Mentelle neighborhood’s history

The Mentelle neighborhood’s first recorded resident was James Masterson, who fought with George Rogers Clark in the Revolutionary War. He came to Lexington in 1779 as one of the first settlers. His brother, Richard, founded Masterson Station, a pioneer fort five miles west of town.

Masterson House
James Masterson’s 1790s house, hidden by 1920s stucco. (Photo: Tom Eblen)

In 1790, James Masterson paid $200 for 100 acres bounded by what is now East Main Street, Forest Avenue, Winchester Road and the eastern edge of Mentelle Park. The land was purchased from Gen. James Wilkinson, who had been appointed by Virginia as a commissioner to settle the estate of Col. John Todd, who died in the Battle of Blue Licks in 1782. Masterson built a house on this land soon afterward and it still stands, much disguised, at 715 Bullock Place.

Masterson was “a genuine specimen of the pioneer type,” George Washington Ranck wrote in his 1872 book, History of Lexington, Kentucky: It’s Early Annals and Recent Progress. “He was straight as an Indian, and devoted to the woods and the excitements of a woodman’s life. Long after Lexington had become an important town, he continued to dress in the primitive hunter style, and invariably wore his powder horn and carried his rifle. He loved to tell of the dangers which threatened ‘the fort’ when he was married in it, and the number of deer and buffalo he had killed between it and the present Ashland.” Masterson died in 1838 at the age of 86.

Neighborhood highlighted on a late 1800s map.
Neighborhood highlighted on an 1870s map.

Within a few years, Masterson’s heirs began selling off his farm. Thirty-five acres on the west side was sold in 1845 to Henry Bell, who built one of Lexington’s grandest mansions, Woodside. It was destroyed by fire in 1884. Bell’s son, David Davis Bell, built a new mansion there, which is now owned by the city and called Bell House. The Bell family’s land, except for a park preserved around the mansion, was subdivided in 1906 to become the Bell Court neighborhood.

The Metcalf family acquired the east side of Masterson’s farm. The Metcalfs sold 14 acres in 1854 to businessman Waldemarde Mentelle Jr. He was the son of Waldemarde and Charlotte Victorie Leclere Mentelle, who had left Paris during the French Revolution. They moved to Lexington in 1798 and were associated with Transylvania University and the Bank of the United States. In 1805, they were given lifetime use of a house and five acres across Richmond Road from Henry Clay’s Ashland estate. They opened a day and boarding school for girls on this property in 1820. Their students included Mary Todd, the future wife of Abraham Lincoln, who attended from 1832 to 1836.

Waldemarde Mentelle Jr.'s circa 1858 house. His sister, Rose Mentelle, is at left.
Waldemarde Mentelle Jr.’s circa 1858 house. His sister, Rose Mentelle, is at left.

Waldemarde Mentelle Jr., whose business ventures included a hemp factory, foundry and machine shop, built his home about 1858 and lived there until his death in 1886. The land was left to his sister, Rose Mentelle, who died in 1893.

Just west of Mentelle’s property along East Main Street was 15 acres owned by J.W. McGarvey. This became the first part of Masterson’s farm to be subdivided into a neighborhood. Beginning in 1887, building lots were sold along East Main and a new street, East End Avenue, now called North Hanover Avenue. The next subdivision, in 1889, was built beside the Bell property along another new street, Walton Avenue.

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Construction of Mentelle Park began in 1906 with the street, curbs and limestone pillars.

In 1905, a group of Lexington businessmen that included Mayor Thomas Combs of the Combs Lumber Co. and Henry M. Skillman of the Security Trust Co. formed The Mentelle Co. They bought Waldemarde Mentelle Jr.’s old estate from his sister’s heirs.

52 Mentelle Park was one of the first five houses built, 1906-1907.
52 Mentelle Park, one of the first five houses built 1906-1907. (Photo: Thomas A. Knight)

Their development, Mentelle Park, was marketed as one of Lexington’s most prestigious neighborhoods. The property was subdivided into 56 lots on a street with a median park. Four limestone pillars were placed at entrances at each end. Mentelle Park had all of the modern amenities: sewers, gas lines, limestone curbs and an asphalt street. Power lines were run at the back of the lots so there were no poles along the street.

When lots did not sell quickly, the Mentelle Co. built five houses to get the neighborhood started — Mentelle Park Nos. 9, 12, 18, 33 and 52. The company also hired Thomas A. Knight, a well-known photographer and publishing entrepreneur from Cleveland, to produce a slick marketing booklet in 1907. But after the death of one of the Mentelle Co. partners, D.F. Frazee, the 40 lots that had not been sold were disposed of at auction in June 1909.

Lex Brick 1907 copy
1907 fire insurance map.

Cramer and North Ashland avenues were built in 1906 to connect the Lexington Brick Co. plant along the C&O Railroad line with Walton and East Main streets, respectively. (Cramer was originally called Bullock Avenue, but was renamed Cramer for the family that owned the brick company and lived on North Hanover.) Houses were built along both streets.

The Lexington Brick Co. came to the area in 1889 from its former plant on High Street. At its height here, the company had 70 employees and was producing 40,000 bricks a day. In 1903, the company bought 35 acres in what is now the Kenwick neighborhood as a source of brick clay. The brick company left the neighborhood in 1910 for a 57-acre property on Liberty Road.

