Gardens to Gables

The Clamor of the Wrecking Ball: Two Historic Houses Fall on Lexington Avenue in Lexington, Kentucky

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.

Looking southwest down Lexington Avenue between High and Maxwell Streets at the houses scheduled to be demolished this week.

Looking southwest down Lexington Avenue between High and Maxwell Streets at the houses scheduled to be demolished this week.

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.

The brick house at 256 Lexington Avenue was built between 1871 and 1887.

The brick house at 256 Lexington Avenue was built between 1871 and 1887.

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.

The Higgins Mansion, it s transformation underway. Box 2, Item 157, Carolyn Murray-Wooley collection on Lexington, Kentucky residential architecture, University of Kentucky, undated photograph

The Higgins Mansion. Box 2, Item 157, Carolyn Murray-Wooley collection on Lexington, Kentucky residential architecture, University of Kentucky, undated photograph.

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 remnants of the Higgins Mansion at 256 Lexington Avenue.

The remnants of the Higgins Mansion at 256 Lexington Avenue. The two-bay brick portion (with all of the electric boxes) was once the end of the facade of the house.

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.

A section of the 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Lexington, showing the Higgins Mansion, still in the middle of a sizable parcel.

A section of the 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Lexington, showing the Higgins Mansion, still in the middle of a sizable parcel.

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.

The Higgins Mansion, prior to its slow slide into architectural muddling. Slide from the Clay Lancaster Slide Collection, University of Kentucky, 1979.

The Higgins Mansion, prior to its descent into ignominy . Slide from the Clay Lancaster Slide Collection, University of Kentucky, 1979.

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.

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9 Thoughts on “The Clamor of the Wrecking Ball: Two Historic Houses Fall on Lexington Avenue in Lexington, Kentucky

  1. So enjoy your articles. We once owned the brick house on main st in Millersburg . Sold it on 1995 and it is now in terrible fix and the owner will not sell or fix it. He claimed and the state went alngvwithbhim. stupid. That there was benzen under the house . Of course he dug in the hard clay underneath. We reared. 2 daughters there forc20 yrs and problem. Would love to tell you more. Call if interesef

  2. Jayne Neville on June 10, 2016 at 1:48 am said:

    What a cute little yellow house. So sad that it has to fall in the name of “progress”. I wish the university would consider repurposing it as a location for a campus organization, a facility for meetings, or a hotel of sorts for visiting faculty. So many alternatives to demolition.

  3. ginny daley on June 10, 2016 at 7:30 am said:

    These properties are not owned by UK, but by a private developer, who won approval for his over-scaled development handily. There were a few dissenters, but not enough to convince the Planning Commission , nor to rally an appeal to Council. BGT and the local HP office were interested in voicing an opinion. Sigh. BTW these properties, while not part of a local H-1 district, are contributing properties in a National Register District.

    • Janie-Rice Brother on June 10, 2016 at 8:50 am said:

      Sadly, many parts of Aylesford have been given up on. Actually, the Higgins Mansion was deemed a non-contributing resource in the Southeast Lexington NRHP District, because of the severe modifications.

    • Hayward Wilkirson on June 10, 2016 at 9:46 am said:

      Ginny, have you seen plans for the development? I would love to see and publish the plans. I would love to think that what was replacing this house was of some architectural significance, but I suspect that is not the case.

  4. ginny daley on June 10, 2016 at 2:43 pm said:

    My bad on the contribution of Higgins to the NR. I was repeating what I heard and probably mis-remembered that. And I meant to say that BGT and HP Dept were NOT interested in getting involved in this. So Hayward, here’s a link to the development plan on the LFUCG Planning website: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0aBvWAKyfxaOTdhUGQ4Rll6Tms/view?pref=2&pli=1 But the devil’s in the details and they are bad. He asked for several variances to override setbacks and parking requirements. In short, this development will set an unhealthy precedent for future development in the area. And that will surely change the character of the neighborhood.

  5. Local History on June 11, 2016 at 1:01 am said:

    My great uncle, Pierce Cammack, lived (and died) in the little yellow house at 256 Lexington in the 1950s. I had no idea it was slated for demolition! I will have to make it down there this weekend.

  6. I imagine if anyone witnessed the demolition of the Higgins Mansion, they would find that as the vinyl came off, the Greek Revival would reappear. The elevation shown in your photograph is the filled-in portico, so the vinyl and cheap windows were just obscuring what was originally brick columns and open space. Since apartment conversions are rarely done with any more effort or expense than necessary, all the brickwork was likely underneath the vinyl. Occasionally, even exterior and interior details are spared in the conversion, again through laziness and cheapness. Unless someone was watching the demolition, we will probably never know what historic fabric remained. Like I said, I would put my money on there being substantially more than most people would realize.

    I just “discovered” this interesting blog. Keep up the great writing, as we need more great historic preservation blogs (and more historic preservation, period).

    • Janie-Rice Brother on June 21, 2016 at 11:52 am said:

      Thanks for reading! I found out after I published the post that the original brick posts of the portico are still intact – so yes, you are right on with your theory. It would be amazing to see the house “deconstructed” slowly, to see the layers of changed peeled off. Better yet that it wouldn’t be torn down, but I know better than to hold my breath…

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