Archive | September, 2011

Kentucky (Tall) Tales: The Real Mr. Peterman

26 Sep

“But Mr. Peterman …”

When you hear the name ‘J. Peterman,’ most people think of John O’Hurley’s eccentric character who was Elaine’s boss on “Seinfeld.” But before Thursday May 18, 1995, J. Peterman was just a second fiddle men’s clothing catalog in the market dominated by companies like Banana Republic, L.L. Bean and J. Crew.

The real J. Peterman isn’t a Manhattan company, but a small Lexington firm. The real Mr. Peterman isn’t a bombastic boss, just a sensible businessman. Seinfeld creators Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld were fans of the catalog and created a character based on what they thought the voice of the catalog would be. At first, no one informed the real John Peterman that his company was about to be satirized on the nation’s number one television program in 1995. But eventually folks made contact and began sending advance scripts to the Kentucky businessman for approval — which he always gave.

John Peterman tried a rapid expansion when the series brought national attention to his brand with retail stores, but that venture landed him in bankruptcy. So he started over and went back to what he did best: periodic catalogs — and a website — full of men’s and women’s clothing, luggage and novelty gifts. The J. Peterman Company offices are still located in Lexington on Old Vine Street.

Kentucky (Tall) Tales: The Versailles Road Castle

20 Sep

Note: We’ve been collecting stories — curiosities really — about Kentucky. The things not found in history books or in visitors’ guides. The things that are rumored, whispered about and told as (sometimes) far-fetching tales by locals. Sometimes they’re totally true. Sometimes they have to be taken with a grain of salt … making them all the more fun.

These (tall) tales are easily some of our favorite things we’ve discovered along the way. We’ll share them with you as we find them so you can enjoy the hidden stories of Kentucky between our trip posts. These are different from our “Kentucky Stories,” which highlight notable people and events in the state’s history.  Here is the first of many tales.

Everything But the Moat

Every time I return to Lexington, I exit Bluegrass Parkway onto Versailles Road and head into town. Without fail, traffic noticeably slows as I top the last hill before I enter Fayette County and the stone turrets come into view. If the Bluegrass region’s rolling green hills don’t already resemble the landscapes of the United Kingdom, the stone walls, turrets and draw bridge of the Versailles Road Castle make you feel like you’ve traveled across the Atlantic — or maybe even back in time.

As far as I can tell, the castle is void of any knights in shining armor and the clusters of people standing outside its gates are awed tourists — not bands of disgruntled villagers with torches and demands for lower taxes (they can be found downtown outside the Mayor’s office). But there have been rumors aplenty that I’ve heard over the years living in Lexington as to the origins of the royal-looking structure. It’s not a modern-day fairy-tale home and the owners didn’t move out because it is haunted.

Here’s the real story: Rex and Caroline Martin got the idea for a castle during a European vacation in 1968. They purchased 53 acres on U.S. 60 outside of Lexington and broke ground in 1969. The Martins’ finished estate was to have seven bedrooms, fifteen baths, four corner towers, a dozen turrets, 12-foot-high walls, a drawbridge, an Italian fountain in the courtyard and tennis courts in back. But before the castle could be completed, the couple divorced leaving the place unfinished an empty.

In 1988, Rex put the castle on the market with a FOR SALE sign posted on the castle’s gates that announced showings were by appointment only and listed a phone number. Many who tried to call the number to inquire about a price claim no one ever answered or returned phone calls. Rex died in 2003 without ever selling the castle. His estate sold it to a Florida couple who began renovations to convert the property into a bed and breakfast. But in 2004 the house caught fire, burning many parts of the main building to the ground. Naturally, rumors circled surrounding the cause of the fire. Lightning, arson, ignited on purpose to gain insurance money because renovation costs were turning out to be pricier than expected. But no charges ever came about.


After the fire, the Florida couple rebounded and the destroyed building was rebuilt. The Castle Post opened a few years ago as a luxury hotel and venue. Room rates range from $355 to $455 per night; suites go for between $500 and $800 to stay in the turret suites. The castle host weddings, corporate events and dinners as well. Find photos of the renovated castle here. The Castle Post is located on Versailles Road (U.S. 60) west of Keeneland Race Course near the Woodford County line.

A Walk in the Park: Gratz Park History

15 Sep

2 blocks North of Main Street in downtown Lexington sits a beautiful bit of green-space between Transylvania University and West Second Street. Originally dedicated as Centennial Park in 1876, Gratz Park was renamed for Benjamin Gratz, a prominent hemp grower who made his home amongst the Federal and Greek revival homes surrounding the park. And trust us, if ever you win the lottery, you’ll want to buy one of these houses- beautiful architecture in Lexington’s first historic district, and only 2 blocks away from downtown (where all the fun is if you ask us).

