One of my favorite daydreams – and mental exercises – involves the possibility of time travel. Should I be hurtled back into Kentucky’s history, would I be able to find my way around, using landmarks to chart my path? I always wonder if I would recognize our family farm circa 1860 or so (I never go too far back in time). Instant disorientation would likely result if I ended up in Lexington in the early 19th century, a time celebrated as the Inner Bluegrass town’s halcyon days, when it bore the moniker of “Athens of the West.” The street network, in places, might be familiar – but the built landscape? My imagination scarcely can conjure how different the routes I travel every day would look. I was reminded of the changes wrought by building and rebuilding earlier this week, as I photographed two historic houses in downtown Lexington that will shortly be reduced to piles of rubble.
The Gothic Revival house in the foreground of the above photo has long been a sentimental favorite of mine, a small gem tucked away on a street beset by empty lots, surface parking lots, aesthetically clueless apartment buildings, and a handful of other historic houses somehow managing to elude the rapacious property developers. The University of Kentucky’s influence is strongly felt on this street.
It is, by virtue of its yellow-painted masonry and proportions (its builder was influenced by both the Gothic Revival and Italianate styles), a cheery and charming dwelling, that should be tucked away behind an English garden and picket fence. It has housed numerous occupants over the decades: professors at the University of Kentucky (Jefferson R. Potter), a horse trainer (Thomas Snedaker), a future Mayor of Lexington (J. Ernest Cassidy), and scores of businessman, who could walk home to their families after leaving the central business district downtown each night.
I’d never paid too much attention to its neighbor, other than to groan at the modern tumor affixed to the rear of the masonry portion fronting on Lexington Avenue – student housing inelegantly slapped onto yet another historic building. The profile and footprint was puzzling, but little did I guess the ghosts that lurked underneath the modern vinyl travesty. Just traces of it remain, but it was once a boxy Greek Revival dwelling with a “grandiose” portico, home to Joel Higgins, who acquired the property in 1834. The only recognizable element left of what was known as the “Higgins Mansion” (does that huge vinyl box contain the original central portion of the house?) is the gable end of the house, which originally faced High Street.
The dwelling began as a “primitive house,” according to Clay Lancaster, built sometime prior to 1826 for Elijah Smith. After Joel Higgins, who transformed (well, at least he paid for it) the house died, his widow retained the house until 1867. The land around the Higgins Mansion (this was the “official” name of the house – 1838-1839 McCabe Directory for the city of Lexington, the house is listed in that fashion – the only house in Lexington to receive such an “ennobling designation”) was platted by developer William Lowry in 1887.
Several years ago, a local developer put a number of houses in this area of Lexington on the market, to be purchased all together. The cost was staggering, and I imagine that no regular person could afford to buy the Gothic Revival cottage from the developers – the land underneath is simply too valuable for what it could hold – a large, likely ugly, student monstrosity. With all of the new construction on the University of Kentucky’s campus, in addition to the private development of the south side of town, I wonder if the pressure will ever be lifted off of the Aylesford Neighborhood? Lexington Avenue was originally part of the area proposed for the Aylesford Historic District; when the H-1 overlay was approved, however, Rose Street formed the western boundary, likely due to landlords opposing the zoning change.
There is then, no recourse to this demolition. These two houses will fall, joining the ranks of other obliterated pieces of Lexington’s past. The Higgins Mansion, unfortunately, was subjected to cruel, cruel treatment years ago, and recovering its original form might prove impossible. Its small neighbor, however, would make a perfect single family home for a professional wanting to live in downtown Lexington – but that is not the property’s perceived highest value. I wish their the demise of these houses, like the burning of the phoenix, would give birth to something lovely, inspiring, and worthy of the loss. I find unlikely, though, that 50 years from now, anyone will be writing with sentiment about the building that displaced the Higgins Mansion on Lexington Avenue.