When Nannine Clay Wallis died in 1970, she left her Antebellum mansion and surrounding gardens in downtown Paris to be the headquarters of the Garden Club of Kentucky, which she helped organize and lead.
But little was left inside; what furnishings relatives didn’t take were sold at auction. A few items were donated back to the club, but for most of the past 48 years the mansion has been furnished with gifts and loans from other Kentucky families.
Now, many family pieces, including the full dining room suite, have been returned. They had been in storage in Arizona for a decade and were recently donated to the club by Wallis’ great-nieces, Mary Whitney and Lindsey Thuell.
“They decided some of the furniture needed to be here,” said Joanna Kirby, an officer with the Garden Club of Kentucky, which has 100 affiliated clubs across the state with more than 1,200 members.
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Kirby reached out to the family, and when they seemed receptive, she and Judy Ferrell, who manages the mansion and grounds, went to Phoenix to look at the furniture in November 2017. When they saw it, she said, “We were ecstatic.”
The family trust paid half the cost of moving the furniture back to Kentucky. To help cover the rest of the costs, as well as conservation work on some pieces, the club is hosting a “Tea at the Wallis” event from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday June 23 at the mansion, 616 Pleasant St. Mary Whitney Thuell plans to attend, Kirby said.
Wallis was born in 1881 and developed a love of gardening from her father, Thomas H. Clay, who owned a Bourbon County farm and bought the Pleasant Street house around the turn of the last century.
In 1901, she married Frederick Wallis of Hopkinsville, a wealthy insurance executive who was active in Democratic politics and prison reform. He moved to New York City and was deputy police commissioner before being appointed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1920 as commissioner of immigration at Ellis Island. After two years there, he became New York’s corrections commissioner.
After returning to Kentucky, he ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1932 but finished third behind A.B. “Happy” Chandler and Thomas Rhea. Willis then backed Chandler, who won, and served as state welfare commissioner.
After the Wallises inherited and moved to her parents’ estate, she expanded the gardens and helped organize the non-profit Garden Club of Kentucky, serving as its second president. She was the first Kentuckian to be president of the National Council of State Garden Clubs, from 1939 to 1941.
Since her death, the Garden Club of Kentucky has maintained the estate as a meeting place for garden clubs and a venue for weddings, receptions and community events. The grounds are a certified arboretum with 70 varieties of trees, including huge, old specimens of gingko and linden. The grounds include a rose garden, daylily garden, herb garden and restored pavilions, all tended to by local garden clubs.
The family furniture returned to the house includes a mix of Clay family pieces and those the Wallises acquired while living in New York. When the garden club members opened an antique English slant-front desk she used for years, they found several pieces of her correspondence and memorabilia still inside.
Visitors will see the furniture and tour the circa 1851 Greek Revival-style mansion and 4.5-acre gardens. Tickets are $20. More info: call (859) 559-8848, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to Gardenclubky.org.