Long before he and his family took up residence, Dr. Billy Forbess had been an admirer of the stately Georgian manor at 227 South Ashland Avenue.
In the 1980s, Forbess had the good fortune to be invited to a dinner party at the home. The splendor and provenance of the home captivated him, and before he took leave for the evening he told the owner he was interested in buying should the time ever come.
The time came in 1996.
“This is one of the most special places I’ve ever seen,” said Forbess, standing before one of the custom-made Tiffany windows. I don’t think there’s another home like this in Lexington.”
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The home was built by Overton and Elizabeth Chenault. He was a wealthy farmer, thoroughbred breeder and erstwhile owner of the famed stallion Spendthrift.
“The story goes that Chenault hired an architect out of New Orleans and sent him to France to find the right design,” Forbess said. “The architect spent close to year overseas studying and sketching. This would have been about 1900 or so.”
When the architect returned, a design was approved. But Chenault thought it impractical for the architect to continue working out of New Orleans and asked that he relocate to Lexington.
Offended by the prospect of living in such a small borough, the architect instead settled on Cincinnati as a base of operations. Construction began in 1913.
FERTILE GROUND FOR FICTION
Elizabeth Chenault’s grandson, the late Toby Kavanaugh, reminisced about growing up at 227 South Ashland Avenue in the 1995 book The Insider’s Guide to Greater Lexington.
“My grandmother (Elizabeth) built that home out on Ashland Avenue,” Kavanaugh said. “People thought she was crazy – why’d she want to move way out there in the country? It was the only paved street from Limestone on up at that time. It was the only street in Ashland Park that was paved back in 1915.”
Many Lexingtonians will recognize Toby Kavanaugh as the long-time proprietor of Bluegrass Billiards.
When Kavanaugh was in sixth grade at Ashland Elementary School, he befriended Walter Tevis, a new kid who had just moved to Lexington from California.
Tevis, an aspiring writer, was of humble means and quickly became a fixture in the luxurious Kavanaugh home – devouring the science fiction magazines and other books he found in the home and taking a keen interest in an old pool table in the basement that came out of the Lafayette Hotel.
“My mother always liked Walter,” Kavanaugh said. “He came over to our house to eat a lot because he didn’t have anything to eat at home.”
Tevis went on to pen two novels that center on the game of pool, The Hustler and The Color of Money, both of which were made into successful films. He dedicated The Color of Money to Kavanaugh “for teaching me to play pool.”
As a tribute, Forbess, the current homeowner, keeps his pool table in the revered spot in the basement.
“There’s a scene in ‘The Hustler’ when Paul Newman plays a pool tournament in the basement of a big house,” Forbess said. “That was copied after this house.”
A CENTURY OF FABULOUS PARTIES
“The Chenaults and Kavanaughs entertained a great deal,” Forbess said. “You’ll notice that every room has at least two entrances, so you can’t get trapped in a room during a party.”
Forbess explained that the first floor and the grand foyer were for socializing, and the band played on the second floor landing. As was the tradition for the time, the dancing was on the third floor.
“I will say that it is the perfect house for entertaining,” said Lexington business executive and family friend Alan Stein. “My mother and Billy shared a birthday, so we celebrated at the Forbess house on her big milestone birthdays. And more recently, the Forbess’s held a wonderful get together for many family and friends just before my wife Terri and I married.”
Forbess has lovingly and sometimes painstakingly endeavored to keep the home true to the original.
“We’ve redone most of the house,” Forbess said. “Wiring, plumbing, and walls, and of course refinished the famous basement.”
When it was determined that the original heart of pine kitchen floor could not be saved, Forbess spent a year searching before finding a cache of suitable planks in Owensboro, salvaged from the old Glenmore distillery.
Forbess reflects fondly on his time in Ashland Park with wife Diana and their three children, Lauren, Hallie and Will.
“The kids loved growing up here close to Woodland Park,” Forbess said. “We can walk to Kroger, the barber shop, the liquor store, and the only hardware store left in Lexington.”
The home holds special sentiments for Diana. The beautiful white kitchen cabinets were custom made by her late brother, a cabinet maker. And her late father, also a cabinet maker, came to the rescue with hand-crafted replicas of the original front and side porch spindles to replace rotten ones discovered during the restoration process.
“With all of the children grown, we just don’t need nearly 8,000 square feet of home for us two,” Forbess said. “We love the neighbors and we love the neighborhood. We’ve loved living here.”
This week’s feature home is listed with Becky Reinhold of Bluegrass Sotheby's International Realty.