Last-minute offer puts on hold demolition of historic house

At the 11th hour, Lexington businessman Griffin VanMeter bought more time for the Handy House, an historic structure in Harrison County that was about to be demolished.

The Cynthiana City Commission was scheduled Tuesday to authorize Mayor James D. Smith to sign a demolition contract. Instead, the commission voted 3-2 to have a special meeting before the end of July with Harrison County Fiscal Court to discuss the house’s future after VanMeter and Versailles attorney Hank Graddy Jr. made a last-minute plea to save the building.

The house is co-owned by the city and Harrison County, and Harrison Judge-Executive Alex Barnett had already signed a contract for demolition. The house, also known as Ridgeway, is on public park land owned by the city and county.

Barnett expressed doubt Wednesday morning about any attempt to stop demolition.

“I cannot see my fiscal court changing their mind,” Barnett said. “I just don’t know.”

VanMeter, who had expressed interest in the house in late 2014, hopes the joint meeting with city and county officials can be scheduled.

“People who have been advocates for the house have never had an opportunity to address both bodies at the same time, and I think that’s what we need, is more communication,” VanMeter said after the city commission meeting.

During the meeting, VanMeter offered $10,000 cash for the Handy House and said “I would be able to renovate the house all by myself if I wanted to. I’ve won multiple historic preservation awards for properties in Lexington.”

VanMeter said he is a bona fide buyer because “I have the assets to restore the house.” He said there are “a world of possibilities” for the house, which sits stop a hill in Flat Run Veterans Park north of downtown. Preservationists have argued that the house could be restored and rented for weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, sports banquets and corporate retreats.

VanMeter likened the Handy House to the Lyric Theater in Lexington, which sat empty and unused for decades until it was restored and reopened in 2010 as the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. “It’s now become this major cultural asset again, where people come together and celebrate life. If that building was able to come back, this building is able to come back, too.”

History happened at the Handy House in the past, “and history will happen there in the future, if you give it a chance,” VanMeter said.

Eric Whisman of the Kentucky Trust for Historic Preservation also attended the commission meeting, and said he was prepared to write a $1,000 check for a 60-day option to find another buyer for the house if VanMeter was not acceptable. But Whisman said VanMeter’s offer “is a very strong one.”

On the vote, Mayor Smith and Commissioners Roger Slade and Mark Mattmiller voted yes, while Commissioners Billy Grayson and Jada Walker Griggs voted no.

Grayson indicated that he is tired of talking about the Handy House, which has been the subject of years of debate. But Grayson added, “If you want to restore it, I will furnish the paint and paint the first room.”

The house needs much more than a new coat of paint. It has boarded-up windows and splintered porch floorboards. It was built in 1818 by William Brown, a veteran of the War of 1812 and a congressman.

Brown was a friend to Henry Clay, a U.S. senator under several presidents. Brown’s wife was a friend to young Mary Todd, who later married Abraham Lincoln.

The Brown family moved in the 1830s to Illinois, where they emancipated their slaves. (Slaves might have been kept in the basement of the Handy House.) Brown’s son, James N. Brown, fought alongside Lincoln in the same unit during the Black Hawk War, an 1832 conflict with Native Americans in Illinois.

Dr. Joel Frazier bought the house in 1848; a Union sympathizer, he allowed a federal army camp on the farm’s western edge in 1861-62.

In the 1880s, W.T. Handy owned the farm and named the house Chestnut Hall. He raised trotting horses on a portion of the farm. After his death, the house became known as the Handy House.

The house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

VanMeter, who turned 36 on Tuesday, is a partner in the branding and design firm Bullhorn Creative and serves as chairman of the board of NoLi Community Development Corp., which seeks to promote the North Limestone neighborhood. He also is a manager of Kentucky for Kentucky, the company that boosts the commonwealth with offbeat products like Kentucky Fried Chicken-scented candles. His wife, Sarah Wylie VanMeter, is from Cynthiana.

VanMeter said after the meeting that he is a believer in public spaces.

“That’s where innovation happens, that’s where creativity happens, that’s where life happens,” he said. “But cities have to create those spaces and Handy House represents an opportunity to create one of these great spaces.”