History would be lost with houses

Legacies of pioneering educators would be lost

September 24, 2012 

  • At issue: Aug. 29 Herald-Leader article, "UK wants to demolish 2 historic houses on Limestone; change of plans for law school"

I was saddened to read the Aug. 29 article. It stated that tearing down two historic houses would save the university about $30 million by expanding the current College of Law rather than building a new structure on Scott Street.

If these two houses are torn down, more will be lost than just bricks and mortar. It would also mean that another small piece of Lexington history will be lost.

The house at 658 South Limestone, called the Ligon House, was the home of professor Moses Ligon and his family. Ligon was professor emeritus of the UK College of Education.

Educated in primitive, one-room schoolhouses in his native Owen County, he learned firsthand that acquiring an education was nothing to be taken for granted. He began his career teaching in those same one-room schools and went on to serve as principal of several Kentucky high schools, including Lexington High School from 1913 to 1919.

The city's only high school at the time was suffering from neglect and disrepair. He took on the task of cleaning up not only the decrepit building but also the quality of teaching in the school. And in 1917, he oversaw construction of a new high school at North Limestone and Fourth Street.

Ligon joined the University of Kentucky faculty in 1924 and, shortly thereafter, built the house on South Limestone that bears his name. He lived there with his wife and three children for the rest of his life.

During his 30 years at the university, he established a reputation as a beloved professor and a national leader in education reform. He served as president of state and regional education associations. And he literally wrote the book on education in the commonwealth, A History of Public Education in Kentucky, published in 1942. But his greatest accomplishment was inspiring generations of teachers with his passion for excellence.

The Mathews House next door, at 660 South Limestone, was named for UK's first dean of the College of Agriculture, Clarence Wentworth Mathews. He moved from his native Massachusetts in 1892 to teach horticulture and botany at State College, as UK was called in those days. He acquired a parcel at Limestone and Washington, which was just a dirt street at the time and, in 1900, he built a three-story New England-style frame house on that lot.

Beside and behind his house, Mathews designed a garden that became a natural extension of his love for horticulture. Since his home was only steps from where he taught, the house became a living laboratory for his students.

Mathews and his wife raised their four children in the house. A daughter, Ruth, who went on to teach English at Henry Clay High School for 38 years, recalled a happy childhood that included both her family and UK students who lived in the house with them.

It was a different era, when many college professors lived on campus, and students interacted with them in the professors' homes as well as in classrooms. After Clarence Mathews' death in 1928, Ruth carried on her father's tradition. She continued to live in the house and cared for and expanded the garden, and she welcomed UK students to study the plantings. And, like her father, she dedicated her life to education, imparting her love of English literature to countless students through the years.

I have to admit a personal connection to those two houses and two families. Moses Ligon was my great-uncle. Although he passed away while I was young, I recall my family's pride in the accomplishments of "Uncle Mose" and his influence on our community.

And I was fortunate that Miss Ruth Mathews was both my senior English teacher and director of my senior class play. A highlight of the school year for Miss Mathews' students was to be invited to her home for an end-of-year picnic in the Mathews Garden.

In the name of expansion and economics, the Ligon House and the Mathews House might be lost. If that is the fate of these two historic homes, my hope is we won't forget Moses Ligon, Clarence Mathews and Ruth Mathews, whose pioneering spirits enriched the university and this city.

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