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Restored Keene Place now a showplace

It started when a tree fell in a storm.

Nick Nicholson, newly appointed president and CEO at Keeneland, had yet to meet his closest neighbor, Courtney Ellis, when he drove into work in early 2001 and saw that a tree had crushed a portion of a rock wall that divided their properties.

He knew that Ellis was ill, and he had meant to go over before the tree fell. This was the perfect opportunity. And he knew that there were two types of maintenance in the world — Keeneland-time maintenance and everyone else's.

In Keeneland-time maintenance, the rock wall would be fixed by noon. In everyone else's time, it would a month or more. He thought he would be the good neighbor and offer to fix the fence.

Ellis was more than appreciative, and a neighborly relationship developed. Ellis' 14 acres of land sat in the middle of Keeneland's 931 acres, not an eyesore exactly, but a incongruous overgrown estate that has enough Lexington history held within it to rival any grand home in the Bluegrass.

When Ellis died in 2002, none of his four daughters was interested in the home, and an agreement was reached with the track association for purchase.

Wednesday, the house, now known as Keene Place, was the site of an invitation-only first viewing for a restoration project that has combined the resources of the University of Kentucky Center for Historic Architecture and Preservation, the Kentucky Heritage Council, the work of master plasterers, stonemasons, carpenters and the Keene family.

What they saw was the reworking of the exterior and interior of the house, and the literal archaeological and metaphorical historical excavation of the site that took place before anyone lifted a hammer.

The first yielded pieces of ceramics that date to 800 A.D.; the second, a French marquis who has not one but two congressional decrees making him a U.S. citizen.

At Keeneland, things have to be ready in time either for the spring or the fall meet or for the September sale. This time, Nicholson decided, would be different.

"I decided we'd take as long as she needed."

The house, six years in the remaking, has become personal — hence the "she" — for all who worked on it. The first thing Nicholson did was shore up the temporary issues of roofing and stability. Then he called UK's Dennis Domer, director of the Center for Historic Architecture and Preservation, and asked for a complete chronicling of everything there.

What was known about the house unfolded in even greater detail. During the Revolutionary War, Gen. George Washington and his friend, Col. Abraham Bowman, heard of a young Frenchman who was coming to help the upstart colonists. Washington put Bowman in charge of the young Frenchman. He, after all, needed France's help in the war. Bowman and this young man, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, became friends.

It is 1779, and for his service in the Revolutionary War, Francis Keen is given 1,000 acres by the governor of Virginia, Patrick Henry. It is somewhere near the Licking River and it's not where Keen wants to plunk his family. So he instead starts buying land along a dirt road five miles out of Lexington along the Elkhorn Creek.

Francis' son, Jack, marries Mary Bowman, the daughter of Col. Abraham Bowman, and they build this house in 1805.

In 1825, Col. Bowman hears of now-renowned French statesman Lafayette's tour of the United States and invites him to Lexington. The day he is due, May 15, it pours, and Lafayette and the entourage he has brought with him cannot make it to Bowman's home. Instead, they encamp on Versailles Road, at Bowman's daughter's house.

All of Lexington comes to hear Lafayette speak. His entourage sleeps on the wet lawn. He sleeps in the large upstairs bedroom, which looks out across a great expanse of bluegrass.

The Keene family is operating a working plantation, then, more famously, something else. When asked by census workers in 1880 to name their profession, they identify themselves as horsemen.

In the six years that it took to reclaim the property, the Ellis and Keene families were enthusiastic partners in explaining how the house was used, in contributing stories and photographs and in detailing when additions were made. Such documentation has been key in the efforts to preserve the structure. The process has been so complete that the University of Kentucky has produced a seven-volume report that includes descriptions of archaeological findings with aerial maps and the names and locations of more than 1,000 trees on the site.

All of it is registered with the Library of Congress, as is customary in the context of a National Historic Landmark designation.

If the first question was whether the house could survive what Keeneland had planned for it, the second question was how far could they go? If a wall of brick and stone bowed, they shored it up, stabilized it and retained it. If a cherrywood banister had been painted for a century and it was originally unpainted, they stripped it bare. If a fireplace had fallen in, they rebuilt it. If a door was removed by order of the fire marshal, they reused it elsewhere.

Nicholson hired Jim Thomas, the former longtime Shaker Village president, to act as historic consultant. He hired Rochester Miller Restoration to do old-world masonry and David Duggin of Wilmore to do old-world plaster work. Phase IV Contractors, the general contractor, has worked in historic preservation for years.

"If anyone tells you that craftsmanship is dead, come here and see. I'd compare the work done here to any of the original done in 1805," says Nicholson.

And yet the history rests easily next to the modern. The home is now heated geothermally. It is well-lit in even the crawl spaces in the stone basement. It has a commercial state-of-the-art kitchen.

The parking is new, but the trees that shade the house are not. The tulip poplar at the entrance of the house is the same one that greeted Lafayette. And the American beech, the elm, the holly and the basswood, the sycamore and the monstrous black ash are the very same that shielded the French military escort he brought with him from whatever raged or stilled in the new American night.