Obituary for the Lost: The Judge John Boyle House, Danville, Kentucky

I typically don’t like to write about buildings I’ve never seen in person – the experience of cataloging a house in my head as my eyes dart over its various components, and walking through its rooms, imbues a meaning that goes far beyond the facade (and what can be seen in a photograph). That said, the demolition I read about this past weekend encourages a bending of my personal guidelines on this issue. The Judge John Boyle House, constructed around 1815, ended up a pile of rubble recently, making way for a new house to be built on its site.

The facade of the Federal-style central passage, double pile dwelling. NRHP File Photo, 1980.

Now, I’m a native Kentuckian. I’m a native rural Kentuckian, who grew up on a farm, in a county with no zoning outside of the county seat. Property rights are sacrosanct in rural Kentucky – and I am well-versed in how dearly they are held. But seriously? Really? In the age of reclaimed lumber being labeled as “sexy” and HGTV shows promoting the “redo” of older homes, the only possible venue for the property owners was to invite the bulldozer to the party?

The entryway, with double doors topped by an elliptical arch fanlight, and flanked by two-light sidelights. NRHP file photo, 1980.

The Boyle Landmark Trust waged a valiant effort to persuade the owners to not demolish the house. But, as my regular readers know, being listed in the National Register of Historic Places does not place any restrictions on private property owners.

And since demolition permits in Boyle County do not carry a waiting period  – assuming that demolition permits are even required outside of the city limits – the owners’ desire to have just the building site they wanted faced no impediment. So the 200-year old house, home of one of Kentucky’s “most distinguished lawyers and politicians” and the fellow for which the county is named, returned to the earth from which its bricks were fired.

Was the Boyle House worth saving because of Judge Boyle? I don’t know. What I do know is that this story is all too common in Kentucky, and it is the worst kind of waste. Will the home built to “replace” the Boyle House still be standing in 200 years? Based on my knowledge of modern construction standards, and I know a fair bit about the industry, I would venture a definitive no.

One of the facade windows. NRHP File Photo, 1980.

Does this story make you angry? Sad? Sick to your stomach? Then do something – join a local preservation organization, encourage your local elected officials to consider demolition stays on historic properties of a certain age,* become an advocate for Kentucky’s historic places and buildings.

And I am going to look into what it would take to form a Preservation SWAT Team – trained architectural historians who could go into a building, and in a day, document the physical structure, then conduct the research to tell the rest of the story of that resource. This, of course, depends on  the owners letting the SWAT team have access to the site – the sort of documentation that lasts can’t be done while trespassing.

The compiled documentation might not result in saving a threatened building, but it would preserve a better record of it than we have of the Judge John Boyle House, or countless other demolished buildings across Kentucky. The local library would get a hard copy, and a copy would live on-line, accessible to anyone interested in the stories of the lost. Who knows? Maybe I’ll form a non-profit that you can make a donation to – and help save some vestige of our irreplaceable history.


*For example, properties over 50 years of age in Fayette County are subject to a 30-day holding period when a demolition permit is submitted, so that the property can be documented if such a study is deemed appropriate. This type of permit-associated delay could be tied to National Register listing, and could be as short as 10 days – provided that my Preservation SWAT team could swoop in and carry out the documentation in that time period.

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  1. Old Thompson Farm says:

    We need legislation that would stop this. Tie it into the Kentucky Heritage Commission. We would need to find a true preservationist to sponsor the bill and that be the hardest part. Someone that wouldn’t cave under pressure!

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      I don’t think anything would EVER pass statewide (and definitely not under this governor). And the Kentucky Heritage Council is under enough pressure just trying to keep their doors open – budget cuts have not been kind. I really do think a county by county initiative stands the best chance, and barring that, getting enough publicity to actually be able to assemble a Preservation SWAT team. I take time off work all the time to document buildings that are going down – and I don’t get paid for it. (This has gotten a bit harder to do with the baby…)

  2. Sharon Thelin says:

    I did not know there was a 30-day stay-of-execution for houses over 50 years old in Fayette County! Is this a zoning ordinance? Houses over 50 years old are being torn down all the time around here.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Sharon, I don’t know the exact wording (ie, what other parameters they use to make that call) of the stay, but it is through the Division of Historic Preservation and has been in place for years now. As a city office, of course, they can’t publicize what it is they do, but some of the houses I write about ( the little bungalows on Winchester Rd, for example) they have documented. They have no authority, though, over UK.

  3. Don Clare says:

    That truly is a sad story that angers me to the core. And in Danville, of all places! Who knows, that house may have played a role in our own Kentucky constitution! Education, education, education-still our only weapon in this war. Luckily, the battles for preservation begin at a local level and those in charge at that local level are more educable than those at state and federal level. Local history and heritage preservation is also a ‘quality-of-life’ issue and local officials need to wake up to that fact.
    Carry on. Your cause is a noble one.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Thank you Don – I am always saddened most by the lost opportunity to simply document a building – a process that in no way would impact the property owner’s ultimate decision, but would preserve a record of the building for posterity.

  4. Mary Jean Kinsman says:

    A landmarks commission, created by city or county ordinance, that can designate properties as historic might help. But, as we have seen in Louisville, the governing body (in this case Metro Council) can override a landmark designation! Unfortunately, preservation is not a high priority here for this administration! Makes me sad. Too bad about the Boyle house!

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      And sadly, while Danville DOES have a preservation ordinance, and a review board, it is only within a certain area of downtown Danville. The real problem is in our rural areas (which is most of Kentucky).

  5. patricia clark says:

    another very sad event

  6. Joberta Wells says:

    This makes me sick and sad!!!!

  7. Cheryl Ashida says:

    It’s sad there are no laws to protect properties on the National Register. There certainly should be! It’s a shame that so many properties in Danville are torn down. I wish it could be stopped. Renovation over demolition!!!

  8. David Ames says:

    Ready for the SWAT team to photograph and get in HABS collection. Documentation the most basic preservation.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      We need to have lunch and discuss!

  9. Robert Thompson says:

    The owner of the Boyle House graciously allowed my mother and me to tour the first floor of the home before demolition. It was in poor condition but oh so amazing! The woodwork in the home was breathtaking……along with the Federal style throughout. So sad. Its gone forever.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      I am glad you got to see it. I only wish some HABS-quality photographs had been taken and measured floor plans made prior to demolition. At least then it would live on in an archival form.

  10. Eileen Starr says:

    Just found this in my inbox. I hope there was some sort of salvage of architectural details of the house although that is a very lame substitute for the actual building. When I worked at a SHPO in the West and demolition occurred, we would put on Queen and sing Another One Bites the Dust. It was a lovely building….

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      I fervently hope there was some salvage, but I don’t know if that happened…

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