2nd historic fire isn’t arson

-A A +A

Chatham House is one of county’s oldest homes

Another downtown Shelbyville landmark smoldered and smoked following a devastating fire on Sunday, and its owner wasn’t seeing simply the charred remains of the once grand home but also the death of her father’s dream and perhaps the ashes of his legacy.


Lucy Kerman on Monday talked in a broken voice about the heart-wrenching despair she felt when she got the call Sunday morning telling her that the Chatham House, one of Shelbyville’s oldest homes and part of her family for more than 50 years, was burning.

“When I got a call [about the fire] on my way to church, it was just like I’d just lost a piece of my dad,” said Kerman, owner of the stately Greek Revival home on Washington Street. “It reopened that wound [of losing him].”

Kerman, who lives in Prospect, had been renovating the house as a tribute to her father, the late Dr. Charles Chatham, a dentist who loved the house so much that, after purchasing it in 1956, he turned one entire room into a dental museum.

Even more devastating is that Kerman had been all excited because the renovation was nearly complete and was looking forward to inspecting the house when the fire broke out the day before.

“So today [Monday] was supposed to be the big day, and we were all set to celebrate, because we hadn’t seen it yet and heard it was just beautiful,” she said in a tearful voice.

“I’m sorry to be so emotional, but my whole goal was to do something in my father’s name, something that he always wanted done, and that was to restore that building,” she said. “He always wanted to do it for Shelbyville as much as for himself.”


The fire

The fire at the Chatham House, located at 617 Washington Street, was the second blaze in less than two months to claim an historic structure in the vicinity of downtown Shelbyville, following a fire that destroyed several historic businesses on the 600 block of Main Street in March.

Neither fire was the result of arson, fire officials say.

“We have narrowed it down to a couple of causes,” Shelbyville Assistant Fire Chief Chris Spaulding said of the Chatham fire. “We are still waiting on one investigator to get back with us, but we don’t think it was arson. That’s been ruled out.”

There has been no word from insurance investigators on the cause of the downtown fire.

The Chatham House – located between the Mercy Clinic and Dr. Raymond Lohr Dentistry – burned at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

Four fire departments responded, with Bagdad and Simpsonville Fire Departments taking over calls for the Shelbyville Fire Department while that department, along with Shelby County Fire Department, deployed more than 60 firefighters to battle the blaze.

Shelbyville Mayor Tom Hardesty said he wanted to commend those departments for working together to keep the blaze from spreading to surrounding properties.

“The entire city is saddened by this fire; it’s just such a sorrow to lose another one of our historic buildings, because you lose a piece of history with it,” Hardesty said. “But the firefighters did a wonderful job to keep it from spreading, and that’s really important.”

Spaulding said it was necessary to use a lot of water to knock down the fire quickly and control its spread, and although firefighters accomplished the dual purpose of keeping the structure from complete destruction and from moving to adjoining buildings, having to use so much water was detrimental to the house and may jeopardize any hope of one day rebuilding it.

“I’ve seen buildings burnt worse that have been rebuilt, but that one had a lot of water damage, because it was a big fire and we had to put a lot of water on it to control it,” Spalding said.


A lot of history

The Chatham House was built in 1845 by Henry Martin on what is believed to be the second lot to be purchased in Shelbyville, Kerman said.

“We were always told it was the second lot sold in Shelbyville and the first home,” she said. “If it wasn’t the first, it was one of the first.”

The house, which Kerman said her father bought around the time of her birth in 1956, originally was owned by Arabella Martin, who sold it to Dr. William Rogers, a dentist who set up a practice in 1847 and married Mary Cavot, the adopted daughter of Julia Tevis, founder of the nearby Science Hill School for Girls.

Kerman said the house had a long and colorful history, including that of a private home, apartments and even a brothel.

When Chatham bought the house, he converted one room over into a sort of a dental museum, with an antique dental chair, a 1920s X-Ray machine and an old drill operated by a foot pedal, as well as a wide assortment of antique dental tools for cleaning teeth and filling cavities.

Chatham renovated the house in 1982, opening the home the next year as a functioning gift shop, The Ginkgo Tree.

Kerman said the only thing left to be done in the renovation was just a few odds and ends.

“We weren’t too far from finishing it,” she said. “It had just been painted and there were a few things left to be done, but we were real close to finishing.”


Still a chance

Kerman’s dream of restoring the house may not have gone completely, though, as she may be able to obtain a small grant to help rebuild it.

Fred Rogers, director of the Shelby County Historical Society, said he got a call Monday from Preservation Kentucky, a nonprofit statewide historical preservation organization that administers grants to held restore or rebuild historic structures.

“I did receive word that they would be willing to offer her a grant to rebuild if possible,” he said. “That’s great news, because we’re all lamenting over the loss of another historical treasurer in our community. We are all so sorry to see this happen; she [Kerman] was so heart-broken she could hardly speak to see a family heirloom become ashes.”

Eric Whisman, education and outreach coordinator at Preservation Kentucky, said he contacted Rogers when he heard about the fire on the news to inform him that a small grant of $5,000 was available if the owner was interested.

“I grew up in Shelbyville, and I am very familiar with that house; I have admired it all my life,” Whisman said. “We do have a grant in the Preservation fund that’s administered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation that is more of an education grant, but it can be used for emergency situations. It’s not very much money, but it could be used for, like, a roof or something, to help stabilize the building.”

Whisman said he planned to contact Kerman about the grant.

 “It’s a really great building; I’d hate to see it lost completely,” he said.

Kerman said she had not heard from Whisman, and she said it was too early yet to say whether rebuilding would be an option.

“A grant would be greatly appreciated, and I would like to rebuild, but I can’t really speculate right now,” she said. “All I know right now is I still want to keep it as the Chatham House, for daddy and for Shelbyville.”

Rogers said the lost to the community in situations like this are incalculable.

“The historical reality is that places like this anchor us to the past,” he said. “They are valuable treasures that we want to hang onto, and this is certainly a case in point.”