History of Kenwick

this history was compiled and written by Jeff Jones

Kenwick and Henry Clay

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The area of the Kenwick neighborhood originally was a part of rural Fayette County to the southeast of early Lexington. When the city streets were formally laid out around 1790, Lexington stopped at present-day Rose Street. For the most part, our neighborhood's story begins in 1797 when a young Virginian lawyer named Henry Clay moved to Lexington to set up his legal practice.Within two years Clay not only had a thriving legal business but also had snared himself a wife in the person of Lucretia Hart, his lifelong love. Hart was herself a young woman from a prominent Kentucky pioneer family, and it was her father who financially helped the young couple buy over 300 acres on Old Boonesborough Road. Henry Clay named the farm Ashland for the number of ash trees on the property and eventually the farm grew to become a full-fledged estate with a manor house and 600 acres that included today's Kenwick. Local neighborhood legend tells that a portion of Kenwick was in fact Henry and Lucretia's apple orchard. Besides lawsuits and apples, the Clays prospered from other agricultural and financial investments including income from road tolls. They owned the portion of Old Boonesborough Road that ran through their property. This road led down to the Kentucky River and Daniel Boone's original pioneer settlement. Boonesborough became a backwater historic site, but nearby Richmond boomed. Thus, Richmond Road soon elbowed Boonesborough Road off the street signs, and the name has stuck to this day.

Ol' Henry never quite became U.S. president, but he did engineer the Missouri Compromise, his greatest claim to fame. The mansion at Ashland isn't quite his house either. His son tore down the original house and rebuilt a finer home on the old foundations. This mansion is the one open to tourists today. The grounds attract Kenwick neighbors who walk their dogs, play Frisbee, and take a nice evening stroll there. Don't miss the formal English gardens hidden behind brick walls like a secret garden.For more information on the Henry and Lucretia Clay, check out http://www.henryclay.org , the official website of Ashland.

Henry Clay is credited with importing the first gingko trees to Lexington. These trees are living fossils from the days of the dinosaurs. While slow-growing, they are very resistant to disease and pollution and a popular urban tree. Gingko trees are either male or female, but generally the male only is planted because of the strong smell from sulfuric acid compounds in the female's fruits. Catalpa Avenue on the other side of the Ashland Estate from Bassett Avenue is lined with gingko trees of both sexes. In the fall this street becomes a tunnel of gold from the beautiful leaves.

Ellerslie

At some point prior to 1837, the Clays sold the area that would become Kenwick. It eventually became part of the Ellerslie estate and would remain so for almost a century.

Although Ellerslie's manor house now rests as bits of rubble under Lexington Mall, the Ellerslie estate had a rich history in its day. Ten years before Henry Clay even moved to Lexington, General Levi Todd, a veteran of the Battle of Blue Licks, built the manor house as his family's home on Old Boonesborough Road. Todd named the house after Ellerslie, a Scottish town perhaps most famous as the birthplace of the Sir William Wallace. The film Braveheart romantically portrays Wallace. Other Kentucky place names such as Ellerslie, Irvine, Glasgow, Renfrew (Renfro) and Greenock (Greenup) point to the influx of immigrants from this part of Scotland.

Eventually the estate passed to a real estate investor and finally in 1819 to Robert Old Duke Wickliffe, a Pennsylvania transplant who purchased the farm and expanded the house. Nicknamed the Old Duke for his regal bearing, Robert and his wife Margaretta had a large family. In 1825, however, tragedy struck, and Margaretta died.

Within a year, however, the Old Duke married his second wife, the wealthy widow Mary Owen Polly Todd Russell. Polly Todd ironically was the niece of Ellerslie's original builder, Levi Todd, and was also the heiress to thousands of acres of Kentucky land inherited from her father. The two were an unlikely pair in that the Old Duke was Kentucky's largest slave-owner, and Mrs. Polly as she was nicknamed was pro-emancipation. It was Polly's influence that led Milly Crawford and her son Aflred, two freed Todd slaves, to colonize of Liberia, a west African country settled in part by former American slaves.

