Few people in Lexington today remember Lyndhurst, a fabulous 1860s mansion that once stood on an 11-acre estate at High and Rose streets.
The three-story Italianate villa was the most expensive home ever built by the city’s most prolific 19th-century architect and builder, John McMurtry. It had Italian marble mantles in its parlors, elaborate decorative plaster, and an octagonal rotunda in the center of the house with a gas chandelier more than two stories tall.
Lyndhurst was demolished in 1964. Go to the site today and you will find a sprawling apartment complex for University of Kentucky students.
That is one of the sad things about Lexington. So many ordinary — or downright ugly — buildings were once the sites of unique and amazing pieces of historic architecture. Many of those buildings were demolished because few 20th-century Lexingtonians appreciated them — unless they read Bettye Lee Mastin.
Mastin, who turned 90 this month, was the Herald-Leader’s home writer from 1950 until she retired in 2000.
She will be inducted Friday into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. I nominated her for the honor because no journalist did so much for so long to inform Central Kentuckians about the unique built environment that surrounded them.
Mastin was a close friend and collaborator of Clay Lancaster, the Lexington-born architectural historian whose scholarship documented many of these old buildings. And she became quite a scholar and historian herself.
In her 1979 book, “Lexington 1779: Pioneer Kentucky as Described by Early Settlers,” Mastin painstakingly researched written accounts and interviews with Bluegrass pioneers. The result was a book that dispelled romantic pioneer mythology and showed just what a tough, brutal experience most local settlers endured.
Mastin also was a historic preservation activist, but she had to keep most of that out of the newspaper. Ideas about historic preservation then frequently clashed with the pro-growth attitude of Lexington’s business leaders. But I have little doubt that Lexington would have far fewer historic homes left today had Mastin not worked so hard telling readers about them.
She didn’t just write about houses. She told fascinating — and accurate — stories about the people who built and lived in them. Her Jan. 28, 1962, feature about Lyndhurst is a great example.
Lyndhurst was a welcome-home present, if not a bribe, that Joel Walker offered to Elizabeth Stone, his favorite niece, and her pro-Southern husband, Robert. He wanted them to return from Canada with their three children after the Civil War.
“Come home to Kentucky, and I will give you any house you care to have,” Walker told them. They chose Lyndhurst, which McMurtry had started building in 1860 for a wealthy Philadelphia man, William R. Fleming, before the Civil War interrupted construction.
The Stones completed the mansion as one of Lexington’s most lavish showplaces, with landscaped grounds overlooking Town Branch Creek. They named it for a charming village they saw on a trip to England.
When Mastin wrote about Lyndhurst, it was occupied by the niece’s 69-year-old granddaughter, Miss Robert Stone Kinkead, who had lived there most of her life but never married. Most of the estate’s grounds had been subdivided in 1919 and developed with then-upscale homes and apartment buildings.
Two years after Mastin’s article was written, Kinkead had moved to South Ashland Avenue, where she died in 1966. Lyndhurst was demolished and replaced by the apartment complex. Virtually all of the handsome 1920s buildings that surrounded it also have become student rental property.
Many of Lyndhurst’s luxurious fixtures were salvaged and reused in other buildings around town. The enormous brass chandelier was restored, converted from gas to electricity and became the interior centerpiece of one of the few buildings in Lexington tall enough to accommodate it: McMurtry’s Floral Hall, the octagonal barn beside the Red Mile.
During her half-century at the Herald-Leader, Mastin wrote more than 2,000 home features, most about historic relics. Unfortunately, she never collected them in a book. But her stories remain a valuable documentation of unique Central Kentucky places, like Lyndhurst, that have long faded from the community’s memory.