The chain link fences have gone up, making visible the divide between what was and what shall be – from tired reminders of former neighborhoods to blank earth, littered by concrete and gravel. And with the demolition of these houses, one of the last vestiges of the Virginia Avenue neighborhood between South Limestone and South Broadway will vanish.
These aren’t pretty houses – not now. Years of serving as student rentals show on the exterior, and even more so on the inside. I photographed these dwellings in January 2016, when I heard they would be added to the long and growing list of demolitions undertaken by the University of Kentucky in the area around campus.
In the early 20th century, the corner of South Limestone and Virginia Avenue was, as is the case now, a busy intersection. W. S. Griffing,* who ran a grocery store at that corner, filed a complaint with the city in 1909, over his concern that the Nicholasville interurban cars, “when put into commission, would approach too near his place of business” at the corner of South Limestone and Virginia Avenue.** Griffing’s store would later be expanded, and by 1934, the lot included two garages, an ice house, and a second, frame store building.
In 1907, the date of the above map section, Virginia Avenue consisted of mostly one-story, frame houses, many of them the familiar T-plan form. It was a working class neighborhood, with many of the men working in the nearby tobacco warehouses. On the south side of the street was the Lottie Street Presbyterian Church, a mission organized by the Maxwell Presbyterian Church.***
The oldest house of the group is 131 Virginia Avenue – for at least a decade, there were no other houses between it and Mr. Griffing’s store at the corner. The widow Kate Benton and her seven children rented this house in 1909.
In the 1920s, the expanse of open land between 131 Virginia Avenue and South Limestone was slowly developed. This may have been the result of improvements along Virginia Avenue – in 1925, a new concrete bridge over the Southern Railway tracks was completed, replacing the circa 1894 iron bridge (this crossing was again updated in the 1990s).
The new houses of the 1920s and 1930s mirrored the existing ones: small, frame, and one-story, with stylistic details and forms inspired by the Craftsman style prevalent at the time. They all had porches though – which provided a shady spot to visit with the neighbors on hot summer evenings.
Charles F. Arnold and his wife Roberta lived at 121 Virginia Avenue in 1927. Arnold was the branch manager at the Glass Cash Store that year, and like many other residents in the neighborhood, rented his house.
He was 18 years old when he married Roberta, two years his senior. In 1930, Arnold worked as a salesman for the National Bread Company, and the family had taken in a lodger – perhaps to make a little extra money for the extra mouths in the family – children Marian (then two years old) and Thomas, just an infant.
The Colonial Revival-style Cape Cod at 685 South Limestone appears to have been built after World War II, when Griffing’s large lot on the corner must have been divided. (The store was torn down, but I couldn’t discover when that happened.)
A turning point began at the mid-century mark, as both Lexington and UK grew. New housing opportunities opened up, transportation improved, and student rentals slowly increased.
There is nothing earth shattering about the architecture of these houses. Their occupants over the years are mostly nameless. Until UK’s next building foray commences, the lots will be cleaned and graded. Perhaps some grass will be sown. No one will lead a riot over the destruction of these small, modest dwellings. But they were peoples’ homes, so there are stories worth remembering.
I wish that UK showed some regard for the landscapes it changes so irrevocably, but I realize the pattern is entrenched within the system and has been playing out for generations as campus expands and changes. The historically black neighborhood of Adamstown disappeared to make way for Memorial Coliseum, and is now being remembered – through the efforts of a UK student and community historian. I write these posts in my free time, attempting to highlight the stories of historic resources most people don’t notice.
But I think that this land-grant university – which has a graduate program in historic preservation – should take steps to document the landscapes it alters. I’m not suggesting that the University cease land acquisition and demolition- that is an argument I would never win, and I know it isn’t practical. But it wouldn’t cost that much (I happen to know an architectural historian who works at UK and blogs about these issues in her spare time!) and it would be a valuable community service.
Even if these stories don’t mean much now, that could change in the future. Discarding the past like so much refuse is no way to build a sustainable future.
*Griffing supported the development of a church on Lexington’s south side and helped organize Porter Memorial Baptist Church on Nicholasville Road.
**Lexington Leader, December 15, 1909, page one, column 3.
***In 1906, Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church bought a 25 by 62 lot on the south side of Virginia Avenue (near Press Avenue) for the construction of a “mission chapel.” The church had been “conducting a mission on Lottie street for two years” at that point, and had outgrown their temporary rooms “in which the services are being held and there are now over a hundred children in the Sunday School.” Lexington Leader, May 20, 1906, page one, column 3.