Gardens to Gables

A Lonely Cottage on a Lost Road: Rodes Avenue in Lexington, Kentucky

The story of an urban landscape, I think, is in part told by its roads. Historian John R. Stilgoe, in his treatise on the man-made American landscape, said that “16th century Europeans saw the road as not good or evil but as enticingly mysterious.”[1] I ascribe to that theory – and often explore both those roads still functioning and the mysterious wisps of roads that once were. The threads of those vanished roads are still visible, even from the bland wasteland of a surface parking lot in downtown Lexington.

The Professor Burton J. Pinkerton House on Rodes Avenue in Lexington.

The Professor Burton J. Pinkerton House on Rodes Avenue in Lexington.

To be clear, it wasn’t a lost road that caught my eye at first. It was a charming little brick cottage, its painted brick glinting in the August sunshine. I was walking to my car, when something made me look up, and I saw this small house, adrift in a sea of asphalt. A series of parking lots, all edged in orderly lines of unimaginative yew bushes, surrounded the house, which as I would later learn, was originally the home of Professor Burnet J. Pinkerton and his family. Once part of a tidy row of early 20th-century dwellings along Rodes Avenue, this small survivor is all that remains – a vestige of a neighborhood on a street that goes nowhere.

A portion of the 1907 Sanborn map showing the area in question.

A portion of the 1907 Sanborn map showing the area in question.

In 1901, according to the Sanborn maps, the area between South Limestone, East High, East Maxwell and Lexington Streets was still undeveloped. Six years later, 2o parcels formed Rodes Avenue as the street proceeded from the new stone Calvary Baptist Church on  East High Street (a lost building, but not a story for today) southwest toward Maxwell. Mrs. William Rodes, who owned the new subdivision, filed the plat on October 21, 1908, and kept a large (242 feet long and 107 feet wide) lot at the corner of the new road and East High Street. Her home is, of  course, long gone. The Rodes name was a familiar one in the Lexington of the early 20th century, the family having settled in Fayette County a century before, and prominent in professional and social circles.

The 1908 plat of the new Rodes subdivision in downtown Lexington.

The 1908 plat of the new Rodes subdivision in downtown Lexington.

This little cottage, with its Eastlake and Queen Anne-inspired details, is striking now for its isolation, but at the time, was a member of an enclave of brick dwellings home to professionals, including Professor Pinkerton. Later, William Letelle Petty, the “father” of the looseleaf tobacco industry in Lexington, would live in the house with its windows of delicate tracery and an elaborate scrollwork lintel that flows into the shingled gable above.

A detail of the charming and intricate "picture window" on the facade, and the fishscale shingled gable.

A detail of the lovely and intricate “picture window” on the facade, and the fishscale shingled gable.

Petty moved to Rodes Avenue around 1912, but the Virginia native’s introduction to Lexington dates to 1906. He became one of the promoters of the looseleaf method of selling burley tobacco, though another Virginia native, Charles W. Bohmer, started the city’s first looseleaf sales warehouse on South Broadway in 1904.

Looking southwest down Rodes Avenue toward Maxwell.

Looking southwest down Rodes Avenue toward Maxwell.

One of Petty’s neighbors on Rodes Avenue was Mrs. Anna Cannon, the widow of a well-known grocer in Lexington. Her two-story brick house, like many in the city at the time, combined an asymmetrical form, reminiscent of the late-19th century Queen Anne style, with stylistic details of the early-20th century Colonial Revival style. A classically-styled porch with paired columns adorned the facade of the house, while the numerous windows featured handsome stone lintels.

The home of Mrs. Anna Canon on Rodes Avenue. Photo courtesy the LFUCG Division of Historic Preservation.

The home of Mrs. Anna Canon (circa 1981) on Rodes Avenue. Photo courtesy the LFUCG Division of Historic Preservation.

By the early 1980s, the combination of growth from Calvary Baptist, the University of Kentucky, and Good Samaritan Hospital had changed the face of Rodes Avenue. Although Calvary Baptist had requested in 1940 that Rodes Avenue be opened through to Maxwell Street, it remained a dead-end street. Perhaps that lack of access was one reason the street began to disappear.

Looking down the lost Rodes Avenue toward East High Street, toward the Calvary Baptist Church complex.

Looking down the lost Rodes Avenue toward East High Street, toward the Calvary Baptist Church complex.

I am not sure when the bulldozers began making their insidious advances – it likely began in the 1960s, as much of downtown Lexington shifted and changed. The suburbs issued their siren call, and new roads, dozens of them, snaked out from downtown into the countryside. High Street, once lined with stately dwellings, was almost obliterated in the name of urban renewal in the 1970s. The Canon House was the only dwelling left on the west side of Rodes Avenue in 1981. Across the street, the Pinkerton House hung on, spared for unknown reasons, a lonely vestige of a lost neighborhood on a street that now truly goes nowhere. Mysterious, yes – but a mystery with a sad ending, and little to recommend itself other than a glimpse of a charming little cottage and acres of parking.

Aerial view of Rodes Avenue today.

Aerial view of Rodes Avenue today.

 

 

[1] John R. Stilgoe, Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 21.

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One Thought on “A Lonely Cottage on a Lost Road: Rodes Avenue in Lexington, Kentucky

  1. david ames on October 19, 2015 at 10:00 am said:

    Tis great because I am roads person, love Sanborns — most of dissertation based on them — and fascinated by these random surviving buildings and their stories. A plus

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