Breathtaking Botherum

A historic Lexington home exudes comfort and elegance

By Mariah Kline
Photos by Kathryn Harrington and Thomas McKinley

Just a few blocks away from Rupp Arena in Lexington sits a Greek Revival cottage with a storied history. Named Botherum, the home now belongs to Jon Carloftis, a celebrated landscape designer, author and philanthropist. The gardens surrounding Botherum are, of course, remarkable, but the home’s interior possesses a splendor all its own.

Botherum was originally a farm of about 30 acres purchased by Madison C. Johnson in the early 1800s. Johnson was the president of the Northern Bank of Kentucky and a confidant of President Abraham Lincoln. He married a sister of Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sally Ann, who died in childbirth in 1828. In 1851, Johnson hired architect and builder John McMurty to build the cottage as it is today. In 1973, it was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Carloftis and former partner Dale Fisher purchased the home in 2012. While they did much of the restoration work themselves, they enlisted the help of several local vendors to complete the masterpiece. Barnhill Chimney completed work on all six of the home’s fireplaces. Custom-made Stark carpets were installed in several rooms. Debra Hupman of Creative Kitchens & Bath was responsible for two kitchens, three bathrooms and one unique bourbon closet/laundry room.

George Gatewood of Longwood Antique Woods played a significant role in replacing much of the wood. Upstairs, 220-year-old hand-hewn ash beams were installed in the ceiling as well as on the mantle beam above the kitchen fireplace. This particular wood was salvaged from a fallen barn in Bourbon County, Kentucky.

Downstairs, the expansive bar is made of poplar floor joists from renovations done on Whiskey Row in Louisville.

“Going into the basement is like going down the rabbit hole in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’” Gatewood says. “The entire house could not be decorated any better. It has just the ‘right stuff.’ It goes together like bourbon and a glass.”

Accessories and decor came from several  Kentucky-based sources including Bittners and Andrew Gentile Antiques in Louisville; Nettie Jarvis Antiques in Bloomfield; and LV Harkness, Thoroughbred Antiques and Scout Modern Antiques in Lexington. Outside, the limestone planters and benches were brought in from Longshadow Garden Ornaments in Pomona, Illinois.

Since renovations have been completed, Botherum has received several awards from notable organizations including the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation and the highest honor in the state, the Preservation Project Award from the Ida Lee Willis/State Historic Preservation Office.

Carloftis spent 25 years of his career designing rooftop gardens in New York City before he returned to his native Kentucky. He grew up in Rockcastle River, Kentucky, where his parents built a home that was made to look antiquated, though it was built in the late 1960s. As a child, Carloftis says that many family vacations were spent visiting historic houses.

“I would ask, ‘Can’t we just go to a baseball game like normal people?’” he laughs. “But you know what, it sunk in. It’s what I grew up with, so this house was meant for me. It feels just right.”

Even as a young child, Carloftis favored the Greek Revival style and the Empire furniture that so often accompanied it.

“Momma always said that I would like an outhouse if it had columns, and I would say, ‘Yes, ma’am. I surely would!’”

With Carloftis’s personal passion and the countless hours of restoration work put in, Botherum could have easily become museum-like. However, the down-to-earth Carloftis wouldn’t dream of letting that happen.

“I never want to go into a house and feel like I need a powdered wig and a fan,” he says. “That’s the most uncomfortable feeling. I think the greatest gift you can give somebody is to make them happy and comfortable, so that’s what I try to do.”

In recent years, Botherum has been the site of dozens of gatherings, including events that have raised upwards of $2 million for charity. Three years in a row, Carloftis and Fisher made “The Salonniere” 100 Best Hosts in America list. Carloftis frequently hosts adult-only pool parties but on certain days, he likes to host friends with children for chaotic and fun-filled times. Caviar is traded in for hot dogs, and kids in wet bathing suits run freely through the elegant rooms.

Bringing more life into the house are two labradors, Lily Carloftis and Gertrude Fisher, who spend their days escorting Carloftis through the grounds of Botherum and on various errands in Lexington and Louisville.

While his girls snooze in massive beds nearby, Carloftis works at his kitchen table each day. A fire crackles nearby, remaining lit from October through July 4 weekend (one of his long-kept traditions that he has no intention of stopping). Though he could have made an office in the nearby carriage house, Carloftis enjoys the view too much.

“I’m surrounded by three big windows and I’m almost outside,” he says. “I can look at all the birds I’ve fed. I like to be surrounded by everything that’s going on. I’m fascinated by nature. There’s something about nature and the simple things. Tell me what’s prettier than that.” V