Cynthiana’s Handy House: The Complications of Preservation

I first visited the Handy House in Cynthiana, Kentucky, on a sunny and mild day in February 2005. It wasn’t, at first glance, a straightforward building. Like a frothy wedding cake, the house presented multiple layers of stories, people, and varying ideas of style and taste. My first rule of historic preservation? No historic building is static and no historic buildings survive without change. Every person who inhabits a space, and uses a building – changes it.

Facade of the Handy House

Facade of the Handy House

The Handy House illustrates one of the main problems the historic preservation community has in communicating significance and importance of buildings to the general public. Visible changes make a building harder to comprehend – and sometimes those changes result in an overall form that simply isn’t pretty.

The first story, and the core of the Handy House, is a brick, Federal style building – the first nationally popular architectural style represented in Kentucky. Colonel William Brown had the house built in the 1820s, and it was a stylish central passage, double pile house on a stone foundation. The façade, or the front of the house, is laid in Flemish bond, which in addition to being an attractive way to lay bricks, is also an expensive way to construct a wall – so the house announced the wealth and status of its owner just through the way the bricks were arranged. In the late-19th century, W.T. Handy purchased the farm and remodeled the house, adding the wood-shingled second story and the cupola. Handy was well-known horseman and breeder of trotters; local lore suggests he added the cupola for better views of the farm and his horses.

Doorway on west elevation of house

Doorway on west elevation of house

I’ve loved historic buildings since I was a little girl, but as an adult, I look at buildings very differently than most people. My mind automatically deconstructs the overall form, taking in the materials, the stylistic details, and the changes, both separately and as a whole. Beyond the issue of whether the Handy House should be preserved – and I think it should be – the building symbolizes some of the struggles that preservationists face. What do you do when a historic building isn’t aesthetically pleasing? How do you deal with changes to a building over time? Can preservation of a historic building be reconciled with the functionality of that building?

As a former staff member of the KHC, who met with officials and community members many times about the Handy House, I am saddened that the struggles to save the Handy House continue. But the story of the Handy House, the people who love it and the questions about its survival are not unique. Over the next week, I’ll explore some of the typical preservation challenges that the Handy House exemplifies – issues that are not confined to the Bluegrass, or even this side of the Atlantic.

handy house 3

The interior of the Handy House is remarkably intact, displaying the blend of transitional Federal/Greek Revival woodwork not uncommon in substantial houses in the Bluegrass from the 1820s and 1830s.

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  1. I like to see buildings preserved, but it wouldn’t hurt my feelings to see that addition to the side removed. It just doesn’t fit.

  2. Fascinating! As I delve more and more into my ancestry, I find myself becoming interested in the architecture of various periods as well, and as a complete novice, I value so much the time and care it takes to write articles like this and inform those of us who have very little grounding in such architectural structure and history. I thought the information about the Flemish bond brickwork particularly interesting. Now I have to go find out what separates that from other kinds of bricklaying!

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Thanks so much for reading! I’ve been doing this for a few years now, and am still pretty much a novice. There are some “rules” in architecture – but most people break them, which is what makes vernacular architecture so fascinating (and hard to understand sometimes…).

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