Tom Eblen: Family saves historic Lawrenceburg bourbon baron mansion from ruin

The Queen Anne mansion, on Lawrenceburg's Main Street, is 11,000 square feet and sits on several acres.
The Queen Anne mansion, on Lawrenceburg's Main Street, is 11,000 square feet and sits on several acres. Herald-Leader

LAWRENCEBURG — When cousins Tom Ripy and George Geoghegan were boys in the 1940s, their great-grandmother's home on Main Street was the center of activity for their large extended family.

Sallie Ripy was then a spry woman in her 90s, and she shared her 11,000-square-foot mansion with several of her 11 children and their spouses.

On Christmas Day, the great-uncles would give each child in the family a silver dollar. One great-aunt kept a drawer full of candy and taught all of the children how to blow bubble gum, "much to our parents' disgust," Tom Ripy recalled.

The biggest treat of all was climbing up into the house's four-story tower, which offered a commanding view.

"It was a very happy place," Ripy said. "We all felt at home there."

So it was with great alarm that Ripy and Geoghegan watched in recent years as the house, which was sold out of the family in 1965, fell into extreme disrepair. In 2010, the cousins, both retired government lawyers, pooled their resources and bought it at foreclosure.

"There were rumors that somebody would buy it and sell it for salvage," said Ripy, who lives in Arlington, Va. "So I left my wife in Virginia and brought her checkbook."

"That's literally true," confirmed his wife, Minnie Sue Ripy.

The bank gave them a good price — $186,000 — because the Thomas Beebe Ripy mansion wasn't just any house. Completed in 1888 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, the Queen Anne-style house might be the grandest of a string of mansions that bourbon barons built along Main Street when this was a center of Kentucky's whiskey industry.

T.B. Ripy (1847-1902) bought, sold and ran several distilleries, including the one on the Kentucky River at Tyrone where Wild Turkey is now made.

"He was a wheeler-dealer, alternately well off and broke," Ripy, his great- grandson, said. "Frankly, I'm not sure I would have wanted to do business with him."

Ripy, 73, and Geoghegan, 69, bought the family homeplace with the hope of finding someone with the resources to restore it and put it to good use. "We certainly didn't buy it to live in," Geoghegan said.

Until they find a suitable buyer, they are trying their best to clean up the place, which has been quite a chore.

They hired a crew to clear five acres of brush and trees that had almost swallowed the house.

"I was going to recommend it for the next Jurassic Park movie," Geoghegan said. "It was that bad."

They hauled out tons of junk. They replaced roofing and gutters that had let rain flow into the house. Mildew was everywhere, but, fortunately, the thick brick and plaster walls had kept out mold, Geoghegan said.

The cousins brought in a bee keeper to remove an active hive, 8 feet wide and 2 feet thick, in the grand second-floor hallway. They continue to battle bats, which fly in from the attic through holes in ceiling plaster.

With cleanup almost complete, the next step is a costly restoration. There is a lot to work with: sumptuous woodwork of mahogany, walnut and cherry, and amazing stained-glass windows, thought to have been imported from Italy. The main floor has 14-foot ceilings and a grand mahogany staircase.

"At this point, we're doing it with our own money, but retired government lawyers are not exactly members of the 1 percent," Ripy said. "Before I die, I would like to see this place restored as an asset for the community."

The most likely scenario is for someone to buy the mansion for a commercial use, which would make the property eligible for federal and state tax credits to help with restoration costs.

Lawrenceburg is now an important stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a successful effort by the Kentucky Distillers Association to attract tourists to distilleries. Association members will discuss the Ripy mansion's potential at their June 26 meeting, said Eric Gregory, the executive director.

"It's a treasure," said Gregory, who has restored several old houses. "As fast as our industry is growing, there is always a need for event space. Mansions like this with ties to the bourbon industry don't come around very often."