The mystery of the McCracken-Wilgus House came into my life on a cold day this past February. (I didn't actually know it was a mystery until much later.) The first clues arrived in the form of an e-mail asking me to write about the house from current owner Mike Sukop. "The main part of the house was built in 1814 and two wings were added in the 1850s. It has 4 fireplaces (Federal style in the oldest part of the house, and marble in one of the 1850s areas)" the tantalizing letter began. Mike went on to detail the improvements he had made including a new roof, a new heating system and insulation. He also mentioned the best aspects of life on Wilgus Avenue (it is close to UK, Transylvania, downtown and the Kentucky Theatre). He wrote of the type of person he would like to see buy his house as he finishes his doctorate and moves to Idaho. "I would like to see someone who would have some emotional attachment to the house and will see that it is properly cared for in the future."
Then I heard nothing. March and April came and went. Finally in the first week of May another email arrived:
"A lot has happened. Soon after I traded e-mails with you, I got a call out of the blue from a Marjorie Godfrey [a historian working on the restoration of the Pope Villa] who wanted to see the house out of some historical interest. A few weeks later she showed up with Dr. Patrick Snadon from the School of Architecture and Interior Design at the University of Cincinnati. Marjorie has determined that there was some connection between an Asa Wilgus here and the Villa. A few weeks later, a group of restoration architects (several out-of-town Pope consultants) and their BGT client came by to see the place too. They all seem to be fascinated by the mouldings - running their hands along them in a sensuous way.
With this information came an invitation to see the house and to meet Marjorie Godfrey. Houses built in the Federal period appeal to me with their simplicity of design and economy of detail so I was really looking forward to touring this in-town specimen that appeared to be so important to architectural history."
When I drove onto Wilgus Avenue (off Third Street near Chestnut) it took me a minute to find the house as it seems to sit sideways on its lot. (The house fronted on Third Street until 1901 when the 22 acres it formerly occupied were subdivided.)
The compact house owes the excellent condition of its original woodwork and most particularly that of the sensuous mantle to the fact that there have never been any major renovations to the center portion of the house. This provides the pleasurable opportunity to see a house from this era much as it stood when built. Meeting Marjorie provided a further thrill; she knows an amazing amount about our town - particularly since she moved here five years ago at the age of 85. She showed me several documents and a chapter about Asa Wilgus from Patrick's book. I couldn't gather from what she told me how Asa Wilgus fit into the picture and I was embarrassed to keep asking so I decided to do a little research myself.
What I call a mystery might better be called a discrepancy but I whiled away far too many hours with Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew to pass up this opportunity at sleuthing.
As I began my attempt to connect the house to Asa Wilgus, I started at the most obvious place - I wrote to Jim McKeighan. He was able to tell me that a McCracken was living in the house in 1855 but little else. Next I went to the vault at the County Clerk's office to research the deeds.
When researching deeds one must start with the most recent sale and work back from there. The first day I got through a couple of owners, including a John Johnson, and in the 1970s and 1980s a single woman, Grace Marshall, who owned the house for thirty years. She bought it from another single woman, Sarah McMillan, who bought the house in 1912 from three single sisters, Clemmie, Maggie and Emma Foster.
I had been working for several hours when I came to the 1906 deed between the Foster sisters and Irvin and Tibbie W. Prather. In the body of the deed I discovered that Tibbie's maiden name was Wilgus. Hmm. It also mentioned in the property description, "Wilgus Avenue being a new street." From there I found a handwritten document that detailed an auction proceeding where Tibbie and three of her sisters bought the property from the rest of the heirs of G.D. Wilgus. I came to dead end at that point but I had a feeling that this referred to the Wilgus of "McCracken-Wilgus" rather than Asa who by all accounts had left Lexington by 1820.
That afternoon I called John Johnston who owned the house from 1976 until the mid 1980s. He did quite a bit of work on the house and by dating the woodwork believed that it was built in the 1830s and that G.D. removed a large addition on the back of the house when he remodeled it in his old age. He also gave me two new names. He told me that the house was built by a Megowen who sold it to McCracken who then sold it to G.D. Wilgus. He did say that he thought it was possible that Asa was G.D.'s grandfather.
I went back to the vault to search the Index of Deeds. Sure enough, I found deeds going back to Robert Megowen's original outlot from the City in 1791. I scoured the records in the public library to learn that G.D. was "...one of the best known and at one time one of the really wealthy citizens of this city" from the front-page obituary of the Leader in 1893, and that he owned a brickyard, but not who his father or grandfather was.
It seems likely that the house would be named for this Wilgus: he was wealthy, well-known (he built the Opera House, St. Paul's, the Phoenix Hotel and the First Presbyterian Church) and lived in the house for almost 30 years.
It is possible that Asa Wilgus did build the house for Robert Megowen. The experts say that the "landscapes" of the woodwork as well as the square floor plan are similar to those in the Pope Villa which we know Asa built. As Marjorie Godfrey told me, "Everything with history, my dear, is supposition."
I know Nancy and Encyclopedia would not be satisfied with that but Mike Sukop consoled me with this, his final e-mail: "So overall, it's the old house we aren't sure about. It's on Wilgus Ave. There are Wilgus bricks. Maybe readers can help."
327 Wilgus Avenue
3 bedrooms, 2 baths
2200 Square feet
Contact Mike Sukop www.uky.edu/~msukop/Wilgus/
If you have a unique or interesting house for sale contact Lissa Sims at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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