PARIS — Jack and Sonja Brock, physicians who have lived in New Mexico for 35 years, came to Central Kentucky a decade ago looking for a house and land where they could someday retire with their pleasure horses.
After an extensive search, they found a huge Victorian mansion surrounded by 80 acres of rolling Bourbon County farmland. The Brocks envisioned their own little slice of heaven, but Airy Castle needed a hell of a lot of work.
"When we first saw the house," Jack Brock said, "the basement had a foot of water in it."
That was just the beginning. Plaster was peeling in every room. The porches were rotten. The plumbing was bad. The electrical system was worse. The attic was filled with birds, raccoons and tubs to catch water leaking from the roof.
"I had made an offer and then gotten out of it because the house didn't pass any inspections at all," Brock said.
"Sonja was real upset," he added. "We drove back out to look at it. She was standing in the driveway and there were tears in her eyes and she said, 'It's this place or no place.' That settled it."
Thus began a long and expensive odyssey to restore Airy Castle. While the Brocks still have a couple of rooms to finish, the public can see the spectacular results of their work on Oct. 20, when the house will be open for tours to benefit the preservation organization Historic Paris-Bourbon County.
Airy Castle was built in 1872-73 in the Italianate-Second Empire style by George Washington Bowen, a Bourbon County merchant and Confederate veteran. It was the centerpiece of his 600-acre estate and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1888, the property was sold to the Larue family, which renamed it Wyndhurst and owned it for more than a century.
While Airy Castle had suffered from neglect and deferred maintenance, it was structurally sound. It also retained its ornate woodwork and much of its other historic fabric — quite literally. Original drapes still hung in one front parlor.
The Brocks hired Keith Buchanan, a contractor who had restored his own landmark 1850 home in Millersburg. He began by digging out and reflooring the basement. Then came new plumbing, wiring, heating and air conditioning. The hardest part, Buchanan said, was repairing plaster throughout the house.
The Brocks continued to live and work near Albuquerque for several years, but they had Buchanan convert the third-floor attic into an apartment where they could stay on visits without disturbing the renovation work.
When they returned to Airy Castle one weekend in 2006 for their son's wedding in Louisville, they asked relatives to stay with them. But when Sonja Brock showed her guests to a second-floor bathroom where they could shower, the ceiling fell in.
Buchanan spent a year rebuilding the house's extensive porches, carefully replicating original decorative details. He also reduced the porches in size from the inside to make room for four additional bathrooms and an elevator.
Delbert Isaacs of Berea installed a new slate roof, replicating the original. An impressive modern kitchen was built in the combined space of the old kitchen and a butler's pantry.
While contractors worked, the Brocks scoured antique shops for period furniture, carpets and art. Looking at Airy Castle now, you would never know what a wreck it had been. As for the cost of the renovation, Brock would say only that it was "more than I care to talk about."
Once Buchanan finishes restoring two front parlors and the entry hall, the Brocks plan to open the house as a bed and breakfast. They will continue to live in their cozy third-floor apartment.
Future projects include renovating a brick barn and a brick, two-story tenant house behind the mansion.
"I don't know what it was about the house that first attracted me," Sonja Brock said of Airy Castle. "It just struck me. It has personality. But it did look like a haunted house when we first bought it."
If you go
Airy Castle house tour
When: 2 -5 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 20.
Where: 368 Larue Rd., Paris
Benefits: Historic Paris-Bourbon County
Cost: $15, $10 for members of Historic Paris-Bourbon County.
More information: Hopewellmuseum.org
Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com