Have you heard the one about the guy walking past an antique store? He sneered and said to his friend, “That’s all used furniture.”
Many people once held a similar attitude about preserving historic buildings, according to H. Foster Pettit, former mayor of Lexington (1972-78) and immediate past president of the Board of Directors for the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation (BGT).
“This organization was created in 1955 not only to help preserve buildings, but also to educate the public about the need to do so, and how to do it,” he said. “Thank goodness it has caught on. There are still some who say, ‘Tear it down’, but we’re doing better now than ever before.”
The non-profit trust has more than 1,000 members. Its headquarters, located in Lexington’s beautiful Gratz Park, are in the 1814 building that once was Transylvania University’s kitchen. BGT’s first projects included raising funds to restore the nearby home of John Wesley Hunt to the way it looked during that same era. Today, the Hunt-Morgan house, as it’s known, attracts visitors interested not only in antebellum architectural splendors, but also in its most famous residents: Confederate Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan and genetics pioneer Dr. Thomas Hunt Morgan.
BGT has also helped save many other historic structures, including the Mary Todd Lincoln House and Benjamin Latrobe’s Pope Villa, both of which are in Lexington. It helped save Shakertown in Pleasant Hill, too. However, about a half a century ago, the trust’s mission— “to protect, revitalize and promote the special historic places in our community in order to enhance the quality of life for future generations”—didn’t impress many people. Urban renewal demolished buildings all across America, and the counterculture warning “Don’t trust anyone over 30” spurred a rejection of anything from previous generations.
“Walt Disney invented Tomorrowland, but he didn’t do Yesterdayland. That was part of the mindset. Everyone was focused on the future, symbolized by the space program,” said BGT Executive Director Sheila Omer Ferrell. “Things from our past weren’t as treasured. How times have changed! A lot of buildings went down in the 1960s, and many people are gnashing their teeth about it now.”
By slapping cheap paneling on the walls, slumlords transformed vintage buildings like the Hunt-Morgan House that hadn’t been torn down into apartments. Seeing that kind of shabbiness up close, BGT Board president Linda Carroll and her husband have restored seven properties.
“When you start peeling away the layers, you often find the original surfaces and trim intact,” she said. “There is solid masonry construction, beautiful plaster walls, ornate trim work. We’ve found ash floors under linoleum.”
However, it isn’t enough to turn back the clock. Pettit pointed out that if a structure is to be saved, people want it to have a good purpose.
“The day of creating house museums is slowing down, because there are so many attractions competing for visitors’ time and money,” said Pettit, whose great-grandfather served under Gen. Morgan. “Adaptive reuse might include renting the building for special events or turning it into a restaurant or store. There is so much of that going on here—Lexington’s downtown is more vibrant, and people aren’t rushing to the suburbs so much. This city has 14 local historic districts; many of them have been, and are being, restored, and are becoming very popular places in which to live.”
BGT is expanding its education, service and advocacy work beyond these districts also. A program called deTours takes people to properties that are in various stages of renovation and shows them the transformation that’s possible when a building has “good bones.” BGT also provides free brochures for walking tours in six neighborhoods. Its Plaque Program has put special markers on thousands of significant buildings in 11 counties. And its workshops and seminars have enabled people to learn about and gain hands-on experience in restoration techniques.
“We are the 14th oldest historic preservation organization in the country. I don’t know of an organization that appreciates the natural and built beauty of the commonwealth more than we do,” Linda said. “We are always looking for ways to do that. Right now, we’re working on elevating attention to the problem of abandoned properties in Lexington.”
Ferrell, who once lived in St. James Court, appreciates the great strides Louisville has also made in preserving its past.
“Louisville ‘gets’ historic preservation in such a lovely way. Our friends say that if Louisvillians moved here, they would all become members of our trust,” she said. “People who are interested in this kind of work should come see what we’ve done to take care of Gratz Park and other areas. Remember, I-64 is a two-way road.”
The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, 253 Market St., Lexington, opens at 8:30 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m., Monday-Friday.
The Hunt-Morgan House, 201 N. Mill St., is open seasonally for tours on the hour from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday-Friday and Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Pope Villa, 326 Grosvenor Ave., is open by appointment. For information, visit www.bluegrasstrust.org or call 859.253.0362.