HARRODSBURG — When Carter and Janette Johnson retired and sold their tourist hotel on the Polynesian island of Tonga, they decided to move half a world away and begin restoring old Kentucky homes.
Janette Johnson is from Australia, but her husband is from Laurel County. They first moved to Danville, fixed up an old house, sold it and went looking for another. They ended up in Harrodsburg, where they have restored three houses, doing most of the work themselves.
The largest of those places is the circa 1896 Queen Anne mansion at 538 Beaumont Ave., where they now live. For 54 years before the Johnsons bought it in 2002, the house was a funeral home.
"As soon as I walked in, I knew exactly what I wanted to do," Janette Johnson said. "We worked on it 10 hours a day, six days a week for 17 months."
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The former embalming room is now a luxury kitchen; the casket storage area has a pool table and guest suite. The rest of the house has been restored to its original Victorian splendor, as it looked a century ago when former owners Frank and Louise Curry entertained Harrodsburg society with frequent teas, balls and candlelight dinners.
The house is one of seven historic buildings open Saturday during Harrodsburg's 22nd annual Holiday Home Tour. The tour is an annual benefit for the Harrodsburg Historical Society and the James Harrod Trust.
Harrodsburg has only 8,500 residents. But as the oldest permanent English settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains, established in 1774, the seat of Mercer County has an amazing variety of architecture.
While the Johnsons' home is finished, the 200-year-old home of Seth and Matthew Singleton at 222 E. Lexington St. is still a work in progress. When they bought it in June 2012, the building had housed the offices of a regional mental health agency for three decades.
Known as The Old Tavern, the much-altered timber-frame house was a tavern and inn for many years under many different names, including the Rough and Ready House, The Union House, Yates Tavern and the Wright House. In 1851, the inn advertised 15 "comfortable" guest rooms.
It also may have been Harrodsburg's first drive-through business. According to the late historian George Chinn, a tavern patron once rode his horse through the front door and up to the bar, ordered his drink and rode back out.
Seth Singleton is a University of Kentucky law student and his partner, Matthew Singleton, works for a Lexington law firm. They moved to Harrodsburg because they are originally from Mercer and Boyle counties, and because real estate there is much cheaper than in Lexington.
"We knew it needed a lot of TLC," Seth said of The Old Tavern, whose last major renovation in the 1880s included the addition of an Eastlake Victorian porch. "But it was just a lot of cosmetic work. The core of the house is pretty solid."
The Singletons have furnished their home with family pieces and antiques from other Harrodsburg historic homes that they bought at estate sales.
Also on the tour are the homes of Kathy and Danny Mobley, 825 Southgate Dr., and Judy and Rod Helton, 497 Beaumont Ave.; Mt. Pleasant Presbyterian Church, 446 Mt. Pleasant Pike; and the Old Mud Meeting House on Dry Branch Road, three miles southwest of Harrodsburg. That circa 1800 building was the first Low Dutch Reformed Church in the West.
The tour also includes a gem in the rough that the James Harrod Trust is raising money to polish. Earlier this year, the Trust became the 31st owner of the Pawling House, which deed records show was built before 1828.
While the house needs a lot of work, it is in remarkably sound after years of neglect. The solid-brick walls are Flemish bond, and the original hardwood floors are in excellent shape. The house has beautiful original woodwork that may have been carved by the famous local artisan Matthew P. Lowery.
Thanks to holes that have yet to be repaired in some walls and ceilings, visitors can see more of the Pawling House than in typical on an old-house tour.
"It's like an onion: You keep peeling back the layers," said Amalie Preston, who works with the Trust. "With a new house in the suburbs, there is no mystery."
IF YOU GO
Harrodsburg Holiday Homes Tour
When: 1 p.m.—8 p.m. Dec. 7
Cost: $15, $11 for seniors and each person in groups of 20 or more. Buy tickets in advance or at a location on the self-guided tour.
More information: Harrodsburg Historical Society (859) 734-5985, Tourism Commission (800) 355-9192, or Harrodsburghistorical.org.