Tom Eblen

This Lexington house was a tavern, a brothel — and home to a future first lady

Before it was restored and turned into a museum 40 years ago, the Mary Todd Lincoln House had many uses besides the girlhood home of the wife of America's 16th president. This photo, from the 1950s or 1960s, shows the home when it was used as the Kitchen Center of the Van Deren Hardware Co.
Before it was restored and turned into a museum 40 years ago, the Mary Todd Lincoln House had many uses besides the girlhood home of the wife of America's 16th president. This photo, from the 1950s or 1960s, shows the home when it was used as the Kitchen Center of the Van Deren Hardware Co. Mary Todd Lincoln House

The Mary Todd Lincoln House was for seven years the girlhood home of Abraham Lincoln’s wife. But before and after that period in the 1830s, it was much more: a tavern, a boarding house, a store and the brothel where Belle Brezing learned her trade.

For the past 40 years, the house at 578 West Main Street beside Lexington Center has been a Lincoln museum that attracts nearly 15,000 visitors a year. That milestone will be celebrated 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday with a free public party.

“Sometimes history is pretty heavy,” said Gwen Thompson, the museum’s executive director. “Our goal is to have a light-hearted event” with tours, creative photo props and a costume contest. More information: Mtlhouse.org.

Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) was one of the nation’s most colorful first ladies. She was independent and stubborn, and Lincoln sometimes found her harder to fight than the Civil War. After he was assassinated and three of their sons died, she became so irrational that her eldest son had her committed to an asylum for several months in 1875.

The house’s history has been just as colorful, from its role in the sex trade to the political maneuvers that saw a Kentucky first lady with as much spunk as Mary Todd Lincoln seize the property and restore it as a museum.

The house was built between 1803 and 1806 for William Palmateer, a stone quarrier who operated an inn, tavern and “house of entertainment” there called the Sign of the Green Tree. He ended up losing the house to foreclosure in 1832.

Robert Todd, a businessman whose father and two uncles were among Lexington’s most prominent settlers, bought the house in a commissioner’s sale for his growing family.

Todd’s first wife, Elizabeth Parker, died when Mary, the fourth of their seven children, was six. Two years later, he married Elizabeth Humphreys, with whom he would have nine more children.

Before the move, the Todds lived on Short Street between his first mother-in-law and what is now St. Paul’s Catholic Church. (In 1887, the church tore down the Todd house and used its brick and interior woodwork to build a house that is now the office of Calvary Cemetery on West Main Street.)

By some accounts, Mary and her stepmother didn’t get along. The girl spent much of 1832-1836 living at Mentelle’s for Young Ladies, a finishing school run by a French couple across Richmond Road from Henry Clay’s Ashland estate.

In 1839, at age 20, Mary moved to Springfield, Ill., to live with a sister. It was there she met Lincoln, whom she married in 1842. The Lincolns visited what is now the Mary Todd Lincoln House several times, most notably for two weeks in 1847. She later returned with their first two sons after Lincoln went to Washington to represent Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Robert Todd died in 1849 during one of Lexington’s periodic cholera epidemics, and the house was eventually sold in 1856 to Benjamin Edge, a saddler. The next owner was Peter Brassey, a carpenter.

From 1879-1894, Jennie Hill operated the house as a brothel. The 1880 census lists one of Hill’s “boarders” as 19-year-old Belle Brezing, who after a year and a half there would go on to run Lexington’s most famous brothels until political pressure shut down her house at 153 Megowan St. (now Eastern Avenue) in 1917.

After Hill’s brothel closed, the Mary Todd Lincoln House was mostly a boarding house, with the first floor used for many enterprises, including a grocery and saloon. As early as the 1920s, history-minded citizens began trying to turn the house into a museum. Tenants and some owners made pocket money giving informal tours.

Van Deren Hardware Co. bought the building at auction in 1942. The first floor was rented for a time as the Colonial Café, then became Van Deren’s Kitchen Center.

After Louie Nunn was elected governor in 1967, his wife, Beula, met with the wives of Illinois and Indiana governors about expanding the Lincoln Heritage Trail. After the women asked to see the house where Mary Todd Lincoln had lived, Beula Nunn made a preview visit and found it “was being used as a plumbing warehouse and was absolutely falling down.”

At her insistence, the state tried to buy the house. When Van Deren wouldn’t sell at a price state officials wanted to pay, the property was condemned. The house was restored by the Kentucky Mansions Preservation Foundation, which Nunn created.

The house opened as a museum in June 1977. Although technically owned by the state, it gets no state funding and is supported by the foundation. Thompson said tourist visits have doubled since 2004 and grown four of the past five years.

Beula Nunn enlisted the famous Lexington-born architectural historian Clay Lancaster to help with what turned into a heavy-handed restoration of the house.

“They didn’t always agree, which meant Beula did what she wanted,” said Jonathan Coleman, the museum’s curator. “There are some things you wish she hadn’t touched.”

But if Beula Nunn had not been as independent and stubborn as Mary Todd Lincoln, one of Lexington’s most historic houses might have ended up as just a few more spaces in the Lexington Center parking lot.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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