When Emma Watts passed away in 1970 at the age of 83, she left behind hundreds of books at her Elmwood estate in Richmond.
Her private collection, which spans the great classics of literature as well as the popular fiction of her time, is now under the expert care of Eastern Kentucky University Libraries, which intends to evaluate the books in a climate-controlled environment.
The historic estate, home and contents were gifted to the EKU Foundation in 2011 and while the university has made no decision yet on a future use for the beloved property, efforts continue to maintain the home and surrounding 20 acres. It was announced recently that EKU Facilities Services employees would begin repairing the iron fence and clearing overgrowth to better allow access to the grounds for academic purposes.
In mid-December, library staff began moving the books, as well as some art works, from the home to John Grant Crabbe Main Library, across Lancaster Avenue from the mansion.
Many of the books have been damaged to some degree by moisture.
“We want to get them out of the house and into a stable environment,” said Betina Gardner, EKU Libraries dean. “We need to clean them, assess them, and determine their significance to the estate and value to the university.”
The collection will offer great insights into life and interests of Watts, a Vassar College graduate who Gardner said was “very well read. A (private) book collection is a very personal thing. When you work with it, you get to know the person and their interests.”
Gardner said the collection also included books in Latin as well as “sketch books” of various artists.
Many of the books and works of art could be returned to Elmwood after the home is restored, Gardner said.
When EKU acquired Elmwood, then-president Doug Whitlock said the university was “committed to maintaining the name of Elmwood and the beautiful vista along Lancaster Avenue. Further, we will use the property only for non-commercial purposes consistent with our mission. Any new construction will be behind the house and of architectural design in keeping with the existing structures. The property will be a wonderful enhancement to our campus and is of immense strategic importance to the future of the university.”
Built in 1887, Elmwood is believed to be the state’s only Chauteauesque-style house outside of Louisville. With 20 rooms and approximately 9,000 square feet, the three-story structure is one of four residences in Richmond designed by Cincinnati architect Samuel E. Desjardins. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
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