Gardens to Gables

Demolition in Danville: The Long Slow Fade of an Antebellum Beauty

When I was a student at Centre College, I focused more on English literature (and some other less noble and spirited pursuits) than the landscape around me. But I remember a stark two-story brick house, near Duke’s Laundry on South Fourth Street (for $5, they would wash, dry, and fold an overflowing basket of laundry). A small trailer park clustered around it, and a water tower cast its shadow on the gable roof. The house, with its Dorico portico, was incongruous in its setting.

The large tetrastyle Doric Portico of the Fisher-Byington House in Danville, Kentucky.

The large tetrastyle Doric Portico of the Fisher-Byington House in Danville, Kentucky.

When I read about the application for demolition for the Greek Revival dwelling, I groaned – but I wasn’t altogether surprised. Its fate was likely sealed years ago, as the land around it was parceled off, changed use, and owner occupancy of the central passage, double pile dwelling was but a memory. The indignity of what was once such an impressive dwelling being razed to make way for self-storage units is – well – staggering.

in 1976, when the house was included in county-wide survey of Boyle County, it was occupied, but noted as being only in a "fair" condition.

In 1976, when the house was included in county-wide survey of Boyle County, it was occupied, but noted as being only in a “fair” condition.

Constructed in the mid-1840s, the dwelling was designed and built by Robert Russell, Jr.,  a regional builder/architect in the same vein as John McMurtry (though not, perhaps, as imaginative or well-known). Russel belonged to a family of builders, and his specialty seems to be large brick houses with columns, including Old Centre at my alma mater and the McClure-Barbee House, located north of the Fisher-Byington House on Fourth Street.

The landscape around the threatened house has changed dramatically in the 20th century. Image from Bing aerial maps.

The landscape around the threatened house has changed dramatically in the 20th century. Image from Bing aerial maps.

During my stop at the house in 2014, I noticed that the ell (an addition extending to to the rear of the main block of the house) was in pretty bad condition, but the house appeared solid. The oft-cited adage “they don’t built them like they used to” could be well applied in this case. I somewhat doubt that $1 million would be the price to address the reported structural and engineering repairs, but too often in cases like this, both sides can adjust the numbers to fit their argument. And many engineers don’t have experience working with 1840s buildings.

Detail of the central doors on the first and second stories of the facade.

Detail of the central doors on the first and second stories of the facade.

I didn’t venture inside, but I imagine there has been moisture infiltration over the years, though all of the mortar joints on the house looked solid, and there was no obvious damage to the asphalt shingle roof. No, I think the real issue is perception, the immediate environment, and the complacency which allowed the property to advance to this stage. Property rights are paramount in the Commonwealth, and despite its architectural heritage  and notable residents, the fate of the Fisher-Byington House was sealed years and years ago.

A view inside through one of the original double-hung, 6/6 sash windows.

A view inside through one of the original double-hung, 6/6 sash windows.

I cross my fingers with other lovers of history and preservation when I hear gloomy news like this – but my practical side knows that some battles simply can’t be won. Would an adaptive reuse of this still lovely house be possible? Of course! I can see the a mixed-use future for the Fsher-Byington House – an office on the first floor, and an apartment (with large, light-filled rooms) on the second. But there has to be a will and the matching funds to make that happen.

A view of the gable end of the house.

A view of the gable end of the house. The ell has suffered the most damage.

My best hope is that the Danville Planning and Zoning Commission, should they grant the demolition permit, will require the owner to complete state-level documentation, by a qualified preservation professional (including measured drawings and development of a historic context for the house and surrounding area) on the building. And that there will be no next time for Danville – that should this sad story play out the way it seems likely to, that residents and leaders will realize that this community deserves more than additional self-storage buildings. My mother always said I decided to go to Centre because of the amazing old homes I saw on the way there and back – a landscape that has inspired me ever since. Self-storage buildings? They don’t rate at all on the inspiration scale. And Danville should demand better.

 

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21 Thoughts on “Demolition in Danville: The Long Slow Fade of an Antebellum Beauty

  1. Old Thompson Farm on November 10, 2015 at 9:24 am said:

    This is so sad. Houses today will not stand the test of time like this one did.

  2. IF full-on archaeology is not possible, It would also be great to at least rescue metallic artifacts in the area with a metal detecting survey before development progresses. I’m certified for this and familiar with documenting these types of properties. If anyone has connections that might make this possible, pls email.

