Kentucky Mansion: The Thomas January House

Southerners are known for being passionate about historic architecture, but it takes a different type of dedication to live in one.

Story by Mimi Read
Kentucky Landmark The Thomas January House
Photo: Laurey W. Glenn

Kentucky Mansion
Lexington, KY
Name of House: The Thomas January House
Year Built: Circa 1810
Architect: Unknown
Style: Greek Revival with Italianate flourishes
Current Owner: John Wilkirson, an antiques dealer

Around 1810, local hemp producer and civic leader Thomas January built this grand city house for himself. In 1840, Tobias Gibson, a wealthy Louisiana plantation owner of mixed race bought the home to escape hot Deep South summers. After Tobias sold the January House, it lodged the Lexington Episcopal Theological Seminary and later Campbell-Hagerman College, a finishing school for women. During the 1960s, it was divided into nine apartments. When John Wilkirson bought the house in '99, he combined two apartments on the main floor into one large unit for himself. With plenty of room to spare, John continues to rent out the upstairs apartments.

If These Walls Could Talk
During its years as a dilapidated rental, the "Big Spooky House" was a hippie haven where legendary Halloween parties transpired. This is one of many traditions John keeps alive. Legend has it that the house is haunted by a young woman who was jilted at the altar and subsequently hanged herself from the stairway. Her ghost is said to appear in the mirrors of the ballroom.

Evolution of the House
January built a modest Federal farmhouse consisting of a two-story, three-bay core flanked by a couple of two-bay, single-story wings. In 1840, when Gibson bought it, he hired local architects John McMurtry and Thomas Lewinski to make the house grander. They brought the wings to two stories and added an unquestionably Southern, antebellum-style central portico supported by four Ionic columns. The architects also added cast-iron and terra-cotta window moldings and iron balconies, which were made at local foundries.

All About the Details
The stupendous gilt-framed overmantel mirrors throughout the main rooms have been in the house since the 1840s, including the ones that eccentrically stretch out to valances over the windows. Handsome mantelpieces downstairs are made of white statuary marble. A beautiful Federal archway survives in an upstairs hall. Windows have women's names scratched in the corners; Wilkirson surmises that past female residents might have done this with their diamond rings.

Meet the Owner

What led you to life in a landmark?
I grew up in an old home in rural Kentucky. Since then, I could never get used to the hermetically sealed comforts of a newly built house.

What's most endearing about the house?
Its 12½-foot ceilings and nearly 9-foot-high windows and doors are perfect for a 6'4" antiques dealer who constantly shifts furniture around.

Which room is your favorite?
My unconventional kitchen is 40 feet long and 10 feet wide—a sunporch stretching across the back of the house. There may be little room for mundane cabinets, but oh, the light!

Has the home's history influenced your lifestyle?
So far I've refused to install central air-conditioning. I cool the house the old-fashioned way. The twice-daily opening and closing of shutters and the adjusting of double-hung window sashes, plus a few strategically placed fans, all make the house almost bearable in the summer.

What lesson have you learned living here?
Patience. Trying to do everything at once and as soon as possible is a big mistake. Once you strip away the patina, there's not much chance of bringing it back.