Tom Eblen

‘Bourbon built the house, and that’s what’s going to help us save it’

Saving the house bourbon built

Two of bourbon baron T.B. Ripy's great-grandsons are getting some help in restoring his 1888 mansion in Lawrenceburg, Ky.
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Two of bourbon baron T.B. Ripy's great-grandsons are getting some help in restoring his 1888 mansion in Lawrenceburg, Ky.

When cousins Tom Ripy and George Geoghegan bought and began restoring the crumbling Queen Anne mansion their great-grandfather built in 1888, they knew they would need financial partners. They recently found their first.

That was because their great-grandfather was Thomas Beebe Ripy (1847-1902), one of Kentucky’s legendary 19th-century bourbon barons. His house was the grandest of several bourbon barons’ mansions along Main Street in Lawrenceburg, once a center of Kentucky whiskey-making.

Campari America, a division of the Italian beverage giant that owns the Wild Turkey distillery here, this spring launched a Whiskey Barons Collection of limited-release, pre-Prohibition bourbons recreated from original tasting notes.

The first two were produced by the Ripy family at what is now the Wild Turkey site. A portion of the proceeds from each $50 bottle of Old Ripy and Bond & Lillard will go toward helping restore the Ripy mansion, which the cousins eventually hope to turn into a bed and breakfast or commercial event space.

“Bourbon built the house, and that’s what’s going to help us save it,” Ripy said.

He declined to estimate how much money the bourbon sales might provide for the restoration project, but said, “It’s going to be very helpful. They have been very, very gracious in dealing with us.”

Until now, all of the restoration money, which he and Geoghegan characterized as “well into six figures” has come from their pockets. “We’re both retired government lawyers,” Ripy said. “So we’re not made of money.”

I first wrote about the Ripy mansion five years ago, when the restoration was just beginning. They bought the house in 2010 and spent more than a year cleaning it out, assessing extensive damage from years of neglect and clearing five acres of brush and trees surrounding it. They had to drive bats and bees out of the attic, although they keep coming back.

“Our main goal is just to save the house,” Geoghegan said.

They knew it as their grandmother’s house, and they spent a lot of time there as boys, recalling Christmas celebrations and other family gatherings. The house was sold out of the family in 1965. The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. But in recent years it had fallen into extreme disrepair. The cousins bought it from a bank for $186,000 after a foreclosure.

They hired Jeff Waldridge of Waldridge Revovations in Waddy to bring the house back to life. Since 2013, he and his crew have been working as much as the cousins’ budget would allow.

They figure the restoration is about half-finished. The initial focus was to stop water from coming in through leaks in the roof and brick. With that done, Waldridge was able to remove paint from the brick and prepare it for an upcoming re-pointing job.

“The slate roof still needs attention, but it’s not leaking on us anymore,” said Waldridge, adding that the four-story tower and dome have yet to be tackled.

“We estimate that you can almost buy a regular house in Lawrenceburg for what that’s going to cost,” Ripy said.

Waldridge has made progress refinishing the house’s beautiful mahogany, walnut, cherry and oak woodwork, some of which had been painted. He also has restored elaborate decorative plaster moldings, recasting missing pieces after the 14-foot interior walls were repaired.

One unusual feature of the house is its mosaic stained-glass windows, created with a planetary theme. Even as the house crumbled, they had remained in remarkably good shape.

After my June 2012 column about the house appeared, renowned glass artist Guy Kemper of Versailles quickly identified the mercury mosaic windows from my photographs. They were the work of Belcher Tile & Mosaic Co. of Newark, N.J.

The cousins eventually hope to sell or lease the house to someone interested in taking advantage of the growing popularity of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. With more than 11,000 square feet of space, it’s more house than most families would want or need as living space.

“We still have a long way to go,” Ripy said. “But at least you can walk on the second floor without being afraid you’ll suddenly end up on the first floor. That’s an improvement.”