New plans for old Amsden Building going forward
Note: Much of the research for this story was done at the Woodford County Historical Society, the headquarters of which is one of the oldest buildings in the county. The ongoing renovation of the Woodford County Courthouse likely attracts more attention from passersby, but just a few yards away, a much older building is also getting an overhaul. The Amsden Building at the corner of South Main and Court streets was purchased in March for $160,000 by Alex Riddle and two other friends from college who call themselves the Amsden Group. Riddle said they plan on spending $260,000 to renovate the building and prepare it for three tenants upstairs and three new businesses downstairs: the Amsden Coffee Club and Gathered Mercantile store, which are connected and will open in mid-November, and Amsden Tavern, a bourbon bar set to open in mid-December. Riddle, 29, who grew up on a horse farm in Woodford County but attended high school in Lexington, said he spent little time in downtown Versailles while growing up. "We drove past downtown Versailles to get to Lexington to do everything, and even in high school, that drove me crazy. So when we moved back to Versailles, I'd drive through downtown on the way home every day, though it was faster to go around it, just because I like that downtown feel," Riddle said. "So when the building came up for sale and came into our price range, we got really excited ..." Riddle said his wife, Emily, who had a local artist paint an old-time logo in the Gathered Mercantile soon-to-be store, has an "incredible vision" for the downstairs businesses. "And just being open some regular hours and sticking to those hours, so that people have a place they feel they can go and they know it's going to be open, we're really excited to help try to turn that corner in downtown Versailles ..." Riddle said. Two-plus centuries of history The Amsden Building was built in 1889 for J. Amsden and Co, and according to the Woodford County Historical Society, the large Victorian building was first occupied by D.B. Price Grocery Co. and the "Amsden Banking concern." The historical importance of the Amsden Building, as it is popularly known, goes back much further. It's on the original site of Watkins Tavern, which was built around 1790 and run by the mother and stepfather of Henry Clay. In 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette, an important ally during the American Revolution, attended a banquet there and made a speech. Sixty-one years later, the tavern burnt to the ground and the entire block was destroyed. It wasn't the last time fire plagued the site. On Feb. 4, 1895, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that "what was once the handsomest business block in the town is now a ruin." The early morning blaze, which caused an estimated $42,500 in damage, also touched the Woodford Sun building and a "colored lodge" on the west side of the Amsden block. In 1936, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported that the Amsden Bank building was sold at auction to D.R. Duell, a Versailles funeral director. Since then, parts of it have been used for various purposes, including a portion for Versailles police detectives in recent years, but perhaps none so ambitious as those planned by the Amsden Group. Today On a cool morning, Mike Hall of Andover Construction, who grew up in Lexington but has lived in Versailles for the last four years, gave a tour of the old building. Like Riddle, Hall seems to be in it for more than money. He's a member of the Versailles-Midway-Woodford County Planning Commission's Board of Architectural Review and the Versailles City Council's Downtown Planning Advisory Committee (DPAC, which he likes to call the Downtown Planning Action Committee). "I've kind of just seen a need to plug myself into different planning adventures ... (involving) historic preservation and try to help some more things happen here," Hall said. The Amsden Group and Hall's firm had to clear several regulatory hurdles required for a change in use in a historic district building before beginning the renovation in May. Outside, a worker touched up the surroundings of a stained-glass window facing South Main Street. Inside, away from much of the noise of the exterior work, Hall showed off many newly revealed, original portions. He said most of the damage from the old fires was in the attic, with some in the crawl space. "They had structurally rebuilt everything pretty decent except for the staircase, which was kind of in bad shape, which is strange for construction to not address that most structural part of the place," Hall said. Plumbing, HVAC and electrical problems were addressed. Then workers gutted all the walls to expose the original bricks in the mercantile and bar areas and raised nine-foot ceilings to their original 14 feet. "This was part of a demo process where someone would have torn all the plaster off and left the lath (wooden planks) and we've been buying lath from artists and people who collect it ... to bring this back," Hall said. "It's kind of that rustic look that everyone's going for now." Other renovations include restored archway windows on the front of building. "We kind of think this architecture was a contributing building to this history of downtown Versailles," Hall said. "We just love it, being right here on Court Street, having this nice round front and bringing a lot of that glass back was really important to us." Hall said the number one question he was asked after people learned his firm would be fixing up the historic structure was, "Was there a vault in the building?" The answer, Hall said, was no. He's particularly proud of the Amsden Tavern, a 20-person neighborhood bar-type space he said will offer not only bourbon but a few hundred beers as well. Next year As for Riddle, he and another investor are under contract to buy historic properties on the other side of the courthouse: the three Versailles United Methodist Church buildings on Court Street. Plans include a rentable entertainment venue in the church sanctuary, artists' studios and gallery space, a restaurant and loft-style apartments, he said. Their goal - besides turning a profit one day - is to make the heart of downtown Versailles a "destination spot" for people throughout Central Kentucky, Riddle said. They plan to start knocking down walls in January. "I don't like to sit on buildings," he said with a laugh. "We're in it for the long haul. We're having a good time."