Preservation groups come together to buy historic, crumbling Georgian house for $87,200

lblackford@herald-leader.comJune 8, 2013 

DANVILLE — A consortium of historic preservation groups from Central Kentucky banded together Saturday to save a crumbling Georgian house.

Built in 1800, the Willis Green house was sold at absolute auction for $87,200. The groups are the Bluegrass Trust for Historic Preservation, Angela and Jess Correll of First Southern National Bank in Stanford, the James Harrod Trust in Harrodsburg and the Crutcher Family Foundation in Lexington.

"This was a victory for historic preservation," said Linda Carroll, president of the Bluegrass Trust.

The auction was not without suspense. While auctioneer Tony Wilson started the bidding at $100,000, no one raised a hand until he got down to $50,000. Then it slowly crept up, thanks to Joe Halfley, the Corrells' representative, and someone Wilson called "the man in the black shirt."

That man was Shane Baker, co-owner of the Wilderness Trace Distillery due to open in Danville in October. He helped slowly edge the price up to $80,000. Several groups huddled, but as Baker explained later, as soon as he figured out the other bidders were preservationists, he dropped out of the bidding.

"We were just interested in making sure it got into the right hands," Baker said.

The groups will put easements on the house to prevent it from being torn down, then resell it to someone who will restore it. That might be Baker and his business partner, Patrick Heist, who said they might be interested in seeing if they could incorporate it and the history it represents into the distillery, where they will soon be making bourbon, rye whiskey and vodka.

Renovation will be a big job. The house has been empty since the 1970s, and although structurally sound, needs plenty of fixing up. Preservationists worried that someone would buy the house only to demolish it, and sell the brick, moldings and other interior features for salvage.

"I feel like I can breathe now," said Barbara Hulette, president of the Boyle Landmark Trust in Danville. "I feel wonderfully positive that the preservation community was able to save it so it can be worked on. We have achieved our mission."

Hulette and the other groups only found out two weeks ago that the house's owner, Tessa Horton of Lexington, was selling the house at auction. They scrambled, sending out pictures across preservations list serves. Hulette said they got calls from as far away as Texas.

Mark and Cindy Ford showed up at the auction just in case. They have restored the historic Colby Tavern in Clark County, which was built around 1820. They were willing to put money in if the groups needed it.

"We can't save all the puppies, but we save the ones we can," Cindy Ford said. "Once a building is gone, so is all the history and heritage."

Willis Green moved from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to Kentucky around 1782. He was a representative in the Virginia legislature, was a framer of Kentucky's Constitution, and was an original trustee of Transylvania Seminary in Lexington, which later became Transylvania University. Green had the house built in 1800, and used artisans from Philadelphia to do the interior work, much of which still exists.

Hulette said that Green received a land grant of about 2,000 acres. That was farmed up until the 1960s, when owners of the house started selling off land to form the neighborhoods that now surround the 2.3 acres.

Carlos Grubbs grew up in four rooms attached to the house that have now been torn off. His family were sharecroppers who tilled the fields and kept a herd of dairy cows, whose milk they bottled in the kitchen.

The house belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Erskine, the name of the road that leads down to the house.

"There was a nice big front porch, and huge trees all around," he recalled as he walked around the graffitti-dotted upstairs of the house. "I hate to see it like this."

The BGT's Linda Carroll said the historic groups only gelled on a plan in the past couple of days, and that the Corrells only joined in Friday night.

"The Corrells have a passion for preservation," said their representative Joe Halfley. "We wanted to help these folks."

The Corrells recently won an award from Preservation Kentucky for their work in preserving and restoring downtown Stanford. Jess Correll, a prominent political donor, has been mentioned as a possible Republican candidate for governor.

Helen Dedman of the James Harrod Trust said her group got involved because of the significance of the house, and the fact it used to sit in what was then Mercer County.

"As much as we could, we felt like we should come to the table in this wonderful partnership," she said.

Mary Stith Hamlin of Danville is a relative of the Erskines, and came to see what would happen.

"We are thrilled to death to see it preserved," she said. "What a wonderful way for the preservationists to come together."

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359Twitter: @lbblackford

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