GEORGETOWN — Central Kentucky has many elegant homes built before the Civil War, but Ward Hall is in a class by itself.
Completed in 1857 for planter and horseman Junius R. Ward, this massive mansion commands a hillside on Frankfort Road a mile west of Georgetown. Architectural historians have described it as Kentucky's finest home, one of the grandest Greek Revival houses outside the deep South and among the 20 or so best mid-19th century buildings left in America.
"The national experts are really more excited about what we have here than are many of the locals," said David Stuart, a Scott County lawyer and president of the Ward Hall Preservation Foundation. "It's amazing that we sit about 12 miles from downtown Lexington and so many people are unaware of Ward Hall."
The mansion, at 1782 Frankfort Road, is open for tours only one weekend a month, but there will be Christmas candlelight tours from 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, Sunday and Dec. 22 and 23. Admission is $5, free for children 15 and younger. (More information: (859) 396-4257, Wardhall.org.)
Ward Hall was built by descendants of prominent Scott County pioneers who achieved fabulous wealth made possible by slavery.
Junius Ward (1802-1883) was the son of Gen. William and Sarah Ward. She was the sister of Richard M. Johnson, who was vice president under Martin Van Buren, 1837-41.
Junius Ward married Matilda Viley, whose family was instrumental in making Central Kentucky the center of Thoroughbred breeding and racing. Through the Viley family, Ward became a part-owner in the legendary race horse Lexington.
Ward acquired rich bottomland in Mississippi and became a wealthy planter. He built Ward Hall on 550 acres outside his hometown as a refuge from Mississippi's summer heat. He had the money and taste to build the very best.
Measuring nearly 75 feet square and 40 feet high, Ward Hall has more than 12,000 square feet of space on four levels. It was built with an innovative plumbing system that collected rainwater from the roof.
Those last few summers before the Civil War changed everything, the Wards entertained the Bluegrass aristocracy in grand fashion. Parties were hosted by Matilda Ward and her niece, Sallie Ward, a famous Southern belle whose exploits — including four marriages and a much-publicized divorce — could have made the fictional Scarlett O'Hara blush.
After climbing 10 limestone steps past massive Corinthian columns, visitors would enter a 14-foot-wide hall with a 14-foot ceiling. They would be welcomed into a double parlor with Carrara marble mantels, walnut woodwork and Sheffield silver fixtures.
The silver chandeliers still hang from a distemper plaster ceiling which, after 155 years, retains its original coloring. A graceful elliptical staircase ascends from the center of the hall to huge second-floor bedrooms and a third-floor attic.
The Civil War ruined Ward financially, and his Kentucky mansion and its contents were sold at a bankruptcy auction in 1867. The home passed through several owners before the Susong family bought it and 156 acres in 1945.
The Susongs put the property up for sale in 2004, and a developer bought 116 acres.
Georgetown College stepped in to ensure that the mansion and 40 surrounding acres were preserved. A non-profit preservation foundation was created to buy the property for $957,000. The money came from federal and local government grants, plus $250,000 from developer Jim Barlow.
"The rare thing about the house is that it comes to us virtually intact," Stuart said, noting how little was changed by various owners over a century and a half.
That's the good news. The bad news is that Ward Hall is in desperate need of repair.
The Kentucky Heritage Council has approved an $850,000 plan to restore the exterior to prevent further damage from the elements. The foundation will begin a fundraising campaign for that money next year.
An additional $2 million or so will be needed to restore the mansion's interior and upgrade infrastructure systems. Plans to rebuild the once-famous stable and restore the outbuildings and grounds will take another couple million.
The foundation's long-term goal is to open the property as a community center and living history museum depicting Kentucky plantation life just before, during and after the Civil War. But it won't be a sentimental treatment, Stuart said.
"We're not going to back away from the black American experience," he said, noting that the basement-level service areas are as intact as the grand upper floors. "This house and plantation would not have existed without the enslaved."