Located in rural Breckinridge County, the Holt House is a distinct historic site, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 based on its significance in national history, politics and architecture. It was the home of Judge Joseph Holt (1807-1894), a prominent lawyer who served as Commissioner of Patents (1857), Postmaster General (1859) and Secretary of War (1860) under President James Buchanan.
Holt achieved national prominence serving in the administration of President Abraham Lincoln, who appointed him the nation’s first Judge Advocate General, a position he held from 1862 to 1875. His most memorable role as JAG came following the assassination of President Lincoln, when Holt presided over the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators including the first woman ever hanged by the federal government, Mary Surratt.
The Holt House was constructed circa 1850, during this time of Holt’s national service, to replace an earlier family homestead that had been destroyed by fire. The land originally belonged to Richard Stephens, Holt’s maternal grandfather, who earned a land grant following his service in the Revolutionary War and eventually amassed 93,000 acres along the Ohio River stretching from Louisville westward. Stephens was the youngest captain of George Washington's army, and at the time of his death was the wealthiest landowner in Breckinridge County. The town of Stephensport south of the Holt property was named in his honor, a once-thriving community that served as one of two major shipping hubs in the region.
The Holt farmstead was settled in 1811 after Stephens gave 10,000 acres of his holdings to his daughter, Eleanor, and her husband, John, a successful attorney who also served as surveyor of roads for Breckinridge County. He and Eleanor constructed a log home that burned in the late 1840s and was replaced by the three-story brick residence that stands today. During their lifetime, the land still known as Holt Bottoms grew to include a church, school, store, servant quarters, barns and outbuildings.
The Holt House is the only remaining structure of this era. The home stands within eyesight of the Ohio River running along the rear of the property, a rare placement at the time, though it faces the road and remains an imposing sight to drivers along the route known today as KY144.
The home has many features of an Italianate villa. Over five bays of the front extends a very finely ornamented cast iron porch. The interior features both a west and east stair that extend to the third floor, decorative woodwork including walnut handrails along the stairs, six fireplaces, 14-inch walls, 13-inch baseboards and 10-foot doors. The family cemetery with Joseph Holt’s burial site is located on a small parcel to the east of the home.
Throughout his time in Washington, Holt visited the home frequently and hosted social gatherings. Visitors would make their way along the original road, KY 64, which ran along the Ohio River south through Cloverport, or by train from Louisville to a small station located at the rear of the Holt property, along tracks that continue to accommodate freight trains today. Gardens surrounding the house were filled with native and non-indigenous plants and trees received as gifts or acquired by Holt during his travels.
The house and surrounding 19.5 acres were acquired by Breckinridge County Fiscal Court in December 2008 through a $158,000 Kentucky Lincoln Bicentennial Preservation Grant, and the site’s preservation and restoration has been named a Legacy Project of the Kentucky Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. As a condition of the grant, the Kentucky Heritage Council holds a preservation easement on the property.
The house is also a featured site along the new Kentucky Lincoln Heritage Trail, joining others that include the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site near Hodgenville, Ashland: The Henry Clay Estate and the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington, and more than a dozen other central Kentucky sites associated with Lincoln’s legacy in Kentucky. Representatives of these organizations have formed the Kentucky Lincoln Sites Alliance to continue the long-term promotion of Kentucky Lincoln sites and work together on initiatives including pursuit of the region as a National Heritage Area.
Despite being unoccupied for more than 40 years, both the exterior and interior of the home are in remarkably good condition. During a site visit and inspection in April 2009, a team from the Kentucky Heritage Council found the structure well crafted and structurally viable. Breckinridge County Fiscal Court is working with the community to make plans to reintroduce the structure back into public use and develop the property to maximize its potential for local economic development.
To assist fiscal court in developing a long-term rehabilitation and reuse strategy, a steering committee has been meeting quarterly including the state historic preservation officer and representatives of the Kentucky Heritage Council, Kentucky Historical Society, Preservation Kentucky, Kentucky Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, local leaders and elected officials, volunteers and advocates, all of whom have taken active roles working as a team to plan next steps for the Holt House’s future. Today, the Friends of the Holt House has come together as a local nonprofit committee, incorporated under the auspices of the Breckinridge County Historical Society, to organize fundraising and local volunteers.
Stabilization is a critical first step, as exposure to the elements has resulted in significant water damage to both the interior and exterior. To assist with this, Congressman Brett Guthrie has secured a $150,000 federal Save America’s Treasures earmark, which will go toward repairing the roof, gutters and windows to prevent further deterioration. Other grant funds are being pursued and are urgently needed to allow the home and grounds to be returned to a useable condition that will allow the county to transform the site into a true community asset.
Demonstration of this local support is overwhelming. A community day and open house in August 2009 drew more than 1,500 people from throughout the region. Hundreds of people signed the guest register, many of whom indicated a willingness to volunteer. Offers of donations for equipment and building materials, as well as professional services including electrical and contracting, carpentry and other skilled labor have come from around the county and beyond. The home’s rehabilitation continues to be a comprehensive community undertaking and public-private partnership working toward preserving and reintroducing a near-forgotten Kentucky landmark with national significance.
Click here to view a photo gallery from the first-ever Community Day August 15, 2009
The house will also be of great interest as the Kentucky Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration gets underway. Judge Holt was a key figure in helping to keep Kentucky in the Union and firmly aligned with the federal government. He had helped secure a peaceful inauguration for Lincoln and was determined that Kentucky should take its rightful place as defending the Union.
For many reasons the Judge Joseph Holt House is nationally significant. Holt’s collection of more than 20,000 items at the Library of Congress are studied and reviewed daily by scholars and historians. Holt's activities in the Buchanan and Lincoln administrations and as Judge Advocate General establish the national relevance of his home and burial site and underscore how these can be used to support economic development by hosting local events, educate schoolchildren and others about the era, and attract heritage tourists.
There is clearly broad community support for its preservation and rehabilitation by a wide range of organizations and individuals who are interested in and committed to ensuring a successful outcome. Notably, several Kentucky legislators including Senator Carroll Gibson and Representative Dwight Butler have supported the project and actively participated in meetings and work groups. There has been widespread media interest in the home’s preservation with stories to date in Kentucky Monthly and Kentucky Living magazines, a feature in the Owensboro Messenger Enquirer which got picked up by the Associated Press and distributed nationally, and a book written about Joseph Holt by a local researcher and volunteer Susan B. Dyer with assistance from Kentucky State Historian Dr. James C. Klotter, titled Lincoln's Advocate: The Life of Judge Joseph Holt.
The Holt House provides a rare opportunity to preserve an important historic feature on Kentucky's rural landscape associated with our nation’s greatest president and expand the public’s knowledge and understanding of both the Holt and Lincoln legacies in Kentucky and to our nation. Rehabilitation of a site so closely associated with Lincoln offers tremendous potential for Americans to rediscover and reframe the story of events that transpired following his assassination in 1865.