Today’s effort is dedicated to our Christian County

Historian, William T. Turner, without whose input this column could not exist, and without whose

lifelong devotion to the history of Christian County we would know but a fraction of what we do about our cultural and

architectural past.

As we revisit Hopkinsville in the year 1892, (when Republican Benjamin “Little Ben” Harrison — grandson of President John Tyler — held sway in Washington), we find a new and substantial house going up at 1709 South Virginia St. Only recently had the pond in front of the new house been filled in (between 16th and 18th streets), which would soon allow an uninterrupted flow of traffic on Virginia Street for the first time. Heretofore to get from 16th and Virginia to 18th and Virginia, it was necessary to take a U-shaped journey from 16th to Main and from Main on 18th back to Virginia Street.

Built by Forbes & Bro. for the widow Maria Jane Walker, the interior was outfitted with up-to-the-minute late-Victorian details. The more restrained exterior will yield a few secrets on close inspection.

The master carpenter who did the interior and exterior woodwork was William Wallace Wilkins (1851-1927). He is best remembered as being the father of Ruth Overshiner, who was for years a fixture in the city clerk’s office. Possessed of a dynamic personality, she was active in the Business & Professional Women’s Club. W. W. Wilkins provided the woodwork in many homes here in town, and built all of the pews in the old 9th Street Christian Church (at Liberty Street) and those in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (demolished) on Seventh Street between Virginia and Liberty streets.

Mrs. Maria Jane Walker was the widow of Baptist minister, William B. Walker. A country preacher and farmer, he had spread the gospel all over this part of the country. Previously, had lived on Julian Road in a big mid 19th-century farmhouse (1840-1850), which is still standing.

As their new house took shape, the town was abuzz with transportation industry gossip. The Ohio Valley Railroad was coming into town (later to be acquired by the Illinois Central). Its terminus was the railroad passenger station on West Ninth Street.

The first electric lights were installed in 1892 and consisted solely of overhead street lights at several intersections (on Main Street at Fourth Street, Seventh Street, Ninth Street, on Virginia Street at Seventh Street and Ninth Street, and on Ninth Street at Liberty Street, and Clay and Campbell streets). Not yet available in homes, electricity (even in the streets) was considered to be “too bright and would therefore cause you to go blind.” The Walker house was not wired when built, nor did it (or any other new construction of the period) have indoor plumbing.

Maria Jane Walker and her two daughters — Miss Dora and Miss Jennie — lived in the house until the time that the last of them (Jennie) died in 1940. Neither daughter ever married. Jennie was the principal personality of the house, lived the longest and eventually became a recluse. During her later years few people were invited into her house. Jennie lived there alone for well over 10 years after her sister Dora died. By that time the place had been allowed to deteriorate and was in very sad condition.

Enter Howard and Anna Major, the great uncle and aunt of William T. Turner. They bought and restored the house in 1940, adding plumbing, a furnace and electric wiring throughout. After five years, the house was sold to W. E. “Gene” Turner and his wife Virginia. Gene was a teller at Planters Bank & Trust Co. Virginia was a second-grade teacher at West Side Elementary School for many years. Just so he could remember the date, William was born in 1940, the same year as the Latham Hotel fire. He and his sister Christine (eight years his senior) moved into this house when he was 5 years old, and it was home base until he was 18 years of age.

Rooms or apartments were rented on the second floor by the Turners for the entire time that they owned the house. A rear ground floor bedroom was added for William in 1950.

Virginia Turner sold the house in 1973 to Dr. James B. Myers. After the Turner tenure, there were multiple owners, and the house is presently up for sale.

Of the numerous vignettes that spring readily to William’s mind during his formative years at 1709 South Virginia St., a date in August of 1950 stands out .

It was the occasion of his sister Christine’s marriage at the First Baptist Church, and the house was extensively refurbished and redecorated for the reception to follow, including the sanding and refinishing of all wood floors.

During breakfast that morning, there was a resounding crash. The second floor front hall ceiling had fallen onto the staircase (a bride’s delight and photo op area) and all over the front hall. Friends, neighbors and volunteers leapt to the challenge and by the hour of the reception the house was again spotless. Virginia Turner prayed that no one would stand under the stairs and looked up … and apparently no one did.

On another occasion in February of 1951, William remembers the family huddling around the large register in the front hall to keep warm during the coldest day on record in Hopkinsville, 18 degrees.

This vernacular Victorian house is full of surprises. The rather high style staircase of the period is more sophisticated than the other interior elements. The fireplace surrounds in both the front parlor and master bedroom (front, right) are in the current fashion. It is interesting to note that the mantles in the bedrooms above are just for show (an unusual but not unknown mode of decoration). They probably included painted panel inserts (used commonly to cover the firebox when fires were out of season) in an effort to conceal the fact that they were not working models.

Perhaps the most unusual feature of the interior was the three-panel sliding shutters (still in evidence) on all of the original windows. William offers up the news that they were “heck” to operate.

Outside we encounter an amalgam of disparate architectural details (not uncommon in houses of the period). The angle of the roof is reminiscent of Federal Period houses. It has Italian brackets all around the cornice.

The most unusual feature of all is the enclosed entry vestibule, with hooded double doors to the outside, in the Classical Revival mode. The side door to the porch from the vestibule and the interior entry door are identical, nicely detailed and late Victorian in style — in sharp contrast to these outside entry double doors. Perhaps this incongruous neoclassical exterior door design was a salute to The World’s Columbian Exposition (The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893) then being erected. This remarkable achievement (the Fair) would signal the end of the Victorian period and turn the architectural tide in favor of neoclassicism in both commercial and residential design. This new design mentality would co-exist with other styles until the mid-20th century.

Finally we come to the hood over the double entrance doors, supported by 1880s -1890s  style Victorian brackets, matching the details of the enclosed side porch.

There are two other extant examples of hooded doorways in Hopkinsville — the Virginia Street Baptist Church (1892) and the Ellis house on South Main Street (1899), plus the now defunct Edmunds-Bronaugh house (1884) at 1615 South Main St. Notice the similarities between the hoods and side porches of the Bronaugh and Turner houses. These almost identical details span a time period of nearly a decade.

Hopefully the Walker-Turner house in 2011 will find the loving owner it needs to restore this architectural treasure, as it found the Major family in 1940. Every 50 years or so, old houses do need a little sprucing up with tender loving care.

In February we delve into the world of Christian County architects, and look forward to sharing the information old and new that we uncover.

JAMES. B. COURSEY is a contributing columnist for the Kentucky New Era, with Christian County Historian William T. Turner. This column runs each month in the Living section. He can be reached at jbcourseydesign@aol.com.

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