Exploring Kentucky

By Katherine Tandy Brown

Between 1800 and 1850, the frontier town of Lexington experienced unprecedented growth and became known as the “Athens of the West.” During that time, many notable historians, politicians, businessmen and horsemen found homes in the Bluegrass.
The Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau is now offering the opportunity to tour four of these beautifully restored historic houses for only $15. (The usual admission ranges from $7 to $9 per home.)
“So many people came through Central Kentucky as the United States was becoming a nation,” said Niki Heichelbech, communications manager for the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau. “These homes truly recreate what life was like in 1800s Lexington.”
Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate
Arguably one of the greatest statesmen ever, Henry Clay served the public for 46 years, as a senator, speaker of the House of Representatives, secretary of state and three-time presidential candidate. In 1806, “the Great Compromiser” built a Federal-style home with wings designed by Benjamin Latrobe, architect of the nation’s capitol. Half a century later, Clay’s son rebuilt the 18-room mansion, which was completely restored in the early 1990s.
Today, the estate’s nearly 17 acres of wooded grounds includes the Italianate-style house museum, six outbuildings constructed during Clay’s lifetime, an 18th century-style walled garden, tanbark walking paths and a cozy outdoor café.
Hunt-Morgan House
Another handsomely restored Federal-style structure has graced a corner of antebellum Gratz Park since 1814. Originally named Hopemont, the Hunt-Morgan House was built by John Wesley Hunt, the first millionaire west of the Alleghenies, and became home to two famous descendants: Civil War General John Hunt Morgan and the state’s first Nobel Prize recipient, Dr. Thomas Hunt Morgan, “the father of modern genetics.”
Despite its amazing legacy, the structure barely escaped a 1955 date with a wrecking ball.
“Saving the Hunt-Morgan House was the impetus for the founding of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation,” said Julie Good, the organization’s executive director. “The home has such rich history.”
A second-floor Civil War Museum is partially maintained by the Morgan’s Men Association, originally formed by soldiers serving under the Rebel general and their descendants.
Mary Todd Lincoln House
Our country’s president during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, witnessed slavery firsthand while visiting his wife’s family in Lexington at what is today the Mary Todd Lincoln House on West Main Street, where the Todds lived from 1832 until 1849.
Completed in 1806, the two-story Georgian dwelling boasts 14 rooms filled with period furniture, family portraits and furnishings from the Todd and Lincoln families.
Waveland State Historic Site
In 1847, Joseph Bryan, great nephew of Daniel Boone, built a gorgeous Greek Revival mansion, naming it Waveland, for the farm’s fields of gently waving hemp and grains. Here, the cream of Lexington society, including Henry Clay, gathered to admire and wager on fine horses.
“A lot of people are not aware that Waveland was once the center of the horse industry in Fayette County,” said Ron Bryant, site director and descendant of Joseph Bryan. “On its original 2,000 acres, the Bryans built two tracks, one a private family track and the other public, where both blooded trotting horses and flat Thoroughbred runners competed.”
Though the property is now but 15 acres, well-versed guides in hoop skirts recreate history for visitors in the distinguished red-brick home that is filled with original family treasures, a heritage garden and outbuildings that include an icehouse, smokehouse, 200-year-old log cabin and elaborate, two-story slave quarters.
“Waveland is the epitome of an antebellum Kentucky plantation,” Bryant said. “The house has a homey feel yet still has that dignity. It looks like the South.”