Gardens to Gables

The Uncertain Fate of Carnahan House at Coldstream Farm

Years before a farm on the northern side of Lexington, Kentucky, was billed as the University of Kentucky’s “premier business location in the heart of the world-famous Kentucky Bluegrass Region,” it was a storied horse farm “where thoroughbred Derby winners were raised for many years.” In between these two seemingly disparate roles, Coldstream Farm served the research needs of the College of Agriculture.  The news that another hotel is scheduled to be built at what is now known as Coldstream Research Park made me wonder (again) uneasily about Carnahan House, the vacant historic dwelling at the heart of the farm.

The facade of Carnahan House.

The 2.5 story, yellow brick, Colonial Revival dwelling was built in 1918. Stylistically, it would look familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the Revival styles prevalent in the Ashland Park Historic District, which was developed in the early 20th century on what used to be Henry Clay’s farm.

The distinctive hipped, red  tile roof of the sprawling house shelters the 22 rooms that were once elegant and expensively outfitted. The dwelling was the embodiment of the prestige and success of Coldstream Farm.

Peeking through a window at the interior of Carnahan House –  no longer well-maintained, but full of crumbling plaster amidst detailed woodwork.

At the time of the construction of the house in 1918, the 814-acre farm was owned by C. B. Shaffer of Chicago, the executive Vice President of General Motors Corporation. Shaffer set about purchasing additional tracts, adding the historic McGrathiana Farm to his acreage, and christening the entire spread Coldstream.

The winner of the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, Aristides.

As with many large farms in Central Kentucky, Coldstream is comprised of many parcels knitted together – and one of those farms bred the first Kentucky Derby winner – a horse guided to victory by his African American jockey, Oliver Lewis.

An aerial view of Coldstream Farm in 1965. The view is a little different now…

Shaffer’s son continued operating Coldstream Farm; in the 1940s the stud operation and the racing arm of the farm encompassed almost 1,900 acres.

But by the 1950s, the University of Kentucky, seeking to acquire more land as it built out its campus and developed what had been one of its research farms (located where UK Hospital now seemingly grows overnight), purchased Coldstream Farm.

The semi-circular room on the north wing of CarnahanHouse.

James William Carnahan, a native of Knox County, Kentucky, and UK alum, provided the funds for UK’s first renovation of Carnahan House in the late 1950s. The house was named in his honor, and became the University’s alumni clubhouse.

James W. Carnahan and UK President Frank Dickey at the dedication of the renovated and re-christened historic dwelling in 1958.

In 2011, John Taylor Shelton, a UK  graduate student in Geography finished his thesis, entitled Constructing Coldstream: Sustainability and the Politics of Local Economic Development.

I stumbled upon it while trying to glean any bits about the use of the farm since UK became its owner in the mid-20th century. It is a well-researched and fascinating look at not only the trajectory of Coldstream, but the expectations and challenges for research universities involved in economic development.

Carnahan House, facing west.

One thing becomes clear in Shelton’s work: the use of Coldstream Farm – and its purchase – has been contentious for well over 50 years. In an editorial published on September 8, 1959, the Louisville Courier-Journal chided UK for focusing too much on real-estate transactions and deals and not enough on “adequate classroom facilities for university students.” (The more things change…)

In the late 1980s, UK declared that Coldstream could no longer meet the needs of the College of Agriculture – that “the encroachment of urban development and the deterioration of the soil have affected the research value of the property.”*

One of the barns at Coldstream Farm, likely from the 1920s. Image from the Louis Edward Nollau Nitrate Photographic Print Collection at the University of Kentucky.

I find this explanation fascinating and ludicrous. It seems that a land-grant university would jump at the chance to improve the soil of its research farm – doesn’t that fit with the hands-on experience needed by students? The tending of the soil is one of the main concerns of the farmer, after all, and working on such a famous plot of land seems tailor made for a College of Agriculture.

As Shelton’s thesis points out, the validity of the claim of the “deterioration of the soil” was called into question by a UK faculty member, who pointed out that it lacked a scientific basis and was “largely a way to silence potential critics of the university’s development plans.”**

An undated postcard showing Carnahan House. The text on the back of the card reads: “Carnahan House now provides complete conference accommodations in a setting rich in beauty and history for the University’s continuing education programs.”

It wasn’t just tenured faculty members or members of the press crying foul over UK’s decision to abandon the farm in Coldstream Farm. A.B. “Happy” Chandler, who helped guide UK’s purchase of the farm during his second term as Kentucky governor, proclaimed “I didn’t give [Coldstream] to [the University of Kentucky] to turn it into a subdivision or mall.”***

The rear elevation of Carnahan House.

And Coldstream Farm almost became a mall in the late 1980s – many members of UK’s Board of Trustees supported this outcome, seeing it as the best use of the property.

