A nonprofit organization entrusted to turn a mansion with ties to Abraham Lincoln into a museum now wants a judge to say that it has the flexibility to consider other possibilities, including selling the property.
Emilie Todd Helm, half-sister to first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, lived at Helm Place on Bowman Mill Road in Fayette County and spent the last years of her life there. She was the last remaining survivor of the Todd family, the in-laws to President Lincoln.
The property off Harrodsburg Road, not far from Ramsey’s restaurant at South Elkhorn Village, is assessed at $2.8 million, according to the Fayette County Property Valuation Administrator’s office. It includes a two-story, 15-room house and 150 acres.
Mary Genevieve Townsend Murphy, a co-founder and longtime board member of the Kentucky Mansions Preservation Foundation, left Helm Place to the foundation in trust after her death in 2000 and the death of her husband, Joseph, in April 2011. The foundation took control of the property in 2012 and installed a high-tech security system and a live-in caretaker.
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The foundation had hoped to open the house as a public museum but now says “it is not economically feasible” to do that, according to a petition filed in Fayette Circuit Court.
“We have no specific decision on the future of Helm Place right now,” said Gwen Thompson, executive director of the foundation. “It was put in trust to us with a very specific use, which was to be a period museum. So to be able to freely pursue anything other than that very specific use is why” the court petition was filed.
Other possibilities for the house might include an education center or visitors center for people coming to see Central Kentucky horse farms. But Thompson said, “We haven’t had any talks with anyone about becoming a new owner or a new use.”
In court papers, the foundation says it was never able to open the house as a museum for several reasons. The house didn’t come with an endowment or sufficient funding to cover the initial expenses to restore it. Nor was there enough money to make it accessible to the public through the construction of parking, bathrooms and other necessary additions.
The foundation also was concerned that the expense of maintaining Helm Place and operating it as a public museum would exceed the revenue it might produce, the court papers say.
Helm Place is restricted by a conservation easement and zoning regulations that would prohibit it from earning income from event rentals to supplement any operating income, the foundation says.
The foundation sent out a “request for proposal” in 2014 to gather ideas for sustainable uses of the property, but it received no responses.
In addition, foundation officials learned that many house museums across the country face challenges with funding, maintenance and declining visitation. The foundation “believes its resources would be better spent, and purposes better served, if Helm Place was sold and the proceeds used to support” the nonprofit’s mission, the court petition says.
The foundation manages and maintains the Mary Todd Lincoln House in downtown Lexington and assists in the renovation and preservation efforts for historic structures and sites around Kentucky.
In light of that mission, the foundation says, it wants to distribute the historically significant items of personal property and furniture at Helm Place to other museums and organizations with similar purposes.
The foundation also wants to add the net proceeds from the sale of Helm Place to an unrestricted endowment fund to benefit the organization.
The foundation officials say they think they have the power to sell the mansion by virtue of a trust provision conveying it to the organization.
However, the trust of Mary Genevieve Murphy also said Helm Place “is to be held for its charitable purposes and to be displayed, shown and made available to the public as a period museum.”
That phrase and another could be construed as restrictions on the foundation’s use of the mansion and its ability to sell it.
It is the foundation’s position that the trust terminated when it took possession of the property in 2012, Thompson said, but it wants Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone to agree and say the organization can pursue a sale or something other than a museum.
If the 150-acre property near Firebrook and Palomar subdivisions were sold, would it be developed?
“The property will continue to be preserved, and it will not be developed,” Thompson said. “That’s not going to happen. The conservation easement is there. It’s in a historic district. And if it was transferred to other hands, our organization can choose to put other conservation easements and restrictions on the property so that it continues to be preserved and cared for.”
About Helm Place
The land where Helm Place now stands was first occupied by Levi Todd, who built a fort there in 1779.
After the American Revolution, the property was awarded to Col. Abraham Bowman by a military grant.
The present main house, originally called Cedar Hall by the Bowmans, was built sometime between the 1830s and the early 1850s.
The house changed hands many times over the next 60 years. In 1912, Emilie Todd Helm, half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln, took up residence along with her three grown children: Katherine, Elodie and Ben Jr.
Emilie Todd Helm renamed the house “Helm Place,” in honor of her husband’s ancestral home.
The Helm siblings, who had no children of their own, sold Helm Place and its contents to William Townsend, a local attorney, Lincoln scholar and collector.
Townsend’s daughter, Mary Genevieve, moved into the house in 1946. The last survivor of the Helm family, Elodie, continued to live there until her death in 1953.
Mary Genevieve and her husband, Joseph Murphy Jr., lived there for the remainder of their lives. Mrs. Murphy, who inherited Helm Place from her father, put the house in trust to the Kentucky Mansions Preservation Foundation in 1996.
Mary Genevieve Murphy died in 2000, and Joseph Murphy died in 2011. Helm Place and the personal property were transferred to the foundation in 2012.