My Old Kentucky Home
Newly restored to its original architectural design and interior decor, Federal Hill makes a great day trip for visitors to Kentucky.*
Refreshed After Makeover
By Betsa Marsh
Even people who’ve never stepped on Bluegrass soil can sing the chorus to Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.” So is there really a “home” that inspired one of America’s most memorable state songs?
Enter Federal Hill, an 1818-era mansion high on a knoll above Bardstown, KY. It's the showpiece of My Old Kentucky Home State Park (http://parks.ky.gov/stateparks/mk/). The home's interior now sparkles from a recent renovation -- taking the rooms back to Foster’s 1850s.
A deep-pocketed anonymous donor funded the home’s first facelift since 1977. Hand-loomed carpets and vintage wallpapers showcase the orignal family collection of furniture, soft goods and household items, about 75 percent of which belonged to the home’s founding family, the Rowans.
The Home's Early Life
Judge John Rowan, Foster’s cousin, built the first portion of Federal Hill between 1799 and 1802. Using slave labor, he directed construction of the grand home from 1808 to 1818.
The home stayed within the family through the judge’s lifetime and that of his seven children. Son John Jr. had eight children to fill the rooms, and it was during his tenure that Foster visited in 1852.
At left, a guide in period clothing sets the stage for visitors to Federal Hill.*
The Pittsburgh musician stayed several times. He may even have started writing “My Old Kentucky Home” on a desk at Federal Hill. He published the song in 1853, and it became Kentucky’s state song in 1928. Drive up to the visitor center and you’re apt to hear it wafting from the carillon.
Madge Rowan Frost was the home’s last mistress, selling the estate to a preservation group in 1920. This unbroken lineage makes some of the home’s pieces so remarkable: In Madge’s bedroom, her well-worn boots lean up against a chair as if she’ll be back any second.
Artifacts and Heirlooms
The dining room features an exotic trompe l’oeil illusion (basically a trick of the eye); its wallpaper recreates a scene with a stone balustrade and feathered palms. The Rowan family's coin silver (a type of silver popular between 1830 and 1860) and 1830s Limoges china sparkle on the polished tabletop.
The grandfather clock on the landing, now carpeted in a dramatic Jacobean scroll pattern, is one of the home’s most venerable pieces, between 225 and 229 years old.
Restorers relied on family letters, death inventories and photos from renovations in the 1920s and 1950s as their guides.
“It was a different lifestyle,” said Alice Heaton, park manager, My Old Kentucky Home State Park, in describing the original furnishings. “If you came from a log cabin and you’re suddenly able to explore color, you would. Matching is not what they did.”
So the library’s neo-Gothic wallpaper holds its own against the cross-and-key carpet. The Best Parlor vibrates with color, from the verdigris of the carpet to the gradated rainbow wallpaper to the green-and-red border.
The bedroom of Judge Rowan retains his tester bed. The swagged wallpaper in gray and brown, by Brunschwig & Fils, echoes a fragment found beneath ductwork in the room.
The square grand piano with mother-of-pearl keys, a gift from the Judge to one of his granddaughters, still hugs a niche beside the fireplace. It takes just one quick flash of imagination to see Stephen Foster playing his tunes on those lustrous keys, ringed by his Kentucky cousins.
Visiting Federal Hill? There's more to do outside. Visitors might go picnicking, camping or enjoy a round of golf on the 18-hole Kenny Rapier regulation course.
For more information on My Old Kentucky Home and the region, contact the Bardstown-Nelson County Tourist & Convention Commission, One Court Square, Bardstown, Ky. Call 800-638-4877 or www.visitbardstown.com
Music and Candlelight
Just as it did in Judge Rowan’s day, the Federal Hill site always keeps a busy social calendar. The 12th season of "Live at the Park," gets under way at the J. Dan Talbott Amphitheatre in June 2008. Top-notch entertainment, concerts and Broadway style shows continue through September .
The venue's tried-and-true signature show is "Stephen Foster-The Musical." This summer visitors might also take in two other shows -- "Annie" and "The Civil War."
In addition, the "Live in the Park" series, sponsored by Budweiser, will feature headline entertainers reflecting multiple musical styles. For tickets call 800-626-1563 or visit www.stephenfoster.com.
My Old Kentucky Home never glitters more brightly than during holiday candlelight tours. Carolers fill the rooms and guests sip hot cider. The tours usually make the Top 10 Festivals and Events list from the Kentucky Tourism Council.
Betsa Marsh has covered stories on every continent, compiling more than 50 escapades into her book, The Eccentric Traveler: A World of Curious Adventures. A member of ASJA and SATW, she contributes to magazines and newspapers across North America. She’s a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award winner from the Society of American Travel Writers.
All photos on this page were taken by Betsa Marsh with rights transferred to SouthernTravelNews.com. Pleae do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.