Jim McKeighen says wherever he has lived downtown he’s made a difference.
None has been more dramatic than the 100 block of Old Georgetown Street, where he cleaned up a dump in the middle of the block and converted the spot into a beautiful garden.
It happened like this. McKeighen bought 170 Old Georgetown Street, a building that had been a corner grocery store with living quarters upstairs for the owner. The building was divided into four apartments when he bought it in 2003 as investment property.
At the time, McKeighen was living in Hampton Court off West Third Street, and wasn’t planning to go anywhere. A couple of things caused him to change his mind.
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Across from the former grocery store on Old Georgetown was an American Legion hall where members gathered on the weekends. Often their parties were loud and raucous, and the revelry spilled out on the street, he said. On two occasions, there were shootings that each time left a person dead.
Next door to the old grocery store, heading toward Short Street, were three derelict properties: an empty lot, a brick shotgun in need of serious repairs and a ramshackle frame cottage. The three parcels shared a common backyard that for years was used as a dump by the owners, McKeighen said.
Weeds and bushes grew as high as his head. Caught in the weeds were piles of coal, old car parts, broken furniture, barrels, trash, hundreds of whiskey bottles left by a neighborhood bootlegger, and three ancient junked trucks.
Condemned houses, a dump, shootings, these were danger signs for the neighborhood. McKeighen wasn’t daunted because he has lived downtown since 1975. He’s a Realtor with Bluegrass Sotheby’s International Realty, specializing in downtown properties.
“My feeling is if there is a problem, you have to do what you can to fix it and try to make it a better neighborhood,” he said.
One of the first things he did “to make a better neighborhood” was move from Hampton Court into one of the apartments in the grocery store building he now owned. He was no longer an absentee landlord.
When the empty lot next door and the brick shotgun cottage beyond the empty lot were sold by the Master Commissioner for back taxes, McKeighen bought them. Third in the row was the frame house that the city had condemned. He bought it and tore it down.
Behind those three houses was the dump.
“I called a junk dealer in Nicholasville and traded the three old trucks in exchange for getting the yards cleaned up,” McKeighen said. The junk dealer’s employees worked a week hauling trash and tearing down a couple of rickety sheds.
When their work was finished, those three backyards together with the yard behind the building where McKeighen lived totaled a half-acre of open space ready for a makeover.
McKeighen and his mother Rosemary were ready for the challenge.
“I grew up in Laurel Canyon in Hollywood in a house once owned by bandleader Paul Whiteman,” McKeighen said. “We had almost two acres. My mother was a big gardener, and so was my grandmother.”
His father, James F. McKeighen, was an avid golfer.
“He golfed with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope,” McKeighen said. His father invented the titanium golf club shaft, an invention he sold to Wilson Sports Equipment in the mid-1980s.
With bricks dug up in the backyard on Old Georgetown, McKeighen laid brick paths and created large beds outlined with brick. He and his mother planted a vegetable garden with broccoli, cabbage, red cabbage, potatoes, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and a variety of herbs.
Meanwhile, McKeighen had converted the grocery store into one large, single-family house. Rosemary moved in and lived there until she died in 2015.
When you walk out McKeighen’s back door, the loveliest sight meets your eye: a half-acre garden with brick paths, vegetables, sunflowers, beds of zinnias, large patches of purple coneflowers, black-eyed Susans and hydrangeas. The lilies and roses have peaked; taking their place are gladiolus and dahlias.
Adding to the horticultural kaleidoscope are oversize pots of orange daylilies throughout the yard.
Across the back McKeighen planted a row of hornbeams to hide the Lexington Housing Authority’s dumpsters and keep trash from blowing out of the dumpsters into the garden. The hornbeams are pruned flat on top so not to block the view of the downtown skyline in the distance.
The brick cottage, in danger of collapse when McKeighen bought it, has been stabilized and is now used as a garden shed. He has plans to renovate it into an Airbnb.
Bill Johnston, former president of the Western Suburban Historic Neighborhood, praised McKeighen for his positive influence on the north edge of the downtown neighborhood.
“His property is not in the historic district, but it’s across the street. That part of the neighborhood was very problematic, especially when the American Legion was there. It had a negative impact on the neighborhood, especially on weekends,” Johnston said.
McKeighen worked with developer Holly Wiedemann to market her contemporary Artek condominium project on Old Georgetown Street and encouraged his friend and restaurateur, Don Wathen, to open Nick Ryan’s on Jefferson Street, Johnston said.
“All sides of the neighborhood have come together, and Jim’s had a big hand in that,” Johnston said. “He’s had a strong positive impact on our part of downtown.”
Reach Beverly Fortune at firstname.lastname@example.org