Preservationists are alarmed that the owner of one of Bourbon County’s oldest houses — built by a Revolutionary War officer in the late 1700s — has said he will demolish it soon if he cannot find a buyer.
“It is the first historic structure you see as you enter Paris,” said Allison Cox, president of the non-profit group Historic Paris-Bourbon County. “It’s really eye-catching, when it’s properly landscaped.”
Capt. James Wright built his Flemish-bond brick house about 1791, the year before Kentucky became a state. He was among the Continental Army officers who founded the Society of Cincinnati after the war, and he came to Kentucky and built some of Bourbon County’s first grist and saw mills on adjacent Houston Creek.
Wright’s son built a frame addition to the house about 1825. Behind the house is a reconstructed log cabin Wright is thought to have built about 1786. The house and cabin were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
In the mid 20th century, the property was home to Judge William Breckenridge and Julia Spencer Ardery. He was a prominent state Circuit Court judge and political leader. His wife was instrumental in the renovation of Duncan Tavern, a 1788 stone structure in downtown Paris, by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
“She was the mother of historic preservation in Bourbon County,” said Estill Curtis Pennington, a prominent art historian from Paris. “I know we can’t save everything, but I sure would hate to lose this house.”
Rick Szaks, owner of Lincoln Real Estate Inc. in Lexington, purchased the house, cabin and 2.4-acre lot on U.S. 68/Lexington Road in 2013 for $220,000, according to PVA records. Its tax assessment is now $250,000. Paris Realtor Gary Wrenn has listed the property for Szaks at $395,000 as an “outstanding opportunity for renovation or redevelopment.”
“I bought the house to live in,” Szaks said. Soon afterward, he also bought an even older 1780s home on Stone Hearth Farm. He said he lived there for two years before health issues prompted him to sell the farm in 2016 and move back to Lexington.
The Wright house was rented, but has been vacant for about 10 months, Szaks said, costing him about $1,500 a month.
“I need to do something,” he said. “I can't seem to rent it because it needs too much work. I would love to sell it. I don't want to tear it down.”
But that is what he has told leaders of Historic Paris-Bourbon County he will do, perhaps after 30 days, if a buyer isn’t found.
There are several commercial properties along Lexington Road near the house, including a Goodwill Industries facility next door. A former owner got most of the Wright property rezoned for commercial use years ago.
But redeveloping the property would be difficult. It is surrounded by development and Houston Creek. Front access to busy Lexington Road is complicated by an adjacent bridge. Commercial zoning would allow the historic home to be renovated as a restaurant or other business, and there is space for parking.
The house is structurally sound and has many original features, such as ash floors and original woodwork in the 1825 addition. But other interior woodwork was replaced over the years with pieces from other old homes. Many 20th century improvements need updating.
The cabin also was reconstructed at some point, although the logs are original, a rare relic of Central Kentucky’s pioneer days.
Preservationists hope to help Szaks find a residential or commercial buyer, because there’s nothing legally they can do to stop him from demolishing it.
“We don’t have the zoning laws on our side in Paris and Bourbon County as far has historic properties go,” Cox said. “This is a perfect place for someone who says they love Kentucky history to come and put their money where their mouth is.”