Morningside AdIn 1913, the land north of Cramer Avenue was developed into the Morningside subdivision, which included a new street, Aurora Avenue. Both were named as the result of a public contest. Two winners split a $25 prize for suggesting the name “Morningside” and ten people split a $10 prize for the name “Aurora Avenue.”

LexHerald19150310 copyThe portion of Masterson’s farm between what is now Walton Avenue and North Ashland Avenue was owned for many years by the Bullock family, including Maj. Robert S. Bullock, who fought with Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan during the Civil War and lived in Masterson’s old house. In 1915, his son, Judge Frank A. Bullock, subdivided his family’s land into building lots along East Main, Bullock Place, Franklin and Hambrick avenues.

Given Avenue, Hanover Court and Memory Lane (originally called Mentelle Park Extended) were built in the 1920s.

Also in the 1920s, a commercial district began growing up along National and Walton avenues. Major businesses included the Epping Bottling Works (whose building most recently was National Provisions), Perry Lumber Co., Lexington Dairy Co. and General Baking Co.

Perry Lumber Co. store on Walton Avenue, 1941. (Photo: Lafayette Studios)
Perry Lumber Co. store on Walton Avenue, 1941. (Photo: Lafayette Studios)
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Epping Bottling Co.’s plant in 1938. The building most recently was National Provisions. (Photo: Lafayette Studios)

 

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General Baking Co. plant at 217 Walton Ave. in 1935. (Photo: Lafayette Studios)

 

 

The Mentelle neighborhood was mostly developed by 1935. But new townhouses and infill residences have been added in recent years because of the neighborhood’s prime location and popularity.

VanMeter
Hariett Van Meter (Photo: IBP)

The neighborhood has been home to an eclectic group of people. Well-known residents have included Harriet Van Meter, who in the 1960s started the International Book Project in her basement at 17 Mentelle Park; lawyer and historian William Townsend, whose books include Lincoln and the Bluegrass; and, currently, author Ed McClanahan, whose books include The Natural Man.

The neighborhood has included two schools, two churches, a synagogue and a variety of businesses. Henry Clay High School was built in 1928 on former Bullock property along East Main Street between Walton and North Ashland avenues. The school moved to a new campus on Fontaine Road in 1973, and the old building has housed central offices for the Fayette County Public Schools since 1975. The original Ashland Elementary School on North Ashland Avenue was built in 1916 to relieve overcrowding at Maxwell Elementary. Ashland’s original structure was demolished in 1971 and replaced with the current building.

Architectural rendering for the original Ashland Elementary School, 1915.
Architectural rendering for the original Ashland Elementary School, 1915.

The neighborhood continues to evolve. In recent years, Ashland Elementary’s reputation as one of Kentucky’s best public elementary schools has attracted young families, which has helped spark the renovation and resale of many homes. New businesses have come to the area, most notably in the Warehouse Block redevelopment in the former industrial district along National Avenue. That adaptive reuse project by Walker Properties was featured in a New York Times article in 2015.

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Map of a northern section of the Mentelle neighborhood, 1920.

Surrounding the neighborhood

The areas surrounding Mentelle neighborhood also have a rich history. Bell Court, to the west, was discussed above.

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Ashland as it looked in Henry Clay’s lifetime.

To the south, across East Main Street, was statesman Henry Clay’s Ashland farm. Clay was one of the nation’s most significant politicians in the first half of the 19th century: speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, a longtime leader in the U.S. Senate and a four-time Whig Party candidate for president. His skill at political compromise stalled the Civil War for four decades. After the war, Ashland became the first campus of the University of Kentucky. The Olmstead brothers developed much of Ashland along East Main Street/Richmond Road in the 1920s into the Ashland and Ashland Park neighborhoods. Clay’s mansion, designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, America’s first professional architect, was demolished after his death in 1852 because of structural problems and replaced with a more elaborate home on the same foundation. That mansion and its surrounding 17-acre park are now operated by the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation.

John Folwer, owner of Fowler's Garden.
Capt. John Fowler, owner of Fowler’s Gardens.

Land to the north, across Winchester Road, was in Lexington’s first few decades a popular 300-acre private park known as Fowler’s Gardens. It was the scene of many barbecues, political speeches and festivities. The gardens were owned by Capt. John Fowler (1756-1840), an early pioneer who was an officer in the Kentucky militia during the Revolutionary War and served several terms in Congress. The property included a pond that was the source of Town Branch Creek. Both the pond and the creek, before it emerges near Rupp Arena west of downtown, were covered over a century ago. In recent decades, the main part of Fowler’s Gardens has been occupied by the Jif peanut butter plant, which constantly fills the Mentelle neighborhood with the sweet aroma of roasting peanuts.

ashland stock farmTo the east of the Mentelle neighborhood was farmland and Rose Hill, the Mentelles’ home and famous girls’ school. After the Civil War, the land became B.J. Treacy’s Ashland Park Stock Farm. Beginning in the 1920s, the land was developed into the Kenwick and Fairway neighborhoods. Part of Fairway was the site of the U.S. Army Remount Service station, which bought horses for the U.S. Cavalry until World War II.

If you have Mentelle neighborhood historical information or images worth sharing, contact Tom Eblen.