Gardens to Gables

Back(stories): The Thomas B. Watkins House, Lexington, Kentucky

The Lexington builder/architect John McMurtry, who popularized the Gothic Revival style in Kentucky, died in 1890. His surviving buildings include the house he designed in 1887 for his daughter, Anne, and her husband, Thomas B. Watkins. The late Italianate brick T-plan is a “fine and handsome example of the work of one of the major shapers of Lexington’s 19th century built environment,”* and its facade is perfectly composed and lovely. But it is the rear elevation that caught my eye the other day.

Rear elevation of the Thomas B. Watkins House, Lexington, Kentucky.

As I walked toward the building, I was mesmerized by the syncopation of the chimneys, the one-story brick ell (now 1.5 stories in places) and the various frame additions and appendages casting more angles. The 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Lexington, the first to extend that far out from the center of town, shows the footprint of the house on a large lot.

Section of the 1907 Sanborn map showing the Watkins House.

There were three frame porches in 1907, and one frame enclosure, perhaps the original first floor bathroom, but nothing like the dance of rooflines, dormers, and contrasting materials seen on the back of the house today.

I will bet that at least one of those frame sections seen on the rear elevation today came about with the introduction of additional bathrooms into the house.

The facade of the Watkins House.

The house remained in the Watkins family until 1978. When it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, there was some speculation about whether the original attic space over the ell was intended by McMurtry for future expansion. At the time of its listing, the dwelling was about to undergo restoration for use as an office, which has been its role since that time.

When I walked by the other day, I noticed that the business sign out front was gone, and the parking lot empty. Many of McMurtry’s works are no longer with us, so I only hope that this example, designed so lovingly by McMurtry (and personalized to meet the needs of his daughter and her family) will remain in good use for decades to come. I know I would love to have it as my office (the Gardens to Gables budget, alas, is an imaginary one, so that won’t happen).

The rear elevation circa 1982. Image from the National Register of Historic Places files.


*Walter Langsam, Thomas B. Watkins House, Nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, 1982. Section 8, page 1.



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5 Thoughts on “Back(stories): The Thomas B. Watkins House, Lexington, Kentucky

  1. Bob mcwilliams on September 19, 2017 at 10:59 am said:

    Where is this house ?

  2. Tom Richardson on September 19, 2017 at 11:32 am said:

    I have loved that house since a child when we passed it regularly while doing business at nearby tobacco warehouses and the old Clay Wachs Stockyards nearby. I well remember when Broadway at this point was a two lane with center turn lanes and this home sat well back from both Broadway and Viginia Ave on a large, wooded lot. Remembering back I recall that this was part of an early effort in Lex where blocks were revitalized for new uses. There was an additional row of Victorian era homes on the same side of Broadway across Virginia Ave that were renovated around the same time. Alas, they were destroyed for the Shell gas station that now occupies their spot. I hope that this home can hang on its corner and find new uses!! Thanks for the story. I was totally unaware of the McMurty connection

    • Janie-Rice Brother on September 19, 2017 at 11:40 am said:

      Thanks for reading! That area of town has changed so much – I don’t recall it as being any way except how it is now, sadly. I sure wish someone had been taking photographs of the streetscapes 20-20 years ago…I actually found a photo of the Watkins House that shows one of the houses there where the gas station is – I am going to share it on the Gardens to Gables Facebook page on Thursday.

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