Between the beautiful, historic homes, the mirrored facades of Transylvania University and the Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning (more on these later), the views of the Lexington skyline, and the peace and quiet, Gratz Park might be my favorite place in Lexington (C).

Probably the main reason Gratz Park is so cool, is just how much history you’ll find in a small, 1-block radius. Standing in the middle of the park you can see the oldest University west of the Allegheny Mountains, Lexington’s first public library, the John Hunt Morgan House, the birthplace of the Lexington Clinic, the headquarters for both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War, and the home of the founder of the Lexington Leader newspaper (later incorporated with the Lexington Herald to create the Lexington Herald-Leader).

The Three Ugly Sisters

Officially known as the Goodloe Houses, The 3 Ugly Sisters are one of the more popular Lexington history stories.  Originally built by the widow Mrs. William Cassius Goodloe for her 3 daughters around 1901, were the last homes built around Gratz Park. Now, I haven’t found any pictures of the Goodloe daughters while trolling about the internet, but I wonder how the popular nickname for the houses: “The Three Ugly Sisters” got started?

The Bodley-Bullock House

The Bodley-Bullock House is a sweet little mansion that sits right at the corner of Market Street and West 2nd. Originally built for former Lexington Mayor Thomas Pindell, it was soon sold to Thomas Bodley for whom the house is now named. During the Civil War, both the Union army and the Confederacy occupied Lexington, and where do you think they established their headquarters? Both factions requisitioned the Bodley-Bullock House for their use! Dr. Bullock, who’s claim to fame is as the founder of the Lexington Clinic, eventually bought the house in the early 20th century. The house is currently used by the Junior League of Lexington, is open with exhibits during GalleryHop, and one can often spy on weddings in the back garden during the warmer seasons.

The Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning

Its pretty tough to miss the Carnegie Center when you go to Gratz Park- just look for the big, white building staring down Transylvania University from the other end of the park. Full disclosure: I have a very special place in my heart for the Carnegie Center both as a book nerd (the Center was Lexington’s first public library) and because I tutor there during the school year. Between 1883 and 1929, 2,509 libraries were funded and built by bleeding-heart industrialist and fellow book nerd Andrew Carnegie. Opened in 1905, the Carnegie Center has also served as a school, and now as Kentucky’s premier center for learning and the literary arts. The best part? Every time you visit the Carnegie Center you’re encouraged to take a book from the large selection donated  by like-minded book lovers!

The Fountain of Youth

Unfortunately, I don’t think you’ll find the secret to staying young by drinking from this fountain, in fact we discourage you from drinking from ANY public fountain… Donated by beloved Kentucky author James Lane Allen (NOT Ponce de Leon) in 1933, the fountain is a “gift to the children of Lexington” (or anyone who needs a reminder to stay young at heart).

The Hunt-Morgan House

Not quite on Gratz Park, but still on Gratz Park, the Hunt-Morgan house is one of the better known Lexington historic homes (along with Ashland, the Mary Todd Lincoln House, and the Pope Villa). Here’s the family story: John Wesley Hunt, the 1st millionaire west of the Alleghenies built the house in 1814, and in case you were wondering, $1 million in 1814 is worth almost $13 million today! He liked to do business with people like Henry Clay and John Jacob Astor. His grandson, John Hunt Morgan was the famous Confederate Civil War general known as the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy” who led Morgan’s raid in 1863. But the best story about John Hunt Morgan was his leap over the garden’s brick wall on horseback to kiss his mother goodbye. Now John Wesley Hunt’s (remember he built the house) great-grandson was Dr. Thomas Hunt Morgan born in 1866. His pioneering work in genetics earned him a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1933. Whew! Try living up to that legacy!

Some Other Cool Places You’ll Find in and Around Gratz Park:

For more information on Gratz Park and ALL the buidlings/history you can find there, check out the Gratz Park Neighborhood Association webpage


A Road Trip Through Cheapside Park and Some Lexington, Kentucky History

8 Sep

In Lexington’s Cheapside Park, it isn’t uncommon to see people enjoying lunch at one of the cafes or restaurants that line the street, or lounging around on outdoor patios. In the evenings locals walk their dogs on the lawn of the old courthouse, and on summer nights, bands play on the Pavilion stage. It is most certainly a different picture than ones painted of the same plot of land in Lexington’s history.


More than a century separate these two photographs. The first was taken in July 2011, the second in November 1887.

