It’s nearly impossible to stay abreast of all of the changes to Lexington’s historic neighborhoods – demolitions, new construction, and remodelings that transform (for better or worse) the exterior visage of a building – small, minute changes occur everyday that can slowly enhance or erode the character of a place. Dramatic change sometimes happens in the busiest of locations, and yet causes hardly a stir.
The razing of several buildings on Winchester Road and Detroit Avenue, on Lexington’s east side, may have been noticed by motorists filling up at the adjacent Speedway, but I doubt anyone will be stirred to write a eulogy for the radical alteration at this site. Four houses were demolished, one on Winchester Road that had been converted to a business, and three fronting on Detroit Avenue. These weren’t big houses, or fancy houses, or houses that were once home to wealthy and influential people. The early 20th century working class neighborhood began as a “suburban” development christened Liberty Heights.
In March 1920, the Liberty Land Syndicate, headed up by real estate broker C. K. Oldham, purchased 157 acres on the outskirts of Lexington, on the new Liberty Pike. The “old Preston place,” as the parcel was known, lay between Liberty Pike (today’s Liberty Road) and the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.
Lots began to be sold for this new “suburban residential subdivision” later in the spring 1920, and appear to have traded hands several times before houses began to be constructed. Oldham divided the parcel into 5 and 10 acre plots, which were then sold, further subdivided, and sold again. The McCormick Lumber Company bought some of these larger tracts, and sold 44 building lots in May 1920 from between $300 and $800 apiece.
A public auction of lots followed in June 1920, and soon, the former farmland began to sprout tidy frame houses, most built in the Craftsman style so popular at the time, with others following in an older vernacular pattern, that of the one-story frame T-plan. The neighborhood was compact, with lots a little larger than a tenth of an acre.
The residents of Liberty Heights, by and large, were able to walk to work. Blanding Hensley and his wife Pauline lived at 912 Detroit Avenue (one of the dwellings torn down) in 1930, and he had only a brief stroll to his place of employment, Lexington Dairy Inc, located on National Avenue.
Richard Treadway, a carpenter, and his wife Mabel lived at 922 Detroit. Their next door neighbor, Strother Breeze, was an auto mechanic. The city limits for Lexington straddled the property line between Treadway’s house and Breezes’s – so one family lived “in town” and the other lived in the county.
Other residents included the janitor at Ashland School (located nearby on North Ashland Avenue), workers for the C&O Railroad, and mechanics at car dealerships along Winchester Road. In 1940, half of the homes on the street were owner occupied, and 10 households had phones (as a point of reference, there were 14, 608 telephones in service in Lexington in 1940 for a population of almost 50,000).
I knew none of the background of Liberty Heights as I filled my car up with gas a few weeks ago, and my gaze settled on a small, front gable green bungalow at 922 Detroit Avenue. I am a fan of the bungalow, and although its deconstruction was evident, the clean lines, shingles in the gable, and compact little front porch (accented with dentils) appealed to me. Only then did my awareness extend to the torn-up earth beside the house, and the scars left from the demolition of its neighbors.
Winchester Road lacks a certain cohesiveness and aesthetic appeal – as an entryway into Lexington, it’s not one you would write home about. I’m fond of it, but that owes itself to familiarity, and the fact that US 60 holds a special place in my heart. So I’m not surprised that I heard nothing about the demolition of these modest homes (even through the fog of caring for a newborn).
The people speeding past each day on this heavily-trafficked vehicular route aren’t looking at what they consider a historic neighborhood. Historic districts, where concerted efforts from a multitude of players over the years resulted in preservation and appreciation of the buildings therein, tend to consist of a collection of larger buildings, on larger lots, built for people with larger pocketbooks. A working class suburb developed on the fringes of town in the 1920s, near the railroad and industrial interests, simply doesn’t rouse the interest of most.
But it is these neighborhoods that help tell a richer story of the development of Lexington – and that provide affordable housing well within the city limits (and New Circle Road). The reinvention of National Avenue and increasingly Delaware Avenue makes me wonder if Liberty Heights will benefit from the renewed interest in this part of Lexington, or if the opportunity to redevelop the land closest to Winchester Road will signal the death knell of the neighborhood.
It is the sort of neighborhood being espoused in new developments – densely built, with sidewalks and front porches, constructed on the foundation of “live where you work.” Only time will tell the eventual story of Liberty Heights in the 21st century – and you never know what sort of story you will find when you stop to put gas in your car.