Gardens to Gables

The Creation and Evolution of a Secret Garden in Downtown Lexington, Kentucky

The restoration of a historic building is a process of love and labor – one that has been made wildly popular by HGTV and other media outlets. I love watching a historic building come back to life – but the rebirth of the very land upon which that building rests – that is another story altogether. Last summer I was lucky enough to visit a garden reborn from the efforts of a history-loving California transplant.  As the weather veers sharply from spring back to winter in the Bluegrass, a visit to Jim McKeighen’s historic corner in the Western Suburb Historic District not only stems spring fever, but provides a snapshot of the latest chapter in an evolving story.

A profusion of blooms serve as a reminder that snow and ice will soon give way to spring...

A profusion of blooms serve as a reminder that snow and ice will soon give way to spring…

I first met McKeighen years ago, in my first foray into the world of preservation and historic landscapes. Upon learning of my ignorance of many of the lesser-trod areas of Lexington, he promptly took me on a tour around town to “expand my horizons.” Since his day job is selling real estate, he knows many stories of historic Lexington, and his love of history makes him  the perfect guardian of a property whose past he has thoroughly researched. What was once several parcels, with four dwellings and an overgrown quagmire of a yard, has been knitted together into one delightful green escape, with reminders of its history everywhere.

This section of the 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance map shows the area of the reborn garden - a space of dense urban development.

This section of the 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance map shows the area of the reborn garden – a space of dense urban development.

And the story of the main building is impressive. The 2.5-story brick corner store dates to around 1871, and was operated as a grocery by Michael Savage, who also lived in the building.* These mixed-use buildings were standard throughout Lexington in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There wasn’t much open space around the store/house, as narrow frame and brick dwellings (some of them shotgun houses), squeezed onto tight lots, clustered around it. The corner remained a grocery until the 1930s, when Dr. Harriett B. Marble, Lexington’s first female African American pharmacist, bought the property.

The corner grocery store was also home from 1935-1966, of Harriet B. Marble.

From 1935-1966, the former corner grocery store was also home to pharmacist Harriet B. Marble.

As with many changes in Lexington, this corner and its adjacent parcels experienced more change after the mid-20th century than in their first 90+ years of existence. Crime, demolitions, and neglect plagued many downtown Lexington neighborhoods. The corner grocery was divided into apartments, and it doesn’t appear that anyone with a green thumb paid the scant green space any attention. Todd Street was closed in 1985, and Georgetown Street, once a major thoroughfare (before Newtown Pike) was renamed Old Georgetown Street. The houses facing Todd Street were demolished, as was the frame shotgun fronting on Old Georgetown Street.

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A “before” photo of the garden. Photograph provided by Jim McKeighen.

In the first decade of this century, a glimmer of the coming revitalization beckoned as McKeighen began to contemplate the landscape behind the two remaining buildings, the corner store and a brick shotgun. It wasn’t a scene of pastoral delight. Four pickup trucks, in various stages of decomposition, lay prone in the back yard. McKeighen made a deal with a junkyard in Jessamine County that needed car parts, and the they hauled the trucks away. Nine truckloads of dirt were removed in the process of clearing the back yard. The brick shotgun, pictured at left in the below photo, became McKeighen’s garden house after it was stabilized.

Looking toward the rear of the brick shotgun (on left) and the corner grocery store (on right) from the garden-in-waiting. Photograph provided by Jim McKeighen.

Looking toward the rear of the brick shotgun (on left) and the corner grocery store (on right) from the garden-in-waiting. Photograph provided by Jim McKeighen.

The phased approach to rejuvenating the land, after removing the trash and grading the slope, first involved planting of much grass – and as McKeighen reflected, “I’ve slowly been removing grass ever since.” Grass isn’t the only thing to be overturned in this garden’s journey – as any farmer (or archaeologist) will tell you, turning over soil reveals remnants of those who trod the area before. Once the earth lay free of the human trash and detritus on the surface, it began to tell its secrets. Scattered across the garden now are saucers and flats teeming with glass bottles and pottery – the everyday items of earlier residents.

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Shades of green, blue, and brown bottle fragments from the garden give voice to the people who once lived in these spaces. McKeighen tries not to throw anything away he finds in the garden.

And while the Old Georgetown corridor participates in the rebirth of urban living in downtown Lexington, and adjacent Jefferson Street is described as hip and trendy, McKeighen’s gardening savvy is rooted in the oldest of traditions – the taking of cuttings and divisions from existing plants, shared by friends and family. The boxwood in his garden he started from cuttings from friends; daylilies gracing containers of all shapes and sizes have traveled all across Lexington. He tries to plant native plants whenever possible – and also drought-tolerant plants. On McKeighen’s wish list is drilling a well to supply his garden with water; in the summer, it takes an hour in the morning and at night to water everything.

Verdant green lawn, borders spilling with color, and tidy brick-edged beds have transformed this once-forgotten space.

Verdant green lawn, borders spilling with color, and tidy brick-edged beds have transformed this once-forgotten space.

While McKeighen does purchase some plants (from one dogwood, he now has four volunteers in the garden), his traditional (and smart!) gardening techniques extend to the idea of treating the space as a “slow garden.” He will let a section of the garden go dormant, and blanket it with compost to rejuvenate the soil. No pesticides are used in this garden, for ornamental flowers share the space with edible plants. The latter is a new path for McKeighen –  while he gardened in California with his mother and aunt growing up, cultivating his own food wasn’t foremost on his mind as he became an adult. And his careful and thoughtful swaths of color reflect a love of blooms, perhaps one inherited from his green thumb grandmother, Pearl,whose favorite flower was the dahlia.

Vegetables and ornamentals share space nicely in McKeighen's ever-evolving garden.

Vegetables and ornamental plants share space nicely in McKeighen’s ever-evolving garden.

His garden has evolved to include vegetables in the large groupings of plants, and blocks of color. Potatoes, onions, cucumbers, corn and tomatoes – and just last summer, his first crop of carrots. Just as McKeighen’s garden – and knowledge – has grown from a community of gardening friends, his garden is one that gives back to the community. During Lexington’s 2014 Restaurant Week,  McKeighen donated all of his tomatoes to Nick Ryan’s restaurant, who subsequently donated money to nearby Harrison Elementary.

Another perspective on the pleasing arrangement of linear beds and curving border.

Another perspective on the pleasing arrangement of linear beds and curving border.

I spent not nearly enough time in this reborn garden last summer, all the while tucking ideas away for use in my own garden, while my jaw gaped at the amount of work expended to create the harmonious enclave of color, shade, and sun.  “I never thought it was possible,” McKeighen said, of the transformation from a huddled warren of trash to the peaceful oasis he has created. In the mornings and the evenings, the garden is his stress relief. He will leave his phone inside the house, and sit in the garden for a half an hour, soaking in the respite of plants, trees, lawn, and statuary – a lovely secret garden, in the heart of downtown Lexington.

 

*Information provided by Jim McKeighen

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