During the era of slavery, the lawn of Lexington’s courthouse was one of the largest slave-trading localities in the state. According to historical documents, slaves were auctioned and sold in the courtyard that stands between today’s West Main West Short streets in front of the old courthouse building. The healthier and younger slaves considered to be more able-bodied for work were auctioned on one side of the lawn, while the slaves that were older or had health problems were auctioned on the other side. The latter was dubbed “the cheap side.” And while the history of the origin has faded and slaves have long been absent from the courthouse lawn, the name stuck.

The courthouse that stands next to Cheapside Park — that is no longer a working courthouse, but now a museum and office space —is the fourth on that site. The first was built in 1788; Lexington had one courthouse before the construction of the first on this block. The current Lexington Circuit and District courts are located a few blocks to the east of this site.

A block to the west  on the southwest corner of South Mill and West Main streets is where the settling of Lexington began. A blockhouse was built in 1779 and eventually was expanded into a fort that stood largely between South Mill and South Broadway streets on West Main. The northern edge of the fort stopped in the middle of what is now West Main Street. (*Note: East Main and West Main are divided by Limestone Street. The road to the east of Limestone — or toward the Main Branch of the Lexington Public Library and toward the new courthouses — is considered East Main; the road to the west of Limestone — or toward Broadway and Rupp Arena — is considered West Main. The same is true for Vine and Short streets.)

The intersection where the settling of Lexington began. (And no, that orange construction barrel isn’t the marker).

Our friend over at The Kaintuckeean informed us that the plaque marking the town’s original settlement is located on Vine Street, just east of the Hilton Hotel entrance. Here it is:

original settlement at Lexington, Kentucky

This plaque marks the location of the original Lexington Fort. Photo courtesy of


Across the street from this intersection stands the tallest building in Lexington. 


The 5/3 Bank building — or “Big Blue Building” as we wise locals call it — stands in stark contrast to how the block looked less than a century ago. The second photo was taken in April 1920.

Sometimes when Cameron and I set out on a road trip, we have a particular plan or goal in mind. That’s not to say that we actually stick to this plan, but we know where we are headed and what we want to see. This time around, we truly had no plan at all. So we just wandered.

When we met up in Lexington a few weeks ago, we left our cars parked along a curb downtown (expertly parallel parked, I might add — thanks for those driving lessons, Dad) and set out on foot. We walked through Transylvania University’s campus to Gratz Park and then continued down Limestone to Cheapside Park and Main Street.

It was one of those unbearably hot days of late summer — the air was so thick with heat that not even the coolest afternoon breezes brought any relief. But as we wandered along, stopping at all of those historical markers and learning a little more about the history of the town we grew up in, we stopped caring so much about that St. Bernard that seemed to be blowing hot puffs of breath in our faces, and we thought more about the origins of Kentucky’s second-largest city.

Not everything can be learned in one afternoon. And there are many, many things to do in Lexington that involve air conditioning and entertainment far better than Cameron’s lame banter (sorry, Cam). But if you haven’t done it before — and my guess is many of you haven’t — I’d invite you to get out and walk around the historic areas of Lexington … or of your own hometown.

It’s amazing the things you might learn.


• If you’re going to take a walking tour of Lexington, it’s best to do a little research ahead of time. There are many resources on the Internet that can help you find starting places for your self-guided tour as well as key points you won’t want to pass up. For Lexington, we recommend the Convention and Visitors Bureau Bicycle Tour of Historic Lexington. You don’t actually have to have a bike … we walked it. Also check out this Historic Downtown Walking Tour website for more information. If you are specifically interested in the African American Heritage Tour, check out this website.

• As always, make sure you have your camera.

• If you have a friend who has random trivia or historical knowledge (like Cameron does) take them along, it will provide information and entertainment along your journey.

• Take a water bottle — especially if you’re touring on one of those lovely late summer afternoons.

• Talk to the locals. We met a delightfully friendly and fun man who lived along one of downtown’s streets. He was walking his dog Winston Churchill and he had lots to tell us about Lexington.

• Read those historical markers. They were put there for a reason … they’re often filled with historical information.

• You’re not in a history class, it’s supposed to be fun. So make it fun! No one says learning has to be boring! (Now I’m REALLY starting to sound like Cameron).

What it’s going to cost you:

Not a dang thing. We had an afternoon of fun, laughter and learning for FREE. Well, unless you include the couple bottles of water we took with us. Oh, and the taco ingredients we bought after our journey … we worked up quite an appetite.

And if you’re looking for other fun and free things to do in Lexington, check out this list from the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

And …

For more of our photos of downtown Lexington, check out My Old Kentucky Road Trip’s Flickr page.


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