyone who helped make it happen! And as usual there are no photographs from the afterhour at Paulie’s Toasted Barrel, because, well, we were having TOO much fun…Next month (July 3), we’ll be seeing behind the scenes at Sayre School, after which we will enjoy the Patriotic Music Concert at Gratz Park to kick off July 4th celebrations!