Gardens to Gables

A Bourbon Baron’s Romanesque Dwelling in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky

Bourbon whiskey – “the sweetest of the brown liquors.” I heard that phrase often while in college and though my personal experience with bourbon was one of quantity rather than quality, I’ve watched with awe and pride over the last ten years as the bourbon industry has not only bolstered Kentucky’s economy, but become a major player in the tourism field. But for all of the known bourbon sites – including beautiful historic distilleries – there are lesser known spots across the Commonwealth associated with the bourbon barons of the Pre-Prohibition era. Some of them might just be on the Main Street of your hometown – like the Saffell House in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.

The main (original) portion of the circa 1890 Saffell House.

The main (original) portion of the circa 1890 Saffell House.

Even if you couldn’t associate the pleasingly alliterative phrase “bourbon baron”with this house,  its distinctive late-19th century curves and shapes are compelling. The Richardsonian Romanesque is not a style for the self-effacing (or the frugal). Named for Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson, characteristics of the style include masonry walls, an asymmetrical facade, towers, and rough-faced stonework (usually in the form of arches or lintels over openings). The Saffell House utilizes all of these elements; I particularly like the tripartite window treatment in the projecting central bay that contains the main entry.  The imposing 2.5 story brick house built for William Butler Saffell and his family conveyed how far Saffell had come – a fitting tribute to the emergence of his own eponymous distillery.

Made possible by the magic of the internet, this image of one of W.B. Saffell's bottles of bourbon.

Made possible by the magic of the internet, this image of one of W.B. Saffell’s bottles of bourbon.

Saffler worked in the bourbon industry from the time he was a teenager, and for over 20 years oversaw operations of the McBrayer Distillery. In 1889, he set out on his own, and began to build a 350-barrell distillery near Alton, Kentucky, a rural community northwest of Lawrenceburg. His bourbon bore his name and the distillery included at least two bonded warehouses.  A 1903 account of the man and his distillery related that “Mr. Saffell has a warehouse capacity of 21,000 barrels. They are of iron, with all the modern facilities for quick and correct handling. By his carefulness and knowledge of the business he has built up a high reputation and a successful business.” [1]

Mr. Saffell, as depicted in the 1903 edition of the Wine and Spirit Bulletin.

Mr. Saffell, as depicted in an 1903 issue of the Wine and Spirit Bulletin.

What better way to demonstrate his success than with a large, imposing, and fashionable house? Although Saffell died in 1910, the distillery continued until Prohibition, but never re-opened (and no traces of it remain, as far as I know). The house, set back from South Main Street with an appropriately sweeping lawn, became a funeral home around 1940, and as that business expanded, a two-story, four-bay addition to the south side of the main house was constructed in the 1950s. The historic photo below shows the delightful two-level porch once centered on the facade, a treatment that would have highlighted the arched openings in that central bay. While the current Revival-style porch unifies the two sections of the facade, it possess none of the whimsy of the original.

A 1940s photograph of the Saffell House, courtesy of http://saffellhousefuneralhome.com/39/History.html

A 1940s photograph of the Saffell House, courtesy of http://saffellhousefuneralhome.com/39/History.html

After the approximately 20-year tenure of the Huddleston and Sparrow Funeral Home, the large home was divided into seven apartments. Just this year, a portion of the home once again became a funeral home, while the second story continues to house apartments. I think Mr. Saffell, a decidedly self-made man and hard worker, would be pleased by this adaptive reuse of his home.

The Saffell House, with the 1950s addition at left.

The Saffell House, with the 1950s addition at left.

Kentucky’s bourbon boom shows no signs of letting up – and I think future tourism expansions should include a peek into ghost distilleries and the lives of former bourbon barons, like  William Butler Saffell. Lawrenceburg would be a good place to start, given its history of fine bourbon produced from the  “springs of the clear, pure water that Anderson County furnished, which always insures a product of the first class.”[2] Along with the twin delights of the Wild Turkey and Four Roses distilleries, it seems that there is plenty of bourbon lore and history lurking all around town.

 

[1] The Wine and Spirit Bulletin, Volume 17, 1903, page 23.

[2] The Wine and Spirit Bulletin, Volume 17, 1903, page 23.

 

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3 Thoughts on “A Bourbon Baron’s Romanesque Dwelling in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky

  1. Local History on December 16, 2015 at 10:14 pm said:

    The pre-Prohibition Saffell distillery paralleled the west side of the Norfolk Southern railroad between the trestle over Hammond’s Creek and the U.S. 127 Bypass bridge south of the intersection of U.S. 127 Business and U.S. 127 Bypass. In the 1970s all that remained of the Saffell distillery was a pipe to a well/spring.

  2. I currently live on the property that “Local History” mentioned in their post. There are also at least four old overgrown foundations along the creek near that pipe.

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