Lexington’s Helm Place is up for sale. Look inside the home

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Helm Place, located at 2650 Bowman’s Mill Road in Lexington, is going up for auction Oct. 31. It was once home to President Abraham Lincoln’s sister-in-law, Emilie Todd Helm.

Helm Place, located at 2650 Bowman’s Mill Road in Lexington, is going up for auction Oct. 31. It was once home to President Abraham Lincoln’s sister-in-law, Emilie Todd Helm.

Photos courtesy of Kentucky Mansion Preservation Foundation

For the first time in nearly a century, the historic Helm Place – an antebellum estate once home to Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-sister – is up for sale.

Beginning Oct. 8 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Oct. 15 and 22 or by appointment, the property will be open to the public, particularly to bidders interested in owning a piece of Kentucky history.

“We absolutely want to find someone who wants to become the next steward, who intends to preserve the property,” said Gwen Thompson, director of the Mary Todd Lincoln House. Thompson has also helmed the Kentucky Mansion Preservation Foundation, the nonprofit that owns Helm Place, as its executive director since 2004.

Located at 2650 Bowman Mill Road in Lexington, near South Elkhorn Creek, Helm Place will be up for bid at a no-reserve auction later this month. The property has not been previously open to the public, Thompson confirmed.

This sealed-bid auction will take place Oct. 31, with all terms available with the listing online at Biedermanrealestate.com.

Of the seal-bid auction process, Thompson said that route “allows us to open all of the offers at once and compare them,” referring to the KMPF board, which will select the winning bid.

When it comes to potential bids, Thompson said, the “best may not be the highest purchase price.”

“We are stewards, and we really want to pick the next best stewards,” Thompson said, encouraging bidders to communicate their vision for Helm Place’s conservation in the bid packet obtained through the realtor.

According to information from Fayette County’s Property Valuation Administrator, the fair market value of the parcel is $2,886,700.

Helm Place’s origins

It was in 1779, on the land where Helm Place now stands, when American pioneer and one of Lexington’s founders, Levi Todd, built the fort known as Todd’s Station.

After the Revolutionary War, Todd abandoned the fort, and the property was awarded to Col. Abraham Bowman by military grant for his service as an officer during the conflict.

The Bowman family settled on the property in 1781, developing it into a sprawling plantation and grist mill.

Unlike counterparts further south, Kentucky plantations did not grow cotton, rice or sugar cane and instead grew corn, wheat, oats, barley and hay. Their enslaved laborers would’ve also raised vegetables and fruits and tended livestock, like cattle, pigs, sheep and horses.

To work the plantation, George Bowman, Abraham’s father, enslaved between 36 and 29 people between 1840 and 1850, Thompson said. That number of enslaved people is consistent with what would have been a large plantation for Kentucky at the time, where between 20 to 50 enslaved Black people worked the land on the state’s largest plantations.

Most Kentuckians did not own enslaved people; primarily wealthy white men did – Kentucky statesman Henry Clay among them.

In Kentucky, enslaved women worked as seamstresses, cooks, herbalists and midwives. The enslaved men took up trade work like carpentry, masonry, brick making and horse training.

Laborers built on the property named Cedar Hall, the mansion on the Helm Place property, and today it still retains its antebellum Greek Revival style and characteristic columns, along with its original hardwood floors, woodwork, mantels, wall presses, pocket doors and even carpenter rim locks throughout, according to a description of the home from the KMPF.

The Helm Place, once home to Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-sister, is now up for sale. Fritz Mortl Kentucky Mansion Preservation Foundation.

Helm Place changes hands

The Bowmans sold Helm Place in 1859, and it changed hands several times before the Helm family bought it in 1912.

It was Emilie Todd Helm, the half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln, who renamed the estate Helm Place in honor of her late husband, Ben’s, ancestral home in Elizabethtown.

In 1856, a younger Emilie Todd — the half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln — married Ben Helm, a graduate of the prestigious West Point Military Academy and the son of a Kentucky governor.

Five years later, when the Civil War was heating up, Helm turned down his brother-in-law’s offer to take an administrative job as paymaster in the Union Army. Instead, Helm joined the Confederate Army, and Emilie and their young children followed him south.

Emilie Todd Helm was in Georgia when word arrived to her that her husband had been killed in the Battle of Chickamauga. The year was 1863.

After his death, Emilie Todd Helm tried to return to family in Kentucky, but she refused to take the oath of allegiance required to cross into Union-controlled territory. Border soldiers, unsure with the president’s sister-in-law who was dumped in their laps, telegraphed President Abraham Lincoln.

“Send her to me,” was his reply.

Emilie Todd Helm became a guest in the White House. At that time, in December of 1863, her presence caused quite a stir in Washington, with critics branding her the “Rebel in the White House.”

She ultimately made Helm Place her final home, where her three adult children, Katherine, Elodie and Ben Jr., joined her.

During their residency there, the Helms left their mark on Cedar Hall, renovating the back porch and gallery to create a new dining room, bathroom and kitchen. They added their own decorative touches, including chandeliers and wainscotting made from shutters from the Helms’ previous home in Louisville.

Katherine Helm, herself an artist trained in New York, painted murals lining the walls of the dining room, depicting the nearby South Elkhorn Creek, and those murals are still there today.

Among Katherine Helm’s most famous works are five portraits of her aunt, Mary Todd Lincoln, including one in the White House collection that once hung in the Lincoln Bedroom.

After Emilie Todd Helm’s death in 1930, her children – who had no children of their own – sold Helm Place to family friend and prominent Lexington attorney William Townsend and his wife, Genevieve. Still, the Helm children maintained lifetime tenancies at Helm Place.

It was the Townsend’s daughter, Mary Genevieve, who ultimately placed the property and home into the trust of the KMPF in 1996 after spending her life there with her husband Joseph Murphy Jr.

According to the foundation, Mary Genevieve had been involved with the nonprofit for more than 20 years by the time of her death in 2000. Her husband lived out his life there before he too died in 2011. Helm Place transferred to the KMPF in 2012.

The KMPF, which operates the Mary Todd Lincoln House museum in downtown Lexington, hoped to turn Helm Place into a period museum, but ultimately it couldn’t come up with the money to restore it and support running it as a museum.

The property has a conservation easement, a preservation easement on some portions of the mansion’s interior and is designated by the city as a “Local Landmark” with an historic overlay.

The Helm Place, a historic antebellum estate once home to the half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln, is now up for sale. Kentucky Mansion Preservation Foundation

Today, Helm Place is surrounded by trees and meadows, boasting 150 acres of horse farmland. The property features 37 stalls in two horse barns, three large fields and 12 paddocks. Helm Place also includes a “garden house” that may be older than the mansion itself.

“Helm Place is an historical jewel, and it deserves the best care,” James Klotter, Kentucky’s state historian since 1980, said in a news release from the KMPF. “The sale of the property within the guidelines provides an excellent way to preserve that past.”

Do you have a question about Kentucky history for our service journalism team? We’d like to hear from you. Fill out our Know Your Kentucky form or email ask@herald-leader.com.

Aaron Mudd is a service journalism reporter with the Lexington Herald-Leader based in Lexington, Kentucky. He previously worked for the Bowling Green Daily News covering K-12 and higher education. Aaron has roots in Kentucky’s Fayette, Marion and Warren counties.
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