Lexington couple's historic Woodward Heights home is stylish, not stodgy

Contributing WriterMarch 8, 2013 

"You can tell we're not afraid of color," says Fran Taylor as she stands in the living room of the historic home on West High Street that she shares with her husband, Tom Cheek.

Not afraid? Cheek and Taylor are downright color-palette warriors when it comes to their décor. The living room walls are painted in what Taylor describes as "Spanish red," and the room is outfitted with similarly hued furnishings.

The adjoining dining room is a study in contrast, with soothing pale sage walls. The kitchen is bright yellow; a guest bedroom is an oasis of beige with soft aqua accents.

This explosion of color works well in a house that was built in 1889 and is part of the Woodward Heights neighborhood, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Known as the Ella F. Williamson House, it is one of two "mirror-image" houses built by two brothers who owned a lumber mill on Town Branch. (As part of urban renewal in the 1960s, the other house was torn down in favor of a more modern building now occupied by the Community Action Council.)

In documentation provided to the National Register in 1980, when the neighborhood applied, the house is described like this: "Probably the climax of pre-Richardsonian residential architecture in Lexington, it has extraordinary pipelike brackets linking the elements of the angular composition of gables and bays, huge transomed double windows, and an elaborate porch; there are also dramatically overscaled interior features."

Cheek, an architect and certified designer, bought the house in 1989, when it was 100 years old. He described the neighborhood at that time as being in a "transitional phase," a polite way of saying it had gone downhill.

"I figured if it didn't work out, I could always sell the incredible woodwork which is a feature of the house to recoup my investment," Cheek says.

Fortunately, that proved unnecessary. By the time Taylor moved in when they were married in 1993, the neighborhood was on the verge of rebounding. Once they were satisfied that they were right where they wanted to be, they started the decorating process.

"Tom and I work well together in most things," says Taylor, "but our worst arguments are over decorating.

"I just know what I like," she says, "and he reminds me that he is a professional designer."

On one matter the couple was in sync: They wanted the house to look as if it had evolved over time and not like a museum stuck in a time warp.

To that end, they have combined antiques and antique reproductions with more modern touches. For example, features of the large entrance hall include stained glass windows evocative of the Victorian era and a painting of the house by contemporary New Zealand artist Peter Williams. A friend of Taylor and Cheek, Williams is the unofficial artist-in-residence at Churchill Downs and Keeneland, where Taylor was executive director of the Keeneland Foundation.

"This is my favorite piece in the house because it is so whimsical," Taylor says of the painting. "Peter even managed to get our pets into the painting."

Once they had the house in order, Cheek set about building a carriage house to use as an office/studio on the adjoining site that for 40 years had been occupied by Griffin's Auto Body Shop.

Taylor — now a consultant for the philanthropic advising firm My Giving Adviser and owner of a small publishing company whose latest project, Blue Grass Airport: An American Aviation Story, will come out in October — says they are fortunate in that Woodward Heights' historical significance has allowed the neighborhood "to remain pretty much intact."

"About 12 years ago, we down-zoned, which prohibited owners from adding big-box additions to the buildings and then cramming eight to 10 apartments in the space," she says. "Today, 70 percent of the houses in the neighborhood are owner-occupied."

Cheek's and Taylor's neighbors include artist Helene Steen; documentary film producer Michael Breeding; Stella's Deli co-owner Paul Holbrook; Kentucky Theatre general manager Fred Mills; and new residents Jon Carloftis, a renowned garden designer, and his partner, Dale Fisher.

Carloftis and Fisher recently bought the historic Botherum House, around the corner from Taylor and Cheek on Madison Place, and are engaged in a painstaking restoration of the 1851 mansion, commissioned by Madison Johnson to honor his late wife, Sally, a sister of Cassius Marcellus Clay.

"Their project will help renew interest in the historic fabric of the neighborhood," Taylor says.

At the same time, the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation is putting the final touches on a walking-tour brochure for Woodward Heights. Add to that the announced plans for the revitalization of the nearby distillery and arena districts and the reconfiguration of Town Branch, and Woodward Heights is shaping up to become the hottest 'hood in Lexington.

Taylor and Cheek couldn't be happier.

"We're just a stone's throw from everything," Taylor says.

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based writer. Reach her at pnickell13@bellsouth.net.

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