As our bed and breakfast was located directly across from My Old Kentucky Home State Park, it seemed silly not to visit, especially since a gorgeous early 19th century plantation, Federal Hill, is located there. While it’s pretty well known in the state of Kentucky, it’s most famous for its association with the well known American composer and lyricist Stephen Foster. He was the cousin of the original owner and builder of the property. It’s believed that Federal Hill served as the inspiration for Foster’s famous ballad, “My Old Kentucky Home” after staying there in 1852.
While construction on Federal Hill began in 1795, it wasn’t until the period between 1808 and 1818 that it became the structure that impresses visitors today. The original owner of the house, Judge John Rowan, held high rank in social, legal, and political circles, so Federal Hill was often host to prestigious guests including Henry Clay and Marquis de Lafayette. The house stayed in the Rowan family until 1920 when Rowan’s granddaughter sold it to the My Old Kentucky Home Commission, which proceeded to renovate the property and donated it to the state of Kentucky in 1922 for use as a park.
The home was designed mostly in the Georgian style and has two floors and a small attic.To me the house resembles something you would see on the East Coast, not necessarily down South. Immersed in such a rich, tree-lined landscape, it seems like it should belong on a quiet city street, yet at one time, the park was the plantation of one family.
Tours of the house cost $7 for adults and are given by docents dressed in period attire. Interior photography is not permitted which is quite disappointing since the house featured many unique and beautiful rooms. My favorite was the “best parlor” which had on display 11 watercolors of Italy the judge’s son had purchased while living in Italy as the ambassador there. Also on display was a medallion that had been given to John Rowan Jr. by Pope Pius IX after he had helped the pope escape from an assassination attempt. The room is outfitted in a brightly colored carpet and distinct rainbow-striped wallpaper, making it most unusual for its time. (The house was most recently renovated in 2006 and used floor coverings, wallpapers, and window treatments to restore it to how it might have looked when Foster stayed there. However, three quarters of the furniture on display inside the house was owned by the Rowan family which I found highly impressive considering it had not remained in the family.) Both of the tour guides (there is one for the ground floor as well as the second floor) were extremely knowledgeable and receptive to the numerous questions I asked about the family as well as the house itself.
Outside, visitors can also peek their heads into the kitchen and smokehouse. Period kitchens always amaze me, considering that at one time elaborate meals (and yes, meals for wealthy families back in the day were almost always elaborate) could be prepared without the use of a stove top, oven, and microwave. The open fire was the oven. The smokehouse was also interesting, although being of a 21st century mindset, I can’t say it seemed like the most sanitary.
We didn’t explore the grounds too much but the family burial ground is east of the house. I couldn’t help but feel the least bit bad for the individuals interred there as it is near the visitor center building, which can be rented out for social functions and therefore doesn’t seem like a quiet or sacred place. I didn’t know this when I was there but a slave cemetery is also on site. That is something I would have liked to have seen.
Federal Hill was the second historic house we toured while in Kentucky and provided a nice contrast to Wickland. Whereas Federal Hill is restored and furnished, Wickland was not. But Federal Hill has a rich history and is a beautiful house to tour.
Julie is a librarian by day, die-hard travel fanatic and writer by night. When she’s not traveling, she’s either testing out a new recipe or being a foodie in Pittsburgh. If you're interested in seeing where she travels to or what she makes next, follow along via the links below!