Commonwealth Journal

July 11, 2013

New Day Dawns for a Landmark Somerset Home

by Bill Mardis
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —

I t’s like an old tie. Keep it long enough and it    will come back in style. Such is an almost-hidden, once-magnificent brick structure that peeks from an overgrown thicket onto busy, four-lane South Main Street in what was formerly the Johnson’s Block area of Somerset. Built in 1891, the brick structure for a time is believed to have been the home of Dick Johnson, patriarch of the Johnson family from whom the block got its name.
The old house is being restored. Jake Richards said he and his partner, Jordan Boils, have begun a project to return the house as closely as possible to its original state.
“We’re putting in single pane glass windows like the house had before,” Richards said. ‘We’re going to make it look as much as possible like it did.”
Dean Littrell, owner of Divers Den and several other commercial properties, owned the old house for more than 20 years before selling it to Richards and Boils. In the past it has been used as rental property.
Vandals were a constant problem.
“I replaced the windows several times,” Littrell noted.
He said the Kentucky Department of Highways would have purchased the old house and lot when the new Monticello Street was built “... but I refused to allow it to be torn down.” 
“I wanted to give it to my church (St. Mildred) to be used for the homeless, but I found I couldn’t legally do that,” said Littrell. The city eventually condemned the structure, he noted.
The old house cuddled up to the east side of two-lane South Main Street before the four-lane highway was completed in 2005. The new road eliminated the infamous “Y” at the junction of South Main and Monticello Street. The configuration created a traffic hazard that puzzled Highway Department engineers for years. 
The old South Main Street went up the hill toward the railroad depot and the old Monticello Street exited off South Main through a railroad underpass and toward U.S. 27.
The new four-lane thoroughfare that is now South Main Street in the former Johnson’s Block area has been called one of the most beneficial traffic improvements in the city’s history. The 1.2-mile highway takes traffic atop Southern Railway tracks and Sinking Creek.
Progress has virtually obliterated Johnson’s Block, a stretch of South Main Street that at one time was the heartbeat of Somerset. The north end of Johnson’s block is at Dearl Whitaker Lane, a small street leading east off South Main Street to High Street and Bourne Avenue. 
The late Somerset attorney John G. Prather Sr., a local historian, said the Johnson family owned a lot of property along the east side of the street in that block. At one time, there was a row of frame buildings in that area housing several offices and stores, Prather noted.
“Everything was tied to the railroad,” Prather said. The courthouse was at its current location, but many businesses operated along South Main and Monticello streets near the railroad depot. Cabs and streetcars hustled passengers to and from the depot and Fountain Square area. Somerset was “wet” in those days. “I believe there were seven saloons from Johnson’s corner to Griffin Avenue,” said Prather.
The focus of Somerset has totally changed since Johnson’s Block fell in disrepair and disappeared. New Monticello Street whizzes business activity mainly to a 12-mile strip of U.S. 27, running north and south through the west side of town between Somerset and Burnside. Downtown Somerset is an office and legal center around the courthouse. 
Johnson’s Block, if you cling to the name, is now blacktopped beneath a busy thoroughfare. The still-existing historical house among the trees seemingly shies from the disturbing approach of progress.
A newly constructed sidewalk leads from the four-lane street westward over the hill along Sinking Creek to a more than century old railroad underpass. The underpass is a weathered concrete arch that once took traffic on Old Monticello Street under the railroad.
The Department of Highways has blocked the railroad underpass to vehicular traffic. The former Monticello Street, now Old Monticello Street, goes up the hill and joins the new street. Eastbound vehicles coming down the hill are detoured onto Beecher Street.
The old railroad tunnel looks basically the same. The underside of the arch shows scars where hundreds of tall trucks got stuck during a century of use.
And, as if time stands still, burdened freight trains still rumble overhead and graffiti artists leave demented messages on the crumbling walls. 
But if Richards and Boils have their way, the old house, now almost hidden in a grove of trees, will take on new life. Through its restored single pane windows will be a view of progress; the sound of 15,000 traffic movements a day.