Tom Eblen

Cowgirl Attic is for sale. Architectural salvage wrangler is ready to retire.

Karen Payne started Cowgirl Attic, an architectural salvage business, in 1991. The business is now for sale, because Payne wants to retire.
Karen Payne started Cowgirl Attic, an architectural salvage business, in 1991. The business is now for sale, because Payne wants to retire.

Cowgirl Attic, which for 27 years has been Lexington’s go-to place for antique doors, hardware, woodwork and other architectural salvage, is for sale.

Karen Payne, who opened the business in 1991, said that at age 62 she wants to start winding down to retirement.

“I’m getting too old to be unloading trucks and moving doors,” she said. “I would love to pass this on to somebody else that will keep it going.”

Payne said she has marked down prices on her merchandise and also hopes to sell the business and building at 1535 Delaware Ave. The building, on a half-acre, has four loading docks and nearly 8,500 square feet of space —packed to the rafters with salvage and a variety of antiques, memorabilia and home décor items.

Payne said she also will entertain offers for just the business, if someone wanted to lease the building from her or move the stock, or just the building, in what has become a trendy commercial district off Winchester Road that includes Pasta Garage, Pivot Brewing and Pomegranate, which sells hand-printed textiles.

Cowgirl Attic has woodwork and fixtures from some famous Bluegrass mansions. There are hand-reeded panels and shutters from Plancentia, a magnificent 1815 home on Georgetown Road that was demolished in 2000 for a subdivision, and pieces from the old Mount Brilliant Farm mansion, torn down in 2002.

Karen Payne carries away part of a door from Plancentia in January 2000 when the 1815 mansion on Georgetown Road was demolished for a subdivision. Frank Anderson Herald-Leader File Photo

“The highlight of my career was Plancentia,” Payne said. “That place was incredible. That was such a tragedy.”

Payne grew up in Richmond, the daughter of an antiques dealer. After attending Eastern Kentucky University, she moved to Lexington.

“I studied horticulture, of all things, then I ended up being a jewelry designer and a junk dealer,” she said. “I like saying that, because I think it makes me humble. From diamonds to rust.”

After many years designing custom jewelry, Payne decided in 1991 to close Golden Tack, her jewelry shop on Woodland Avenue, and try something new. Her mother was closing her antiques shop and wanted to get rid of stock, and Payne had always been interested in historic preservation.

“The antique part is fun, but I was into salvage because they weren’t saving anything back then,” Payne said. “It took me forever to break in (to the salvage business) because it was a boys’ club.”

For 10 years, Payne’s shop was in an old house on Walton Avenue. The shop’s name came to her in a dream.

“I’ve been a cowgirl since I was a little girl, because I grew up riding horses,” she said. “Being a cowgirl is a fearless thing, and I was kind of fearless when I did this. A woman, in salvage, operating backhoes and skid steers. I can drive a box van, back a trailer up; palletize brick. A lot of women can’t do that.”

The shop’s name also is easy for people to remember. “They might not remember my name, but they’ll remember cowgirl,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘Go over to Cowgirl.’ I love it.”

Karen Payne started Cowgirl Attic, an architectural salvage business, in 1991. The business is now for sale, because Payne wants to retire. Tom Eblen

Needing a bigger space in 2001, Payne bought the Delaware Avenue building. For a time, she also had a salvage brickyard nearby. Before the real estate bubble burst in 2008, house-flippers sometimes would remove old doors and sell them to her. Months later, the house’s new owner would come in to buy them back.

“It’s been a great adventure,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of beautiful 1800s houses. I’ve cried a lot. An 1800s house to salvage, that’s my favorite. I hate it that they tear it down, but at least I’m there to save some of it.”

When dismantling woodwork, Payne always looks to see if a long-ago resident stashed money or valuables in the wall. “I’ve found a lot of bobby pins and buttons, but I haven’t found any gold coins,” she said.

The most unusual thing she ever found was beneath Plancentia’s floorboards — piles of hemp seed, apparently put there for insulation.

“I’ve done some crazy stuff,” she said, recalling the time she removed a staircase from the old Calvary Baptist Church bell tower before it was demolished in 2000 for a church addition. “It’s a wonder I’m still alive.”

Not long ago, Payne was called to bid on salvaging an 1800s house near Georgetown that was about to be torn down.

“I’m looking at this house, and it’s a dream come true,” she said. “It’s not in that bad shape. The foundation is like the day it was laid. Big, beautiful staircase.”

Karen Payne’s favorite thing to salvage is an 1800s Bluegrass mansion about to be demolished. “I hate it that they tear it down, but at least I’m there to save some of it,” she said. Tom Eblen

Instead of salvaging it, she talked the owner into selling it to one of her friends, who recently completed renovations.

“That was kind of like my last hurrah,” Payne said. “I didn’t tear it down and make a lot of money, but I saved it.”

Tom Eblen, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s metro/state columnist since 2008, writes opinion and feature columns. A seventh-generation Kentuckian, he was the Herald-Leader’s managing editor from 1998-2008. Eblen previously worked for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Associated Press. He is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
Support my work with a digital subscription