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A Modern Southern Belle

A Modern Southern Belle

Preservationists Melinda and Cary Winchester bring the Belle Louise Historic Guest House back to life 

By Amy Sullivan 

For just a little over a year, Melinda Winchester, historic preservation specialist, and her husband Cary, have endeavored to complete a full-scale restoration of a genuine gem. Located at 304 N. 6th Street in historic downtown Paducah, the Belle Louise Historic Guest House has been transformed to its former glory; saved from its downhill demise.  

The home was built in 1879 by Daniel J. Fraser and experienced several ownerships and renovations throughout the decades. Sold to a funeral home beginning in 1921, the site is well-known as the location of former Vice President Alben Barkley’s 1956 visitation, when hundreds of mourners, including President Harry Truman, passed through its doorways to pay their respects. In 1985 it was purchased by the late Howard and Louise Randle, the namesake of the Belle Louise.  

The Randles owned the home for almost 30 years, converting the funeral home back into a residence, determined to be faithful to the period the house represented. The two Civil War buffs enjoyed participating in reenactments and showcasing their artifacts and hand-sewn period costumes annually at holiday open houses to raise funds for the restoration of the Tilghman Military History Center. {PADUCAH LIFE Magazine featured Louise Randel’s period costumes in a 2001 edition.} 

By 2016, after the passing of Louise and several new owner exchanges, the home fell into dire disrepair, neglected and suffering from many issues, including extensive water damage.  The home exchanged hands again, and eventually, in 2019, the Winchesters were given the opportunity to purchase and revitalize the Belle Louise.  

Melinda and Cary are devoted to preserving the home’s original character, history, and reflections of days gone by. The authentic trim, gorgeous wood floors, brick kitchen entryway, two fireplace mantles from Germany, several now functional transoms, and most of the original doors preserve the place’s personality. “We found seven doors inside the walls that had been covered up!” Melinda exclaimed. They even discovered and restored two steeple hinges, their gorgeous designs buried below five different layers of paint. A quick crockpot cooking revealed their clandestine character and now they embellish two second-floor doors.  

But some of the most beautiful pieces hover above, reflecting not only the home’s history, but also pretty pieces from Paducah’s past. A pair of matching chandeliers, originally purchased by the late George Katterjohn from Governor Winthrop Rockefeller of Arkansas, still grace the Belle Louise’s first-floor entry hall and dining room. An early 19th century combination electric and gas light fixture from Paducah’s old Sinnott Hotel greets guests upstairs. “Local donors have also generously contributed furniture, antiques, and other pieces to add to the look of the original home,” Melinda gratefully mentioned.  

The Winchesters have taken on the role of general contractor for this project in order to actively oversee the progress. John Moore has been the master historic carpenter for the project, along with multiple local subcontractors.  

All of the original windows were saved, and one of the parlor’s windows reveals a hidden treasure. When building nineteenth century homes, it was not uncommon for initials to be etched into the glass. In a corner of a front-facing window, the letters “AF” are faintly inscribed. Melinda says these initials represent (Sallie) Abigail Fraser, wife of former owner Daniel Fraser, who purchased the home in 1879 and enlarged it into an Italianate mansion with a central tower. The Sallie Abigail room honors this former owner.   

The Winchesters realized they had truly saved the Belle at an unexpected moment, when removing damaged ceilings on the second level directly under the tower’s supporting wall. They luckily discovered a critical beam that had been hidden for decades. It revealed a design flaw in the roof that had been pushing water into the tower for years, causing continued damage. “It was a hidden time bomb,” Melinda said. “The house probably had a year at the most left before she came down.”  

After thoughtful consideration, Melinda has creatively and uniquely dubbed each room in the house. The Queen Bee on the second floor, complete with gorgeous original poplar floors, is named for the giant beehive wedged in one of the front porch columns that the neighbors told the Winchesters about. A local beekeeper  relocated about 30,000 honeybees to a farm in McCracken County. The Winchesters and were later rewarded with two gallons of what is now named Belle honey, one of the items that will be served and sold at Belle Louise. 

The honey will complement delicious Kirchoff’s pastries that house guests will enjoy for breakfast. “I always support local,” Melinda emphasized. “We are also partnering with Aw Shucks Popcorn who has created a special blueberry and vanilla mix with our own label, Belle Berry.” Other local partnerships include John’s Pass Carriage Service, who will pick up Belle boarders right outside the home for a lovely horse-drawn carriage ride. Sarah Martin of Martin Farm Soap is producing the Belle’s private label hand soaps and lotions. Hooper’s Outdoor Center is working with Melinda on offering bike rack rentals.  

Melinda formerly served as Paducah Main Street Director and Downtown Development Specialist, helping revitalize the community through creative funding resources and by utilizing historic tax credit incentives. 

“This restoration would not have been possible without the state and federal historic tax credits,” Melinda emphasized. “Tax credits have proven to be one of the nation’s most successful and cost-effective community revitalization tools—creating jobs, leveraging private investment, enhancing property values. These incentives are instrumental in preserving the historic places that give our cities and communities their special character. In order to utilize the federal tax credits, our project brought on a tax credit investor and the property will remain in an LLC for five years. At the end of that period, we will purchase the property back into our ownership solely.  The Belle Louise project is a perfect example of economic and neighborhood revitalization and how important it is to put together the right partners within a community to save our historic buildings through this program.”  

The first guests will stay at the Belle Louise on July 11, 2020. The Belle is already booked for the annual American Quilter’s Society Quilt Show & Contest. 

As a member of the Lower Town Neighborhood Association, Melinda hopes to bring back the holiday home tours originally begun by the Randles in the 1990s possibly as part of the “Dickens of a Christmas”downtown event. “We already have three homes committed to starting this back up again, and are hoping for five,” she optimistically commented.  

For information or reservations call 270-210-2553 or email bellelouisepaducah@gmail.com. Follow the Belle Louise Historic Guest House on Facebook

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