The Value of One: The story of how two historic downtown structures were saved
by Joan Grever & James Millard
Reprinted from The Chevy Chaser
June 01, 2009
Lexington, KY – “What difference would it make?” How many times that thought has prevented action that might have made a difference is anyone’s guess. But in the case of two historic downtown structures, it truly took the efforts of just one person (albeit one powerful and one insistent person) to make the difference.
On the south side of Main Street between the Jefferson Street viaduct and the Martin Luther King. Boulevard viaduct, only two structures remain among those that stood from the days when Abraham Lincoln visited his wife’s hometown: The Melodeon Building on the southwest corner of Main and Upper Streets and the Mary Todd Lincoln House just west of the Lexington Center. Each of these structures has a story all its own – both in how they came to be, and how they are still with us.
In 1969, when urban renewal was taking huge bites out of “Old Lexington,” William Lucas, proprietor of the McAdams & Morford drug store that operated on the first floor of the Melodeon Building, sent an urgent telegram to President Richard Nixon, asking the 120-year-old building be granted a reprieve. So many historic structures had already succumbed to the “progress” of the wrecking ball, that this seemed a doomed effort.
Although the idea had been to build a downtown shopping mall on the block bounded by Main, Mill, Vine and Upper streets (a venture that never took hold), cooler heads obviously prevailed. Lucas continued to operate his drug store until 1993. Today, the bar Harvey’s occupies that venerable location.
In fact, until McAdams & Morford closed, a drug store had operated in that location continuously since 1817. George Norton built the first drug store to occupy that spot, a two-story building. In 1849, he tore it down to build a magnificent three-story masonry structure with its fancy cast iron façade – so popular at the time. Norton Drug Store operated on the first floor, with the second and third floors occupied by the Grand Hall, an entertainment area seating 300. The Grand Hall opened with a concert on New Year’s Day 1850. Just a few weeks later, the legendary Tom Thumb – the “28-Inch Giant” – played there. In subsequent years, such nationally renowned performers as Jenny Lind and John Wilkes Booth played the Grand Hall.
During the opening months of the Grand Hall in 1850, a future national figure visited Lexington. But it is doubtful Abraham Lincoln was in any mood for frivolity, for his youngest son, Willie, died that February and he was in Lexington to settle the estate of Mary’s beloved grandmother Elizabeth Parker.
Just the year before, Abe and Mary had returned to Lexington from Springfield, Ill., to settle the estate of her father, Robert S. Todd, who died in the Cholera Epidemic of 1849. Part of that estate included the 1806 Federal style house at what is today 578 W. Main St. The two and a half-story structure was built by William Palmateer to house his “Sign of the Green Tree” tavern.
In 1832, Robert Todd purchased the structure and converted it to a private home for his growing family, including a 13 year old Mary. She continued to live in the house until 1839, when tensions with her stepmother became too great and she moved to Springfield to live with her married sister Elizabeth Edwards. Todd added the rear two-story ell. The property, which bounded on the Town Branch of the Elkhorn, included a carriage house, smoke house, horse stables and cattle barn.
Following Todd’s death and several years of contentious legal fights among the Todd children, the deed was finally signed by 20 Todd heirs – including Abe and Mary – and the property passed out of the family. For the next 120 years, the structure served as a grocery, dry cleaner, plumbing supply warehouse and, most famously, as the “house” where Belle Brezing initiated her career that would lead to national fame as the madam of the “most orderly of disorderly houses” and alleged model for the Belle Watling character in “Gone with the Wind.”
In 1941, W.J. Wilson bought the structure for $7,600 from Mrs. Pat Golden, who had operated a restaurant and boarding house there for decades. Wilson’s intent was for the Commonwealth to preserve the home of Kentucky’s only First Lady. Those efforts failed, and the property was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Sterling Coke for their Van Deren Hardware Company.
It took one First Lady, however, to prevail on behalf of that most-famous First Lady.
In 1967, Beulah Nunn became Kentucky’s First Lady and took up W.J. Wilson’s fallen banner on behalf of Mary Todd’s childhood home. With her considerable clout and indomitable spirit, Mrs. Nunn would let no obstacle stand in her way. When the Cokes refused to sell their parcel with the house, the city considered preserving the structure by moving it to the grounds of Waveland State Shrine. Mrs. Nunn would have none of that, and she convinced the Commonwealth to condemn the property.
Thus, the state government that had thwarted Wilson’s efforts more than three decades earlier, owned the house in 1975, with the Kentucky Mansions Preservation Foundation, Inc., established to operate and maintain the building. Faithfully restored as it was when its namesake was just 13, The Mary Todd Lincoln House is one of the area’s prime tourist attractions.
Today, only two structures still stand along that south side eight-block stretch of Main Street. But, thanks to the “power of one,” they still stand.
For more information on this and other stories of Lexington’s past, please visit the museums of the Lexington History Center, 215 W. Main St.