A Requiem for Virginia Avenue, Lexington, Kentucky

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.

Looking northeast at four homes along Virginia Avenue facing the chopping block.

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.

The lots shaded in red are owned by the University, and 119-131 Virginia Avenue and 685 South Limestone are the subjects of this post. The house at 665 S. Limestone is also scheduled to be torn down. Map from the Fayette County Property Valuation Administrator website.

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.

Virginia Avenue didn’t appear on the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps until 1907, the date of this image. You can see Griffing’s store at the corner, marked by a blue arrow.

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.***

In 1909, this was the home of Katherine E. Benton, the widow of Benjamin Benton.

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.

The house at 123 Virginia Avenue wasn’t built until the late 1920s/early 1930s.

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 porch on the house at 119 Virginia Avenue has been enclosed.

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.

A section of the 1934 Sanborn map showing the new homes along Virginia Avenue.

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 house at 685 South Limestone – an especially nice magnolia tree is located in the side yard.

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.

A detail of the entryway at 685 South Limestone.

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.

An aerial view of Virginia Avenue today.

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.

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  1. Joberta Wells says:

    Is 631 South Limestone still standing (corner of S. Limestone and Maxwelton Court)? When I was a sophomore at UK (1961-62) it was an “overflow house” because the dorms were full and this house and , I believe, “Maxwell House” were used for female students.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      I am afraid it is gone…everything that fronted on S. Limestone between Prall and Maxwellton was torn down for a surface parking lot…

  2. Jim Clark says:

    It seems like the Blue Grass Trust could lead an effort to document and record these neighborhoods. This would provide a valuable archive of Lexington’s physical and socio-economic development.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Although that would be great, the Blue Grass Trust is a non-profit organization and lacks the staff or resources to undertake such an effort. As a professional architectural historian (who works at UK), I know that it would cost UK a mere pittance to fund a survey of the neighborhoods it impacts, but such a proactive venture does not seem to be on the University’s radar or any sort of priority.

  3. Don Pratt says:

    I seriously demand new laws to control of the condemnation power of UK.
    To be an educational institution with both staff and academicians who are architects, engineers and planners, UK SUCKS as to planning and practical development.
    Damn, damn, damn… this UK hierarchy.

  4. Hannah A says:

    I’m a preservatonist in Chicago, though I’m originally from Lexington. Thank you so much for your interest in these homes. Not only did my family own a couple of these properties of the years, but I spent a great deal of my early years in 119 Virginia with my amazing caretaker who lived there. I have so many incredible memories of the houses and their landscapes. Even though I’m also a historian, it’s always other people’s histories that I write and read, so to be reading about my own history is really special. Again, thank you for simply noticing these special little remnants of old Lexington.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Oh, thank you so much for reading! I am so glad you found the post. The changes around campus are really devastating, and I wish I could do more to document the changing landscape. Do you remember the little brick store on the corner? I am trying to find some photographs of it…

  5. Bill says:

    The grocery store certainly wasn’t brick. It was a little frame building with squeaky wood floors.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      In 1934, there were two stores on the parcel at the corner of S. Limestone – a frame store that faced Virginia and a brick store at the corner. I have no idea what was there post-1934, only that it has been a narrow gravel lot in recent memory.

  6. Cathy White says:

    I lived in a Garden Court Apts. on Virginia Ave. in ’78-’79 while at UK. The area has changed so much even since then. I appreciate the retrospective.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Thank you for reading!

  7. Mary Duncan says:

    I lived in the store from late 1976 until December, 1978. At that time the store (no longer in business), the brick Cape Cod next door on Limestone, and the sone house beside it (eventually expanded to include an apartment wing on the back and covered with blue siding) were owned by Mr. Harp, who lived in Atlanta and worked for the railroad. He and his wife lived in the blue house when they retired. The store had a “Creme Flour” sign painted on its Virginia face. The old man who had owned and operated it was in a nursing home. He and his wife had raised a daughter in the apartment that adjoined the store front.

    Judging from the baths and the kitchen. I think the apartment dated from the early 1900’s – before 1920. Among its feature was a fabulous old gas stove in perfect working order. He was a fantastic gardener who had installed a rock-lined pond in the garden and built a trellis for wisteria by a small garage. It still bloomed abundantly when we lived there.

    We were told that the brick house was built for his daughter.

    A nearby house, maybe one door down, was owned by a retired postman named Mr. Smith, who was in his mid-eighties at the time. He was a widower whose wife had died in an automobile accident on Elizabeth Street a few years before. He was utterly charming, regaling us with stories of raising his sons there. They attended U.K. and his house was a frequent gathering place back in the 40’s or 50’s. The winter of 1977-78 was snowy and brutally cold. While all of us were more or less snowed in, he delivered mail to everyone as a favor to his old employer.

    There’s a beautiful photo of the old store by Mary Rezny. She may still have prints. The store was torn down around 2000 or so, to make a wider turning space at that intersection.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Oh, thank you so much for commenting! This is wonderful information and helps tell so much more of the story of the neighborhood. I will see if I can find the photo by Mary Rezny. Thank you SO much for reading and sharing your memories.

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