It’s ironic that the fertile soil of the Inner Bluegrass and former horse farms excel at growing shopping malls and residential development.

But plans for the shopping mall were nixed, and instead, a research park was deemed the best use of Coldstream Farm.  In 1990, the first tenant of the research park was announced, and stilted development has followed ever since.

Looking down what was once the front yard of Carnahan House, toward Newtown Pike.

But what about Carnahan House?

In 2011-2012,  UK issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) seeking a mixed-use development plan for Coldstream – a RFP that apparently included the renovation of Carnahan House. That plan either never materialized or simply fizzled.

Garage at Carnahan House.

Carnahan House, removed as it is from the University of Kentucky campus, tends to slide under the radar, while the research park around it is more widely debated and discussed.

In 2014, the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation included Carnahan House on its Eleven Endangered List – a list comprised solely of historic buildings owned by the University of Kentucky.  To no one’s surprise, five of those buildings were demolished soon after the publication of the list.

The entry door at Carnahan House.

The idea of a multi-use development cropped up again this spring – but no mention of the historic house tucked away at Coldstream. The University, as a state institution, isn’t subject to local regulations governing the demolition of historic buildings (the city’s Division of HIstoric Preservation can put a 30-day stay on demolition so that the building can be documented prior to being lost forever), and has a tendency to go quietly about its tearing down of buildings.

Angus cattle being inspected by local farmers at Coldstream Farm in 1958. Image from the University of Kentucky General Photographic Prints.

Coldstream Farm operated as a UK research farm for nearly 30 years. And for almost 30 years since its soil was deemed unfit, no consensus seems to have been reached about what Coldstream should be, and what exactly UK should or could be doing with what is a very valuable property.

I don’t kid myself that UK cares at all for what it once touted as a “setting rich in beauty and history,” but it does seem that someone would see some inherent value in the stately Carnahan House. Perhaps it is an albatross for an institution that prefers to divest its acreage of historic resources, but could it not be sold to someone with a plan to actually use the building?

We all know the farm in Coldstream is dead. There’s no reason that Carnahan House needs to be knocked into a pile of rubble. If it doesn’t meet the University’s mission and support education and research – then perhaps UK should divest itself of the house and let someone with imagination and vision transform it into a working, functional showplace once more.




*John Taylor Shelton, Constructing Coldstream: Sustainability and the Politics of Local Economic Development (2011). University of Kentucky Master’s Theses, 23.


***Ibid, 25.

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7 Thoughts on “The Uncertain Fate of Carnahan House at Coldstream Farm

  1. Annie Jaech on October 9, 2017 at 12:08 pm said:

    Thank you, Janey, for an evocative piece. Most old homes look deserted; but here, I can see the bustle of the hostess and the earnestness of the stockmen.

  2. Let’s submit a propsal!! Recruit co-business possibilities…seriously, I wish we COULD do something, I too live that structure and the location seems PERFECT for all kinds if things…

  3. Carolyn Kenney on October 9, 2017 at 2:31 pm said:

    Having spent the first 11 years of my life blissfully roaming those Coldstream Stud acres from dawn til dusk stirring up trouble wherever I could, I read this with a pretty heavy heart. My dad, Charlie Kenney (ably assisted by my mom Buddy), worked those same hours save for a lunch and power nap every day to help make it the success it was, with the help of Melvin Cinnamon, Shorty Anderson, Grant (“Stud”) Thomas, Francis Gravett & many others. My brothers, Charlie Bill and Shack, taught me to play pinball and have great fun on the slot machines that filled the basement of what we called “the Shaffer mansion.” Our Chesapeake Bay retriever, Coldstream, once nearly scalped me thinking I was a retrievable water fowl in the Shaffer’s huge pool down the hill near the tennis court. I would be happy to share any recollections of what became the Carnahan house as I would highly support its restoration and adaptation to a viable structure.

  4. Mary Jean Kinsman on October 9, 2017 at 7:27 pm said:

    What an interesting account of the Coldstream farm and Carnahan house.
    Sad, too. I’ve often thought that universities are great destroyers of stable (sometimes historic) neighborhoods. I remember when I was a UK student some years ago & knew the areas where the sorority and fraternity rows are now. They were streets of modest but well-kept homes, but the university continued spreading & and buying up houses and soon those neighborhoods were gone. Progress!

  5. Dan Prater on October 9, 2017 at 11:50 pm said:

    Thank you for sharing this insight into how the state’s leading public university is failing to recognize the importance of historic preservation and has such a cavalier attitude toward protection of the land.

  6. patricia clark on October 10, 2017 at 1:26 pm said:

    once again, so sad. would be happy to be part of a petition – depleted soil, indeed.

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