A Hidden Gem Comes to Light
A QUAINT KENTUCKY SUBURB KEEPS AN ARCHITECTURAL SECRET SAFE UNTIL IT FINDS THE OWNER IT DESERVES.
A quaint Kentucky suburb keeps an architectural secret safe until it finds the owner it deserves.
Seven miles east of downtown Louisville, Kentucky, lies the suburb of St. Matthews, named for the Episcopal church built there in 1850.
These days, the area is home to two of the state’s largest malls, along with a wealth of smaller shops and restaurants. And on a quiet street right near its Museum Row, St. Matthews also houses one of the richest local remnants of the Victorian era—a grand former home now known as the Inn at Woodhaven.
This is the abode and opus of innkeeper Marsha Burton, who runs a welcoming ship with a little help from her friendly 15-year-old Maltese, Phoebe. She found the matching set of main house and carriage house nearly a quarter of a century ago, and has been steadily renovating and refining them ever since.
The 1853 Gothic Revival buildings that now comprise the inn were designed by Andrew Jackson (or A.J.) Downing, commonly considered America’s first great landscape architect. The main house is a textbook example of Downing’s work—quite literally, as Marsha has actually seen one of the home’s ceilings in a Downing tome. She describes the accompanying carriage house as “much fancier” than was typical of the era, which dovetailed perfectly with her plan to turn it into a gorgeous place for guests.
When Marsha purchased the two buildings in 1993, they had been condemned because they had no heating or electricity. She recognized their wonderful bones in time to salvage them, however, and still finds herself marveling at how much of the historical detail—even down to the original doorknobs—had survived when she found them. “I’m very lucky, because the house pretty much sat vacant,” she says. “All I did was carve out bathrooms and paint.”
It’s quite easy for Marsha to run out of breath relaying all the pieces that remain from A.J. Downing’s original design—the Gothic trim on the exterior facade and its twin porches, cantilever staircase in the hallway, second-floor bay window and 14-foot ceilings. “The doors, the woodwork, the ceiling plaster, all original,” she says. “Plus all of the shutters on the windows, which I love because they look like paneling when folded back.”
Many of the full rooms are original as well, including the ornate dining room and the master bedroom on the second floor. The Rose Room boasts an original water closet area, as well as a pocket door that leads out to the hallway. Preserving history doesn’t have to mean sacrificing luxury, of course, and the rooms are outfitted with varied amenities such as king beds, steam showers, coffee/tea and snack stations and even a modern programmed tub in the Garden Room.
“I’m lucky because the house pretty much sat vacant— all I did was carve out bathrooms and paint.”
While Marsha has done her utmost to preserve the rooms’ original configurations, a few adjustments were—understandably—made to accommodate modern and guest-friendly life. “What is now the kitchen used to be the butler’s pantry,” she says, “and the original kitchen has been converted to be a combination living and office space for me.”
Marsha outfitted the modern kitchen with floor-to-ceiling cabinets with glass doors, a touch that makes the space feel more open and adds the perfect place for Marsha to display more of her treasures. As an added bonus and credit to her attention to detail, she says that “everyone thinks the cabinets are original.” The original kitchen, which was located in the back room of the main house, is now a charming hideaway for the inn’s benefactor.
The original outdoor cooking kitchen in the carriage house now boasts a lovely hearth, and Marsha obtained tax credits to renovate the room and restore it to its original glory. “The teal color now on the walls was on everything except the floor,” she says. “There was no floor, because the floor had disintegrated!”
The largest task Marsha faced was renovating the attic. A work-stop order over a fire escape (“It couldn’t be by a window, but there are windows everywhere!” she says) led to slower-thanexpected progress, but she persisted, finally achieving her vision in 2003. Now endowed to its full potential, the generous space holds an 1820s rope bed with a functional trundle underneath, a sitting area with a sleigh bed, a bathroom big enough to hold a chaise lounge, two pedestal sinks and a pocket door to complement the one in the Rose Room.
Marsha’s abundance of work towards the preservation of this historical jewel didn’t go unnoticed, and she received the Home Builder’s Award in 1998 for her restoration and preservation efforts on the main house. She wasn’t satisfied with just restoration, however. As we will detail in a future issue, she also added another building to the mix, based on A.J. Downing’s plans—the captivating space that would become known to guests as Rose Cottage.
Right. Contrary to the belief that antiques make rooms dark and stuffy, the Garden Room seems always awash in light. Robin’s-egg blue sets off the warm wood headboard—just one example of the ornate bedframes Marsha has curated throughout the inn. Above. The oval mirror on the Garden Room vanity complements the nearby vintage settee in both color and composition. Marsha describes her decorating approach for the inn as “a mix of antiques and antique-looking.”