Home & Garden

Lexington hostess: 'An interesting mix of people' makes the best parties

Fran Taylor wrote the book on entertaining. Literally. In 2010, she capped 15 years as executive director of the Keeneland Foundation by producing a coffee table book, Keeneland Entertains.

In the book, Taylor gave expert advice on how to throw every conceivable kind of soiree: tailgating before the races, or the swankiest black-tie dinner party. Since leaving Keeneland earlier this year to pursue a career as a freelance consultant, she says, she has had more time to practice what she preached.

"Working at Keeneland was a wonderful experience, but very demanding," says Taylor, who estimates that she has represented the iconic race course at hundreds of social events during her time there.

"I know what makes a good party," says the woman who admits that, as a pre-teen, she followed the glamorous goings-on of Washington socialite Perle Mesta, dubbed "the hostess with the mostest," for her famous parties that glittered with the capital's A-list of politicians, business tycoons, diplomats, writers and artists.

It wouldn't be a stretch to call Taylor the Perle Mesta of Lexington. After the Boston Pops concert at Rupp Arena this past October, she and her husband, architect Tom Cheek, hosted a post-concert party at their West High Street home. Among the guests seen circling the buffet table were former University of Kentucky president Lee T. Todd Jr. and his wife Patsy; Alltech chief executive Pearse Lyons, and UK Symphony Orchestra conductor John Nardolillo and his counterpart at the Boston Pops, Keith Lockhart.

Therein lies Taylor's first rule for a successful party.

"You always need an interesting mix of people," she says. "People who, on paper, may seem to have nothing in common, or may even be exact opposites, but placed in a festive setting will bring an interesting dynamic to a party."

As proof, she cites the recent post-Pops party.

"By the end of the evening, we had classical musicians from the Boston Pops jamming with local fiddler Art Mize," she says, laughing.

Her second rule is that no matter the size of the gathering, a good party needs to afford a sense of intimacy.

"People need to be able to connect with each other," Taylor says.

Of course, it helps to have a fabulous setting for your party, which is the case with Taylor and Cheek. Their National Historic Register home was built in 1889 and is known as the Ella Williamson House, after the wife of the original owner, who, with his brother, had a lumber company on the Town Branch.

The house had a succession of owners and a 17-year stint as a Baptist mission before Cheek bought it in 1989 and set about turning it into the showplace it is today.

He scrubbed graffiti from the basement walls, replaced the floors, added false walls to create closet space, duplicated the original paneling, and spent eight years building a kitchen (there wasn't one before.)

After that came decorative touches including refinished woodwork, wood grain-painted doors, crown molding, and stained-glass windows above the grand staircase leading to the second floor.

The house's natural grandeur, complemented by Taylor's deft decorating touch — "I like to keep things natural. You'll see a lot of greenery," she says — will be on display when she and her husband host two dinner parties on successive evenings.

"The first one is for the Woodward Heights Neighborhood Association," she says. "We always do a progressive dinner, and this year, the main dinner will be here."

The next night, Cheek and Taylor will welcome members of the High Street YMCA Jump Start 6 a.m. workout class.

"Remember that interesting mix of guests I was talking about?" she asks. "Well, this one certainly qualifies. Our guests will range in age from 20 to 80. That should be interesting"

At each dinner party, there will be between 50 and 60 people, which leads to a final question. What advice does Taylor offer for being a good guest?

"Bringing a bottle of bourbon would be great," she says in jest, "but it's much more important to bring a great attitude."

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