By Ben Kleppinger
The story goes that when former Eastern president, Robert Martin, met Emma Watts, he inquired how much money she wanted for Elmwood, a 15-acre estate that still sits across Lancaster from the Coates Administration Building.Watts crisply replied, “How much do you want for Eastern?”
Or so the story goes, said local historian David Greene.
The Elmwood estate is the focus of an ongoing debate over whether progress and local history can coexist.
According to the most recent campus master plan, Eastern has allotted $3 million to purchase a list of properties bordering campus. If the properties go on the market. The Elmwood estate is one of the properties on the list.
The Madison County Property Value Administrator office assessed the Elmwood land and improvements at $420,000 in 2000. A PVA employee said the price might be more than $500,000 today.
But Elmwood is not for sale. In fact, when the last owner, Watts, died, she left the estate in a trust that explicitly barred the trustee from selling the estate, according to her will.
Watts’ will states the trustee of the estate will have full power over her estate, except “he shall have no power to sell or dispose of any of my real estate in Richmond, Kentucky.”
In her will, Watts said she desired to have the house maintained in the same way she had kept it while she lived there.
But Greene said there could be other reasons she didn’t want the property sold. The aristocratic society in Richmond at the time was unpleased with the “wildness” of the students at Eastern, he said. And Watts herself did not think too highly of Eastern, he added.
Whatever the reasons, the protection from the trust has not stopped Eastern from trying to acquire the land. Negotiations were entered into while Hanly Funderburk was president of Eastern (1984-1998) and again when Robert Kustra was president (1998-2001), said James Street, the Director of Capital Planning and Facilities Management at Eastern.
Street said Eastern still has a “standing interest” in acquiring Elmwood, but said he is unaware of any current attempts to purchase the property.
Greene said he would hate to see Elmwood fall into the wrong hands, because it is a valuable piece of local history.
“We’re losing too many historical houses,” he said.
Watts’ family has strong roots in Madison County. Watts’ father supposedly made a lot of money, “legally or illegally,” in Texas rustling cattle, Greene said. Then the family returned to Kentucky and built Elmwood.
According to the deed on the property, Watts’ father purchased the land in 1884.
Watts’ father tore down the house that was on the land and had the Elmwood mansion built in its place, Greene said.
The Elmwood mansion is one of four houses around Richmond, including the Bennett house on Main Street, designed by Samuel E. des Jardins, a French-Canadian architect from Cincinnati, Greene said.
Greene said Watts lived in the house until her death in 1970. Watts never married and lived alone once her parents died, he said.
Watts also had a passion for dogs, Greene said. Her will states any dogs in her possession at the time of her death should be cared for at Elmwood as if she were still there to care for them.
The estate has been essentially unoccupied since Watts’ death, and it is not in the best condition, Greene said.
Greene said the cost of maintaining Elmwood is a big problem.
“I’d hate to see Eastern take it,” he said. “But in another way.who can maintain the building better than the university?”
Greene said he would like to see Elmwood turned into a museum and maintained by the city.
“So many historical places everywhere are being torn down for progress,” he said. “If (Elmwood) can be used in another form to keep it intact, that would be great.”
Greene said finding the funds to turn Elmwood into a museum would be a big obstacle.
Retired Judge James Chenault said other than “to be a symbol of how the southern gentle lady lived,” Elmwood hasn’t really served any purpose for many years now. The Richmond City Arts Council was allowed to use the estate for fundraisers for several years, Chenault said. But, as the condition of the estate deteriorated, concerns about liability caused that relationship to end, he said.
Chenault said he thinks if Eastern could acquire Elmwood, it would be good for everyone involved.
He said trying to maintain the house through the trust has to be an “unrewarding job,” and Eastern has the funds to properly maintain Elmwood.
Watts’ will leaves the estate in trust to the Cope family, with James Caperton Burnam named as trustee. Burnam has since died, leaving his daughter Kathy Flood as trustee.
Chenault said the trust remains legally binding until the current heirs in the Cope family are deceased, the youngest of which is 40-50 years old.
Chenault said the trust will probably not end for another 25-40 years, meaning the estate would be subject to Watts’ will until then.
Because of the trust, Eastern would have to get any purchase approved through a probate court, Chenault said. Any court approval would probably require Eastern to follow the directions of Watts’ will and maintain the property as is, he added.
Chenault said Eastern has always been known for having a beautiful campus, and he thinks the Elmwood estate would be “the finest addition to the campus.since the act of the legislature in 1906 creating Eastern.”
Chenault said he remembers when the Ravine at Eastern was much bigger before the Foster, Campbell and Burrier buildings were constructed.
“I think (Elmwood) could be the new ravine,” he said.
If Eastern did acquire the estate, it could be used as an alumni house and a small conference room, Chenault said. Or it could even be renovated and turned into a new president’s house, he added.
Whatever Eastern would do, Chenault said he thinks the land should be preserved the way it is.
“We don’t have to occupy every inch of ground with a damn building,” Chenault said. “We gotta have a little bit of space where birds can fly. We can’t just blacktop the world.”
He said the worst thing that could happen is if another interest acquired the estate and put in high-density, low-rent apartments.
“It would be a tragedy to see that happen,” he said.
But what does Eastern want to do with the land? Nothing specific has been suggested, but Street said Eastern has an interest in maintaining a “buffer zone” around campus, which he said would help protect the interests of the university and the local residents.
Street said the university would also have an interest in maintaining the historical value of Elmwood. Eastern already owns a lot of the property bordering campus, Street said. He said Eastern also wants to be able to control its boundaries.
Greene said he understands Eastern’s desire for land.
“Eastern is deadlocked,” he said. “Like so many places, they don’t have anywhere to grow.