Perhaps you remember Hermitage Farm in Goshen, near Louisville, during its heyday under Warner Jones, its owner from 1936 to 1994. He’s the only person to breed winners of the Kentucky Derby (won by the infamous Dark Star, which upset Native Dancer in 1953), the Kentucky Oaks and a Breeders’ Cup race. In 1985, Jones broke a Keeneland Yearling Sales record with the $13.1 million sale of Seattle Dancer. HRH Queen Elizabeth paid the farm a visit the following year. Thoroughbred history to the max.
No way the public can set foot on this showplace, right? Wrong!
That’s thanks to Hermitage’s current owners, the husband-and-wife entrepreneurial team of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson (owners of 21c Museum Hotels and the Kentucky Bison Co.), who bought the 700-acre farm in 2010. The couple is giving Hermitage an enormous facelift with plans to morph the property into a top-class tourist attraction, event space and a showplace that celebrates Kentucky’s quintessential industries: food, bourbon and horses.
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Phase one of the project has already been completed, adding expanded event and meeting spaces with amenities such as Wi-Fi, smart TVs, USB ports and audio-visual capacities. Five bedrooms in the handsome, circa 1853 restored brick mansion – which in the past served as the owners’ residence – now sleep up to 10 guests, while a transformed smokehouse with a sitting room, bathroom and loft bedroom, sleeps four. Either can serve as a corporate event site, depending on the group size.
In addition, the main house has a splendid dining room table that seats 20, with a horse- pasture view, and two sitting rooms for breakouts. In a gourmet kitchen, groups can choose to cook their own meals, bring in catered food or hire a chef from a “recommended” list.
“Hermitage is a place where you can step way out of the box of your office and traditional boardroom,” says Ashleigh McLean, director of marketing and events for the historic farm. “The layout of the house with contemporary art throughout gets attendees thinking differently, more creatively.”
A working Thoroughbred farm for nearly 100 years, the property continues as such, and walking tours led by hands-on farm staff are a specialty, for both meetings attendees and tourists. Overnight and day retreats can last for any part or all of the day and evening. A group might meet during the day, break for an afternoon walking tour in the fresh air, and reconvene for dinner at the main house. Available add-on options include bourbon tastings, teambuilding activities, caterers and private chefs.
“Planners can bring in whatever they want or tell us what they need,” McLean says, “and we can help them make those connections easily.”
Another part of phase one is the conversion of an old stud barn into a space for larger meetings, events and dinners for up to 50. On Oaks Day 2018, 600 guests attended its grand opening. The structure contains a horse-drawn carriage exhibit and a couple of video displays, one detailing the farm’s illustrious racehorse history and another explaining the sport of carriage driving. The facility also houses Steve Wilson’s carriage-driving horses and their equipment. An active participant in combined driving and eventing, Wilson competed last year for Team USA in the world championships in Slovenia.
For years, the farm has hosted the Hermitage Classic, a three-day-long combined driving competition. Recently re-named the Kentucky Classic, the exciting event – which includes a family-friendly festival – now alternates its location every other year between Hermitage (the 2018 host) and Misdee Wrigley Miller’s Hillcroft Farm in Paris, Ky.
Now in progress, phase two of the Hermitage metamorphosis is anchored by Barn 8, an old dairy barn that later became a horse barn. The sturdy structure is being converted to a 100-seat restaurant that will offer bourbon tastings and boxed lunches during the day and a full-service restaurant at night. The upstairs hayloft will become an event space for 225 seated guests.
“The space is almost cathedral-like, perfect for corporate retreats, weddings and private dinners,” says Harvard-trained architect Haviland Argo, project manager of the Hermitage transformation, and also construction overseer of several of the 21c hotels, including the Louisville flagship.
A planned 10-acre garden nearby will supply a farm store and country stores within the barn and make the restaurant truly farm-to-table. There’ll be communal dining on long tables down the center aisle, with some overlooking the kitchen. Horse stalls are becoming four private dining rooms.
Wilson and Brown’s nearby 1,000-acre Woodland Farm will supply bison, heritage hogs, roaster chickens and fresh eggs. Surrounding farms will furnish local cheeses and other delicacies.
Guests can taste all bourbons on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in three areas – a beginners’ classroom, a bourbon cocktail-making area, and a VIP area for experts – then purchase their favorites at a bourbon package store.
Yet another building phase will convert a polo barn into a visitor center, retail space, farm offices and gardening staff quarters. A 3,500-s.f. greenhouse will nurture flowers and vegetables year-round.
Though the multifaceted project seems huge, Argo says, “I believe we’ve passed our biggest hurdles. We’re due to open in October 2019 and will be taking restaurant reservations soon.”
Because the owners collect contemporary art by living artists, the enterprise will feature an exciting art aspect that’s still under wraps. Pieces of their collection brighten up rooms and roofs of 21c Museum hotels.
Argo laughs. “It wouldn’t be a project by Steve and Laura Lee if it didn’t have a cool art component.”
What’s special about the project, he says, is that it comes from a desire to save Kentucky farmland and to share the gorgeous rolling green hills with visitors.
“Steve and Laura Lee purchased Hermitage to keep it from being developed as a 500-house subdivision,” says Argo, who grew up on a Cynthiana farm. “We’re working hard to put it into conservation easement, so except for the restaurant area, it can never be developed for anything but agricultural use. It’s completely hidden from view from U.S. 42. So this land will remain a beautiful horse farm in perpetuity.”
To reserve Hermitage’s existing meeting and event spaces – the main house, smokehouse and tents on the grounds, call Ashleigh McLean at (502) 228-1426. You can book farm-staff-led tours at horsecountry.com, or call the farm directly at the above number. See what’s in store at hermitagefarm.com
Katherine Tandy Brown is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]