Tom Eblen: Mansion acquired by EKU 'like a time capsule'

Mansion untouched for 40 years

Herald-Leader columnistOctober 1, 2011 

RICHMOND — When Emma Watts said she wanted her Elmwood estate to be preserved just as it was when she lived there, she meant it. Watts died in 1970, but her bed is still made and her reading glasses are in the bedside table drawer.

Postage stamps, sewing notions and pill bottles lay jumbled in her dresser drawers. Antique books fill her bookcases. Her rolltop desk holds family photographs and personal papers, including a World War II tire ration slip.

But time has taken a toll on this musty monument. Curtains hang in tatters. Stuffing bursts from sofas. Oriental carpets disintegrate on the hardwood floors, having nourished generations of moths. A portrait of a young Miss Watts stares across a moldy parlor at paintings of her parents.

"It's like a time capsule," said Doug Whitlock, the president of Eastern Kentucky University, who took me on a tour of Elmwood last week.

A month ago, EKU acquired the 9,000-square-foot mansion and 20 park-like acres surrounding it across Lancaster Avenue from campus. Eventually, Whitlock hopes to raise private money to restore Elmwood to its former glory, probably for use as an alumni development and conference center.

EKU tried unsuccessfully for 50 years to buy Elmwood. Legend has it that former Eastern President Robert Martin first asked Watts in the early 1960s what she would take for Elmwood. Her reply: "What would you take for your college?"

When Watts died at age 83, her will specified that the mansion, its contents and elm-covered grounds could never be sold. She left a trust fund to pay for basic upkeep and, for four decades, time stood still at Elmwood.

Recently, though, the estate's trustee and Watts' remaining cousins decided that while Elmwood could not legally be sold to the university, it could be donated, Whitlock said. In return, the EKU Foundation reimbursed the estate $400,000 for recent improvements, including a new roof.

Does Whitlock think Watts is now spinning in her grave? "Yep," the president said. "But the trustee realized that this was the best way — possibly the only way — to honor Miss Emma's wishes that Elmwood be preserved, and we intend to do that."

EKU alumni will get the first public glimpse inside Elmwood on Oct. 22, during a Homecoming brunch on the grounds. Visitors will be allowed to walk through the main floor hall — past the moldy parlor, the grand staircase of elaborately carved oak and the huge dining room with a stained-glass window over the fireplace.

"I suspect attendance at the alumni event will be up this year," Whitlock said with a smile. After all, Elmwood has been a local curiosity for generations.

Whitlock said EKU has not had a big problem with students hopping the iron fence to explore Elmwood's tree-covered grounds and formal English garden. Still, it has long been reputed to be a popular spot for young lovers — hence, an old joke about alumni children named Elmwood.

The chateau-style mansion was designed for William and Mary Watts by Samuel des Jardins, a French-Canadian architect in Cincinnati. Watts had made his fortune in timber and Texas cattle. Elmwood cost an astounding $35,000 when it was completed in 1887, the year the Watts' only child was born.

Emma Watts graduated from Vassar College but never married. After her parents died, she lived alone at Elmwood, filling the mansion with books, antique furniture and a few beloved dogs.

Whitlock never met Watts, but he remembers seeing her around Richmond when he was a boy, often being chauffeured in a long, black Packard. "When I saw the movie Driving Miss Daisy, Miss Emma is who I thought of," he said.

When then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson came to Richmond as EKU's commencement speaker in June 1961, Texas friends urged him to stop by and pay his respects to Watts. Her cook prepared him country ham and beaten biscuits — made on the antique biscuit brake that is still in Elmwood's kitchen. Whitlock said Johnson enjoyed the ham biscuits so much that he asked his Secret Service agents to gather the leftovers so he could eat them on the flight back to Washington.

Ed Campbell, who has worked for Watts' estate for 15 years as Elmwood's caretaker, will continue those duties as a university employee. "I love working here; it's so peaceful and quiet," he said. "But it can get pretty spooky at night."

EKU has promised to preserve the 15-room mansion and its landscaped setting along Lancaster Avenue. Any new construction must match the old. However, two pieces of land behind a caretaker's cottage, garage and carriage house (which still shelters an antique carriage) could eventually be developed for university buildings, Whitlock said.

The EKU Foundation has some major fund-raising ahead to pay for Elmwood's restoration. First, though, university librarians, archivists, art historians and their students will inventory the mansion's contents and determine which pieces need conservation work.

While some valuables may need to be moved elsewhere for their own protection, Whitlock hopes most of the furniture, books and art will remain in the restored Elmwood — just as "Miss Emma" would have wanted.

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