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Last-ditch attempt made to save historic house from demolition in Harrison County

Marilynn Bell, a member of the Harrison County Heritage Council, hopes to save Handy House, also known as Ridgeway, in Cynthiana. The house is owned jointly by the city and county, and could be demolished if the Cynthiana City Commission votes to do so.
Marilynn Bell, a member of the Harrison County Heritage Council, hopes to save Handy House, also known as Ridgeway, in Cynthiana. The house is owned jointly by the city and county, and could be demolished if the Cynthiana City Commission votes to do so. Lexington Herald-Leader

CYNTHIANA — Marilynn Bell sighed as she walked around the Handy House, an empty, dilapidated structure built before the Civil War.

With its boarded-up windows, peeling paint, and warped and splintered porch floorboards, the house definitely has seen better days.

"Poor, old girl," Bell said. "I promised I'd save her."

Why refer to the house as female?

"It's hard to explain," Bell, 75, said. "It seems maternal. It seems a sheltering place. Not a sad place, but a place that rang with laughter.

"You look at her and see an old building. And I see a place restored like she ought to be. Where there are parties, and people are gathering and coming and going and eating and having a good time. A Southern belle, that's what I see."

Not everyone shares that vision. The house, also known as Ridgeway, is on public park land owned by Harrison County and the city of Cynthiana. This month, Harrison County Fiscal Court magistrates, citing concerns about safety and liability should someone try to enter the house, voted 5-2 to demolish it.

That action has Bell and other preservationists making a last-ditch effort to save the house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Preservationists say the house could be restored and used as a space for weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, sports banquets and corporate retreats.

The city and county bought the house and surrounding land in 2002 to form the 120-acre Flat Run Veterans Park. That means the Cynthiana City Commission must concur with fiscal court before the house may be torn down. Bell and others plan to plead their case at the city commission meeting Tuesday.

Cynthiana Mayor Steve Moses said he couldn't predict how the commission would vote.

Among those planning to attend the meeting is Chris Starr, a Massachusetts real-estate developer who is the third-great-grandson of Col. William Brown, a veteran of the War of 1812, congressman and the man who had the house built in 1818.

"It's an issue that's near and dear to me and my family," Starr said during a telephone interview. "I'm personally invested on a number of different levels."

Starr, Bell and others formed a group called the Harrison County Heritage Council that has become the latest in a series of groups calling for the house's preservation and restoration.

The Harrison County Heritage Council had hoped to assume the mantle previously held by the Harrison County Historical Society. Members of the historical society, which leased the house from the city and county, had informed fiscal court they wished to relinquish the lease.

That led to formation of the Harrison County Heritage Council, which officially became a tax-exempt nonprofit in late August. Heritage council members didn't receive mailed confirmation of that status until four days before fiscal court's Nov. 11 vote to demolish the house, Bell said. Fiscal court voted 6-1 the same day to not transfer the lease to the heritage council.

Those votes frustrated and puzzled heritage council members. In July, they had presented a plan — requiring no local tax dollars — to restore the house and open it as a place for special events. At the time, they were in the process of working to get tax-exempt, nonprofit status.

City and county officials instructed them to wait until they received notification of their tax-exempt status before moving forward.

At the time of the vote to demolish, fiscal court apparently was unaware that the heritage council had received that status. Bell took responsibility for that.

"It's probably my fault for not calling" Harrison County Judge-Executive Alex Barnett, Bell said.

On the other hand, Bell said she and others were unaware that fiscal court planned to discuss the lease.

In any case, Starr said, a mix of private fundraising, a bank loan and tax credits or loan guarantees could be used in a financing package to restore the house. The estimated cost is $500,000.

Starr's business plan predicted the house could generate more than $50,000 in annual revenue that would be split between the city and county.

"I thought we had a good, solid business plan," he said.

But Cheri Daniels, another heritage council member, said there was a broader context beyond the boundaries of Harrison County.

Brown, the original occupant, was a friend to Henry Clay, a U.S. senator under several presidents. Brown's wife was a friend to young Mary Todd, who later married Abraham Lincoln.

The Brown family moved in the 1830s to Illinois, where they emancipated their slaves. (Slaves might have been kept in the basement of the Handy House.) Brown's son James N. Brown fought alongside Lincoln in the same unit during the Black Hawk War, an 1832 conflict with Native-Americans in Illinois.

Dr. Joel Frazer bought the house in 1848; a Union sympathizer, he allowed a federal army camp on the farm's western edge in 1861-62.

In the 1880s, W.T. Handy owned the farm and named the house Chestnut Hall. He raised trotting horses on a portion of the farm; after his death, the house became known as the Handy House.

The house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

"In the past couple of years, the deeper history of the house has come forward, so it's not just a Cynthiana landmark any more," Daniels said. "This belongs to the state and the country. It has bigger implications."

Daniels said demolition had implications beyond losing a historic building.

"Because there was federal money accepted in the development of the park, if they tear the house down, then they are no longer eligible to apply for federal money to finish the park," she said.

The park has walking trails, a picnic pavilion, soccer fields, a farmers market and a playground. But more money is needed if the park is to have a swimming pool, baseball and softball fields and additional parking.

Moses, the mayor, acknowledges that local governments could lose the chance at federal money to further develop the park. But he said "federal funds have just about dried up" anyway.

Moses said he doubted a restored Handy House would attract tourists to Cynthiana, about 35 miles north of Lexington.

"We're off the beaten path, let's put it that way," he said. "We're not close enough to I-75 for somebody to get off and come and see one thing. I've got a whole town of buildings that are on the National Register. We need other things a lot more."

Furthermore, Moses said that as of late Thursday afternoon he had not received a single call to protest the proposed demolition.

Such talk doesn't faze Bell, who is determined to save and restore the house.

"Letting us have a chance at preserving it is not going to cost a dime," she said.

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