I am always amused by the lists released each year heralding popular baby names, and the origin of some of those choices. The practice of naming babies after famous people isn’t a trend unique to today’s pop culture obsessed world. In Kentucky, scores of children in the 1820s were christened “Henry Clay” after the Great Compromiser, who was appointed Secretary of State in 1824 by President John Quincy Adams. We have a number of Henry Clays in my family tree, so I less surprised by the name of the Henry Clay Peak House than I was by the actual form of the Gothic Revival dwelling I found in Warsaw, Kentucky.
Warsaw is a small river town, the county seat of Gallatin County in north central Kentucky. The town is itself a namesake of sorts – of a popular early 19th century novel. An enterprising river boat captain, riveted by the four-volume work Thaddeus of Warsaw (penned by Jane Porter), suggested the name after the town was chartered as Fredericksburg – and another Fredericksburg raised a stink. (The preexisting Fredericksburg was in Washington County, Kentucky.)
I’m a fan of Gothic Revival architecture and the myriad paths this style took in Kentucky – and I continue to be surprised by what I find, especially in Kentucky’s river towns. Although sharply peaked gables are a feature of the style, the gable does not typically constitute virtually all of the facade. Although there is always a precedent – and A. J. Downing, that taste-maker of Gothic Revival in this country, proposed many a front gable oriented house plan, including “The Southern County House.”
Unlike most representations of the Gothic Revival style in the Bluegrass, which are central passage I-houses, for the most part, the Henry Clay Peak House has a cruciform plan is two rooms deep. When the house went on the market in 2014, interior photos revealed a fairly intact interior.
Henry Clay Peak, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, was doing pretty well for himself when he had this house built in 1869. In the 1870 Federal Census, he was 38 years old, employed as a pharmaceutical salesman (the census entry actually reads “Selling drugs,” but I chose to interpret that as it might be classified today. Although drugs in 1870 were either often pretty powerful narcotics or quack medicines…), and he and his wife Calederica had three children.
Building in brick still cost more than building a frame house (and many Gothic Revival dwellings in Kentucky are indeed frame), so Peak made a sizable investment in his family home. He apparently only lived here until 1881 – more recently in the 20th century, the building housed the Warsaw Women’s Club.
But to return to the interesting (at least to me) gable form of the house. The only other one I recall seeing (from this same general time period) was the Isaac B. Hayden House in Lewisport, Hancock County, Kentucky (pictured above). Built around 1854, it is remarkably similar, only in a reduced size. The gable covers more of the facade, and there only two brick pilasters, but there is enough in common to make me wonder about a connection between the two river towns, and perhaps a traveling architect/builder?
My stroll through Warsaw underscored two very important personal philosophies of mine: you never know what interesting stories lurk behind a facade – and vernacular Kentucky architecture is always full of contradictions, interesting connections, and surprises!