For centuries, the towering structure known as Holly Rood has maintained its place as a prominent landmark in Clark County atop a gentle hill off Belmont Avenue, near the Clark County Public Library, Clark County Preschool and College Park.
The home, famous for its Federal style architecture distinguishing it among other buildings in the area, was built by former Kentucky Gov. James Clark from 1813 to 1814.
Though originally from Virginia, Clark moved to Winchester after completing his education to open a law practice. He subsequently moved on to political service.
In 1825, Clark was elected to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives left vacant when Henry Clay was appointed secretary of state. He was re-elected twice to the position, but refused re-nomination in 1831. From 1832 to 1835 he served in the Kentucky Senate, and Clark went on to serve as the state’s 12th governor from 1836 until his death in 1839.
Holly Rood was built with local materials, and the bricks that make up its outer walls were fired on the home’s site.
The home was named Holly Rood in honor of Clark’s father-in-law.
Clark’s wife, Susan Forsyth, was buried on the property after her death in 1825, as was Clark himself after his death in 1839. A monument now stands on the property in the same location where he was buried.
Holly Rood was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, and under the management of Clark County government it offers visitors a glimpse into the life of a late Kentucky statesman. The building is full of historic furniture and art, and its caretakers go to painstaking lengths to keep the property in historically-accurate condition.
The home has been used for decades as a location for weddings, teas and community events.
Debbie Barnes has been involved with the Winchester-Clark County Heritage Commission since 2011, and her main focus as part of the organization is looking after and maintaining Holly Rood. She is joined by Pat Bowman, Jean Castle and Sue Anderson.
It is a labor of love for everyone who takes part in the house’s preservation. None of the caretakers at Holly Rood are paid for their work.
During her tenure, Barnes has overseen some needed changes to the property, such as the removal of the original front porch with its iconic columns and replacement of the worn out cedar-shingle roof. She said the commission tried to locate local materials for their projects and be as historically-accurate in their usage as possible.
That proved to be a challenge in particular for the building’s failing roof, which threatened to damage the rest of the old house. Ultimately, the commission settled for a metal roof because it was unable to find a feasible way to replace it with a locally-sourced cedar-shingle roof similar to the original.
In December, the Friends of Holly Rood volunteer organization was resurrected by Christy Aaron and Ann Humble. The Friends of Holly Rood provide financial assistance to the historic home, in addition to volunteering for Holly Rood events and in other ways to help sustain the home, including decorating it largely with items found on the property.
Throughout the years, Holly Rood has played host to several events, from the personal, like weddings and family reunions, to the public. The home has made an annual tradition of hosting the Beacon of Hope Emergency Shelter’s Masquerade Ball, helping the shelter raise money to continue its operation into the next year.
Recently, the house hosted George Rogers Clark High School’s Fine Arts Cohort winter showcase.
The heritage commission is looking to host other events as well, especially ones that give a representation of what life was like at Holly Rood throughout history.
“I’d love to see someone do a mystery theater here,” Barnes said.
Free tours of the house can be scheduled by contacting the commission.
“If you pay taxes in Clark County, you own a stake in this house,” Barnes said.
A local haunt?
As with any building as noteworthy and old as Holly Rood, rumors abound of the spirits that may still call the place home.
Each October, volunteers guide visitors through Holly Rood for a spirit walk, where they share stories about the building’s past and even some uncanny happenings from modern times.
Barnes said she has never experienced anything supernatural at Holly Rood herself, but she can recall stories from other volunteers who claim to have shared moments with an unknown presence.
One volunteer told her he saw the figure of a gray man wearing frilly clothes inside the house one night when he was looking into the building from an exterior window.
Another person claimed to have been working in one of Holly Rood’s rooms when the knob on the door began to rattle as if someone was trying to get it open but had been locked out. The volunteer walked to the door and opened it with ease, only to find nothing on the other side. Barnes admits one can sometimes hear strange noises in the house but said given the structure’s age, that isn’t surprising.
“I’ve heard what sounds like footsteps upstairs sometimes,” Barnes said. “But I think it’s just the house settling.”
Needs for the future
Barnes said the heritage commission is always taking donations and looking for more historical items to display in the house.
The house accepts donations of period-correct furniture or other items. To contact Holly Rood’s volunteers, call 745-6664 or email email@example.com. Barnes would like to line the stairway leading to Holly Rood’s top floor with photos of the families who once lived there.
“What we’d really like to see is letters, journals, photos or other documents from people who lived in the house,” Barnes said. “Even if we could only get photos or copies that would help give an idea of what life was like for the residents.” §