Among Mrs. Polly's friends was Madame Charlotte Mentelle. Charlotte and her husband Waldemere were refugees from the French Revolution who had settled in Lexington. In 1839 Polly gave the gingerbread house now at 116 Lincoln Avenue to the Mentelles for their use during their lifetimes. By agreement, the property would revert to the Wickliffe estate upon the Mentelles' deaths. Local historians disagree whether it was at this house that Madame Mentelle's School for Girls operated. It may well be here that Madame Mentelle educated a young Mary Todd (later to marry Abraham Lincoln) in social skills, dancing, academics, and conversational French. Pat and Chris Donohue later renovated this property, and it is now listed with the Bluegrass Trust.

Read the Crawfords' Liberian letters to Polly Wickliffe at: Dr. Randolph Hollingsworth's website

After Polly's death, a decade-long legal battle pitted Old Duke Wickliffe against Polly's siblings for control of the Todd estates. Wickliffe won and passed the Ellerslie farm down to his daughter Margaret, the wife by that time of William Preston. Like Margaret W., Preston was from a prominent Lexington family and was related to the Wickliffes. Under President Buchanan, he served as the American ambassador to Spain. When the Civil War broke out, Preston sided with the Confederacy and became a Confederate Army general. With the Confederacy in defeat, Gen. William Preston and his family fled to self-exile in Canada.

The family soon returned to Lexington in 1867. Unlike other slave-owning states, Kentucky never left the union and thus did not came under direct Union military control during the Reconstruction. This situation left many pro-Confederate elite families like the Prestons with their wealth and power intact.

In 1860 Charlotte Mentelle had died. The Mentelle house reverted back to the Wickliffe estate, and General Preston decided to settle his former slave Peter Thompson and the Thompson family in the house. In January 1871 men identifying themselves as members of the Ku Klux Klan murdered Thompson out of anger that an African-American family had housing while poor whites did not. The local KKK, however, condemned the murder in a letter to a local paper and declared they would revenge themselves upon any whites who committed such acts in the group's name.

By 1877 the Prestons had rented the present-day Kenwick area to B. J. Treacy. Mr. Treacy established the Ashland Park Stock Farm with the purpose of raising thoroughbred horses. When President Chester Arthur visited Lexington in 1883, he had tea at Ashland and then toured the Farm.

Margaret Wickliffe Preston outlived her husband, but died herself in 1898. Her will stipulated that the Ellerslie farm could not be divided among her heirs. Instead she left it jointly to her three children in equal shares of the entire estate.

In 1903 the heirs were successfully able to contest the stipulations of the will and divide Ellerslie. They soon began the division of the property into residential lots. In 1906 Mentelle Park was born as the first subdivision out of the Ellerslie estate. On May 11, 1909, Kenwick was born as new streets and lots were carved out of the former Wickliffe lands. Within a few decades the farmland would be transformed into some of Lexington's earliest suburbs and pass hands from a single wealthy estate to hundreds of middle and working class families.

The May 15, 1909, Lexington Herald records that S. T. Swift offered the name of Kenwick for the new development. This name apparently comes from Kenwick Hall, a famous Georgian estate in eastern England's Lincolnshire.

Kenwick Hall is now a hotel. It's website is: http://www.kenwick-park.co.uk/

The Wickliffe heirs originally desired the Mentelle Park, Kenwick, Belldale, and Beechland subdivisions to be elite neighborhoods. The early deeds stipulated that the lots could not be owned by an African-American and that liquor could not be sold on any of the properties. Such racial covenant stipulations were sadly common during this period of Jim Crow laws. Later additions, however, favored homes for working class whites in the areas of the neighborhood closer to the C & O Railroad tracks and industrial areas along Mary (now National) and Delaware Streets. By 1919 lots in the neighborhood were selling for $14 per front foot.

