LEXINGTON — For about 20 years, historic Botherum sat empty and in decline on Madison Place, a short avenue connecting High and Maxwell streets that’s within sight of Rupp Arena. Hard to even see because of a high stone fence and hidden by overgrown trees and weeds, few people noticed it.
But Jon Carloftis knew it was there. He had served as a bartender at a party given there when its last owner occupied it in 1984.
“He vowed it would be his house one day,” his partner and co-owner Dale Fisher said.
That day came in 2012 when Carloftis, a noted gardener and landscaper, learned the 162-year-old mansion was on the market for $675,000.
Fast forward 14 months and an untold amount of money, Carloftis and Fisher call it home.
“I can’t believe it. If you had told me when I first walked through the property and house with Dale and Jon last summer that this could be accomplished in this amount of time, I wouldn’t have believed it. I still don’t,” said Sharon Bale who taught Carloftis when he was a student in the University of Kentucky’s Department of Agriculture.
Because of her friendship with Carloftis and Fisher, Bale arranged a tour recently for the Changing Seasons Garden Club of which she is a member.
Built 162 years ago
The home was built by Lexington architect John McMurtry in honor of Madison C. Johnson’s late wife Sally Ann, a sister of Cassius Marcellus Clay who died in childbirth.
The name Botherum came from a character in a stage play that Madison had seen and loved, “Doctor Botherum, the Mountebank” about an itinerant medicine man who sold miracle pills.
Metal, hand-painted signs welcoming visitors to Botherum were unearthed by Carloftis and Fisher and one hangs on the wall in the remodeled kitchen.
Changing Seasons president Jennie Penn and 20 members of the club walked the transformed grounds with Fisher serving as guide.
“The first thing we did was cut down over 70 scrub trees that surrounded the property and blocked the sight of the house,” Fisher said.
But three trees, gifts from Henry Clay to Madison, were kept — two lindens and a now huge gingko that Madison had planted in direct sight of his room.
Bricks, building moved
Bricks from the back of the house were moved piece by piece to what is now the front of the home, complete with age-old moss. The brick walkways now form the basis for gardens filled with flowers, limestone urns and artwork.
A building once considered servants sleeping quarters was also moved by a crane from behind the house in view of the dining room. It was lifted over a wall and placed on a newly-formed limestone foundation to serve as an anchor piece for the herb and vegetable garden.
“While the building looks like painted stone, it is actually wood,” Fisher said.
“We found hundreds of pieces of iron fence and have used them as well throughout the property,” he said.
Of particular interest to Penn, who serves as president of the board of the Lexington Mary Todd Lincoln House that was purchased while her mother, Beula Nunn, was first lady of Kentucky, was the story Fisher related about Madison’s friendship with Abraham Lincoln.
“Madison was known by Lincoln and also shared his sentiments for the abolishment of slavery,” Fisher said.
According to Fisher, because he was an abolitionist there is belief that an underground tunnel ran from Botherum as far as the Lexington courthouse.
Fisher pointed to a wood covered space being unearthed that is believed to confirm the hiding space for fugitive slaves hidden beneath a root cellar at the back of the house where the underground kitchen was accessed only by a trap door.
“In the next weeks archeologists from UK plan to bring equipment to help determine if the pipeline existed,” Fisher said.
Carloftis and Fisher are known for their “children” who travel everywhere with them — Labradors Kate and Lucy. Lucy died of an unexpected illness since the purchase, but Kate still commands the grounds. She entertained the visitors by getting into a water feature in one of the gardens in the back of the house.
“She knows it’s hers and thinks she can swim in it,” Fisher said. “That’s why we want to build a pool.”
Inside the transformed Botherum was equally amazing to the Changing Seasons members.
Careful attention to detail spills from the six rooms with vaulted ceilings including what was once known as the ballroom that is now a striking living and entertaining space with a grand piano. On top a kitchen mantle lays a Kentucky long rifle.
Hidden under the house is a catacomb of brick and limestone rooms. They too are undergoing renovation and will become the bourbon, wine and entertaining rooms for the house; a guest bedroom is already prepared.
“This is our best trip ever,” said member Fran Crumbaugh. “This home is absolutely beautiful.”
While Penn said the club has taken several trips in the past to visit gardens, the close trip in Lexington allowed more members to participate.
“They were definitely impressed. Who wouldn’t be? It’s a remarkable place that has taken a lot of work.”