Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Bourbon County's home tour features historic mansion

Bethlehem Farm is the featured property on this year's Fall Home Tour on Oct. 21, sponsored by Historic Paris-Bourbon County. The front of the house is a Greek Revival addition from 1858 onto an earlier structure that dates from 1810-20.
Bethlehem Farm is the featured property on this year's Fall Home Tour on Oct. 21, sponsored by Historic Paris-Bourbon County. The front of the house is a Greek Revival addition from 1858 onto an earlier structure that dates from 1810-20. Herald-Leader

PARIS — When Sandra Renfro White was growing up in Texas as the horse-loving daughter of Kentucky-born parents, she dreamed of owning a Bluegrass horse farm.

"This is my childhood dream," White said of 50-acre Bethlehem Farm. "I come out in the morning with my coffee and look at my horses. Peace and beauty. It doesn't get any better than this."

This land just south of Paris and its 200-year-old mansion have been home to many dreamers.

Jacob Aker, a Revolutionary War veteran, settled here and built a small but elegant story-and-a-half brick home in the Federal style around 1810-20. As his family's fortunes grew, a grand Greek Revival-style expansion was added in 1858, creating a new front entrance.

White bought Bethlehem Farm in 1995 from Vanessa Dickson, an active historic preservationist who is now a state district court judge. Her research got the farm added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993 as an example of the high-quality construction common on prosperous farms in antebellum Bourbon County.

The public will get to see the beautifully restored house Oct. 21, when Bethlehem Farm hosts the annual Fall Home Tour fund-raiser for Historic Paris-Bourbon County. The preservation group, among other things, operates the Hopewell Museum in Paris, one of Central Kentucky's lesser-known gems.

Refreshments will be served during the home tour, and rides will be offered in a wagon pulled by a pair of Belgian draft horses.

The original part of the Jacob Aker house is thought to be an early work by John Giltner, a Bourbon County architect and builder known for his fine Flemish-bond brickwork.

Limestone was dug from a quarry on the farm for the foundation of the house and two outbuildings — an office or slave quarters that has yet to be restored and a springhouse that is now little more than a pile of rocks.

Most of the original house is now used as a kitchen and family dining room. The fireplace was restored for use, and White had craftsmen reproduce black walnut cabinet doors to match original ones still in the kitchen.

Greg Fitzsimons, a Lexington architect who specializes in historic preservation, designed a master suite for White using the foundation footprint of the original house's breezeway and separate kitchen.

The original house's back porch was converted into a sunroom, where the old brick wall showcases photographs from the Center for Women in Racing, a non-denominational Christian ministry White started in 2000 to help troubled women who have worked in the horse industry.

Fitzsimons recreated the missing front porch from the 1858 expansion by examining old column outlines on the front wall and other physical evidence. The porch was built by mason Ron Carter of Carter and Witt, and Mike Gresham of Gresham Millwork & Supply, both of Paris. The porch's octagonal columns echo the newel post of the expansion's grand staircase, which, like most of the home's woodwork, is original.

White chose the home's interior palette of reds, blues, yellows and browns from a late 1700s piece of Italian needlework she acquired that depicts the infant Moses being found on the Nile River. Jonathan Moore of Lexington painted many of the walls using a rich, layered technique called Venetian plaster.

The farm has a cemetery with the graves of Aker and six family members who died between 1841 and 1865. A few yards away are several graves with rough, unmarked headstones, thought to belong to slaves.

"The house is very functional now," said White, who shares the farm with son Daniel and daughter Susanna, both students at Lexington Christian Academy, as well as 14 horses, four cats, two dogs and a pair of canaries, Placido and Domingo.

As her children near college age and she contemplates the future, White is thinking about another long-held dream: making the Center for Women in Racing a more sustainable organization, with permanent facilities where Thoroughbred race horses can retire and female track workers can seek temporary shelter.

White said she has talked with the board of Bethlehem Farm Inc., her non-profit foundation, about buying much of the land around the house for center facilities.

"Or it may be time for me to retire, and allow someone else the privilege of owning this treasure and taking it to the next phase of historic preservation," she said. "Either way, my dream has been for me, and many others, a lovely reality."

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