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VIP at Home: Ironwood Estate

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Story by Emily Robertson | Photography by Darren Harris | Harris Visual Media

Ironwood Estate isn’t just like any other piece of property in Warren County. It has a history that dates back to 1852 when it was built by U.S. Senator Joseph Underwood and his wife, Elizabeth Cox. Now, as homeowner and caretaker, Ross Richey has repositioned the property to serve as his personal home, along with a working farm and an event venue, which he co-owns with his brother Blake. He now hopes to continue the rich tradition that the estate has held for more than 170 years and share it with the community.

“As far as history is concerned, it would be hard to find a home with more history in Bowling Green,” Richey says. “It dates back to pre-Civil War 1852 and was built by Senator Underwood who freed his slaves and then hired them back as paid labor. There is hand-painted wall paper in the house from a French company that created it in 1831. From what I’ve been told, the wallpaper is one of seven originals, one of which is in the White House.”

Another fascinating historic connection to the home is in the architecture. One of the original architects who had a hand in designing the home was Thomas U. Walter, one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects. Walter is responsible for adding the Senate and House wings to the United States Capitol Building, as well as the central dome of the building, known as the Capitol Dome. Richey has copies of the letters that Walter wrote to Senator Underwood advising about the architecture and making recommendations to the Ironwood house plans.

Long before he purchased the property, Richey had always enjoyed driving by the farm and admiring the horse stables. At the time, the home was owned by the Garvin family, who, Richey credits with restoring the beautiful home to grandeur. “David and Charlotte Garvin really restored the house,” Richey says. “From what I understand, it was at its low when they acquired it. They really brought back a lot and helped it to achieve status for the National Registry of Homes. The Garvin family kept a lot of character and reshaped the landscape to preserve the slave cabin on the property."

It was also the Garvin family that was involved in the thoroughbred business and built the iconic Ironwood horse barn that Richey always admired. He remembers the day he saw in The Bowling Green Daily News that the Garvins planned to sell the home and he knew he was interested. “I got a copy of the newspaper in 2013 and it said on the front ‘Garvin to Sell Pre-Civil War Ironwood’,” Richey says. “I had always remembered going over that bridge and seeing the horse barn there. My older brother was in the real estate business and I asked him about seeing it. While I would have understood if anyone questioned whether I was a capable buyer, I sensed there could be a possibility that the family wanted to sell it to someone that would fully appreciate the property.”

Richey later received a call from Garvin saying that his children and grandchildren had convinced him to take the property off the market and while Richey felt a bit sad that the home was no longer on the market, he also felt bit relieved since he wasn’t sure of his next move at the time. 

After Garvin passed away a few years later, the Garvin family invited Richey out for rides around the farm and to spend time with the family at the home. It was then that Mrs. Garvin approached Richey and said that if he was serious about purchasing the property, she wanted to help make it happen.

“I’m forever grateful to her for that,” Richey says. “I remember telling her, in my line of work in the insurance business, you are constantly cultivating and planting seeds, but you don’t see the harvest of what you’ve sown in a certain, defined time, which would be true with work on the farm as well. I knew I would enjoy the farm aspect of it. It’s a young person’s place, my vision was and continues to be to start a family and raise a family here. And after losing my young son two years ago, it is where I feel closest to him, so it is a very special place.” 

Richey never planned to buy a historical home, and originally had his sights set on buying land and building a new home, but he has always had a great appreciation for history. When it comes to his style and decor in the home, he really works to maintain the history of the home without trying to throw in modern style too much. “The home really forced me to appreciate the character and the things you can’t get by building or buying something newer,” Richey says. “I also knew the Garvin family truly made necessary improvements that it really needed and set up the home for the future. So, when I came along, I just did some paint and caulk and just a little TLC; I really wanted to maintain the character of the home, while bringing in a touch of today.”

Richey bought much of the furniture that was already in the home, and while he has recovered some items with different fabric, he believes there is such a charm in the older pieces. “I kept a lot of the furniture that was already here,” Richey says. “You can’t buy a chair that comfortable, or well made, from a store now. In the cabin on the property, there is a feature from back in 1990 when it was on the cover of Southern Living Magazine. Today, it looks identical to the picture, so we haven’t changed much in decor.”

Two of his most recent projects include updating the kitchen area and creating an entertaining space in the basement of the home. “We painted the kitchen a patriotic blue and white and also updated some things in the basement,” Richey says. “I’ve gathered a lot of horse memorabilia because I’ve always appreciated thoroughbreds myself. I would love to be in the industry someday as the Garvin family had been. In another area of the basement with exposed brick and stone, I’ve added concert posters from events I have attended. I really didn’t spend much time in the basement, but now when I have company we go down there and spend time enjoying that space with the updates.”

Richey is incredibly grateful to play a role in the history of the Ironwood Estate. “There is so much history that I’m always learning something new,” Richey says. “I’ve been here going on seven years now and there are so many things to know and appreciate. I’m thankful to be a caretaker for a period of time. It is a special place and it really puts history and life into perspective.”

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