Politics & Government

Kentucky plans to give away another historic site, this time to EKU

White Hall State Historic Site in 2011 was the backdrop for a documentary film on Cassius Clay shot in 2011.
White Hall State Historic Site in 2011 was the backdrop for a documentary film on Cassius Clay shot in 2011.

The Eastern Kentucky University Board of Regents is expected to vote Friday on taking ownership of Madison County’s White Hall State Historic Site from the state.

The move is part of an attempt by Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration to cut costs. It recently handed over Boone Station State Historic Site in southern Fayette County to a church without any public input.

A joint statement from the Kentucky Tourism, Arts, and Heritage Cabinet and EKU said that if the transfer happens, White Hall and its 13 acres will remain a state historic site that is open to the public.

“The Department of Parks and EKU see this as a potential opportunity to further enhance the use of White Hall for both the university and for the local community,” the statement said. “EKU’s proposed plan will allow the university to offer student and community programming and events at the historic site. EKU also will work with local Richmond and Madison County officials to pursue public uses for the property that will serve the community as a whole. Preservation of the White Hall property is the top priority for both the Department of Parks and EKU.”

White Hall is a 1780s Italianate mansion first built by Revolutionary War General Green Clay and later lived in by his son, Cassius Clay, one of Kentucky’s most colorful historic figures. Cassius Clay was an anti-slavery newspaper editor who later served as an ambassador to Russia for President Abraham Lincoln. He also donated land to John Fee to create Berea College. His daughter, suffragist Laura Clay, was also raised there. Henry Clay was a cousin.

White Hall was saved and restored by former Kentucky first lady Beulah Nunn and was made part of the state park system in 1971. It’s located about 15 minutes north of the EKU campus just off Interstate 75.

It’s not clear exactly how EKU, which in the past few years has cut millions of dollars in programs and employees, will fund operation of the historic site.

Faculty trustee Richard Day said in an email to faculty that the state would provide $100,000 to support the site during a two-year transfer. In addition, if EKU could not keep the property in good condition, it would revert back to the state.

Day said EKU’s Recreation and Park Administration Department presented a plan to make White Hall a learning laboratory for students, while EKU’s conferencing and events office believes the property can become more profitable with tours, teas, weddings and other special events.

Day said he has asked for a condition report on the property, which hasn’t been fully renovated since 1971.

“Due diligence requires we know what we’re getting,” he said. “I don’t expect to vote yes if we don’t have a report.”

But, Day said, he expects the board will vote in favor of the proposal due to “the combination of fresh educational benefits, short-term state support, improved revenue generation in support of the auxiliary, and mitigated risk to the university.”

The state tried to give the property to Madison County last year, but officials there said they didn’t need more unfunded mandates.

Linda Blackford is an education and accountability reporter. She has covered K-12, higher education and other topics for the past 20 years at the Herald-Leader.