By 1920 the neighborhood street system was largely in place. In 1919 the firm of Frederick Olmstead, the landscape architect who designed New York's Central Park, laid out Ashland Park across from Kenwick. Olmstead designed Ashland Park as an upscale neighborhood carved out of the Ashland estate.

In 1933 Kenwick's neighbor to the east, the Fairway neighborhood, was established. Fairway's opening completed Kenwick's boundaries.Here is an overview of how the subdivisions proceeded:

  • Mentelle Park, 56 lots, June 19, 1906
  • Wickliffe Land Company Subdivision, 470 lots, May 11, 1909 (included parts of Lincoln, Preston, Bassett, Sherman, and Franklin)
  • Crescent Hill, 30 lots, September 27, 1909 (Richmond Avenue to what is now Cramer)
  • Wickliffe Land Company Second Addition, 132 lots, June 14, 1911 (parts of Lincoln, Sherman, Bassett, and Owsley)
  • East End Addition, 63 lots, September 11, 1913 (parts of Aurora, Richmond Avenue, and what is now Cramer)
  • Belldale Addition, 106 lots, March 31, 1915 (revised the Wickliffe Land Company two earlier subdivisions and added the third blocks of Lincoln, Preston, Bassett, and Sherman as well as Robertson)
  • Beechland Subdivision, 137 lots, June 23, 1920 (included all or parts of Richmond Avenue, Victory, Marne, White, Cramer, Aurora, and Hazel)
  • Fairway Lands Subdivision Number 1, 94 lots, November 18, 1933 (Henry Clay Boulevard and Fairway neighborhood)

From Boyd Shearer's: http://www.uky.edu/Projects/TDA/archive/neighborhood.index.pdf

Kenwick's Streets

Through the early part of the 20th century and before, Kenwick's streets sometimes had different names than today:

  • Cramer Avenue: Bullock Avenue (c. 1912)
  • National Avenue: Mary Street (c. 1912 to at least 1934)
  • Richmond Road: Old Boonesborough Road (late 1700s - early 1800s), McDowell Speedway (late 1800s)
  • Robertson Avenue: Robertson Avenue in 1912 but called Trimble Avenue in 1934
  • Sherman Avenue: Cleveland Street (c. 1912)

Kenwick Schools

Julia R. Ewan Elementary also has its roots in the early 20th century. Opening in 1909, Kenwick Elementary was located in a rented house at 193 Sherman Avenue by 1924. Julia Rice Ewan became the school's principal and math teacher in that year and remained principal for 39 years. Concerned by the large number of poor white children (Fayette County schools were then racially segregated), Ewan began to offer hot meals to the children. In 1930 she also established the Kenwick Junior Garden Club, a program involving parents and children to grow vegetables at the school. In 1936 Fayette County received $150,036 in the midst of the Great Depression to build eight school projects and employee 282 people. The largest of these projects was the construction of the 15-room Kenwick Elementary School (now Julia R. Ewan Elementary) on Henry Clay Boulevard. The new WPA-built (Works Projects Administration) school replaced the older structure on Sherman Avenue. Mrs. Ewan retired in 1963, and the school was then renamed Julia R. Ewan Elementary in her honor. In another tie to the neighborhood, Herman Clyde Hicks, longtime custodian at Kenwick Elementary, lived and eventually died in retirement at his home just around the corner at 224 Sherman Avenue.

Kenwick Grows Into a Community. In 1930 the Kenwick Church of the Nazarene (later the Kenwick Center) was built on Owsley Avenue. It would eventually become the city-owned Kenwick Community Center. Throughout the neighborhood during this early period, individuals also constructed Sears homes. These houses were purchased through the Sears and Roebuck Company and included detailed do-it-yourself plans and construction materials. It was left up to the builder to purchase brick, windows, plumbing, and heating systems either from Sears or separately. Not all the Sears homes in Kenwick have yet been identified.

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