  3. Kristen J on November 10, 2015 at 2:49 pm said:

    This just makes my heart sad. It is a stunning house. I hope they document it well and salvage all they can if it is demolished.

  4. Shannon Devine Tomlinson on November 10, 2015 at 4:25 pm said:

    I am also a Centre alumni. My decision to go to Centre was affirmed when I laid eyes on Old Centre. I am currently renovating (extensively) a home built in the 1840’s. My home in Walton, Kentucky is almost identical to the home featured in this article. Do you happen to know the current owner of the house in Danville? I would love to recover architectural features from this home to aid in my renovation. It is virtually impossible to buy these items new!
    Thanks,
    Shannon Tomlinson

    • Janie-Rice Brother on November 11, 2015 at 9:06 am said:

      Right now, all I know is what was in the local news story: “After listening to Feistritzer’s pitch for the zone change and pleas from local preservationists who want to save the structure, P&Z commissioners decided to table the matter until its Dec. 2 meeting to gather more information.” There is nothing to stop the current owner from razing the house right now – I do hope that the owner will work with the city on either a new use or, at the very least, proper documentation of the house before any interior finishes are removed. I am all for the reuse of building elements but the house should be documented prior to their removal – items like baseboards, doors, mantels, etc. are invaluable to the architectural historian in establishing context for the dwelling and its interior finishes. When and if I know anything about plans for the house, I will post an update. Thanks for reading!

  5. These old houses can be restored only problem is the cost if the owner can get the house as a historical landmark then they can apply for a grant to get it restored. My dad cousin has a historical landmark home and was able to get a grant to have it restored. Just need to do the research.

    • Janie-Rice Brother on November 11, 2015 at 9:18 am said:

      Ruth, Thanks for reading! Unfortunately, in Kentucky, there are no grants available for restoration of historic buildings. There are historic tax credits available for both owner-occupied and income-producing properties, but unless local governments have funds available, there are no grants.

  6. I Hope that the Danville Planning and Zoning Commission will take into consideration that allowing this historic home to be destroyed will rob it from all future generations to enjoy. You can’t rebuild a 170 year-old building, and historians will want to know who were the people responsible for the destruction of such a grand structure that had survived for so many generations. It is my hope that this relic will at least be stablized until someone comes along with the will and resources to revive it. Places like this, that connect us to the past and let our imaginations run wild, are fading fast.

    • Janie-Rice Brother on November 12, 2015 at 8:48 am said:

      I hope so too. My fear is that this parcel has been ignored by the community for so long that the current owners feel justified in valuing the land beneath the house more valuable than the house itself. I loathe self-storage units…

  7. Bush Nichols on November 12, 2015 at 8:10 am said:

    Having grown up in Danville, I find it very sad. I’d forgotten all about that property.

  8. Rogers Barde on November 12, 2015 at 3:33 pm said:

    I’m sorry when any significant building is lost, but it is true that we can’t save everything. I would like to save everything, but I don’t have the resources, and there it is. I hope the best possible outcome is what can happen.

  9. Jan Binder on November 17, 2015 at 7:31 am said:

    The city…the state…each and every citizen should get behind the protection and preservation of this wonderful old house….We went to the auction and got to walk through. The visions of what it once was and what it could be again kept me stirred up for a while! My hope was that the person who bought it would really do a restoration but…. I’ve watched, as it’s sat seemingly untouched except by weather, yet again! I envision it being a wonderful restaurant with patio seating in back and ample parking. It might be our last great chance to have something as grand as this for Danville….Something we can turn to for Prom, weddings, special family gatherings, convention dinners…..and simply nice everyday luncheons and dinners…..Let’s not let it slip away again!

  10. Nancy Davis on January 11, 2016 at 6:00 am said:

    Totally disgusting to think that someone would destroy this home and build storage units on this property !

  11. kitty stokes on January 12, 2016 at 10:17 am said:

    i would be its caretaker and take care of it, give it some tlc and live in it. it has to be built better than these modern brick boxes we see today with no character.

  12. Alley on March 7, 2016 at 8:35 am said:

    Sadly, this home was demolished this week.

    • I hope that some of the fireplaces, base-boards, doors, and other beautiful fixtures were saved before the home was demolished.

      • Janie-Rice Brother on October 8, 2016 at 11:00 am said:

        I am not sure what, if anything, was salvaged from the house (unfortunately). Even the joists and bricks could have been reused rather than ending up in a landfill.

  13. Robert Cumming on June 24, 2016 at 7:52 am said:

    Pave paradise and put up a parking lot (er storage unit)!

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