Duncan Park

Duncan Park - 2015 courtesy: Jayoung Koo

On the southern side of the North End, historic Duncan Park sits atop a hilly area at the corner of North Limestone and Fifth Street. The overarching history of Duncan Park is similar to that of Castlewood Park: it started as a farm and out-lot of a wealthy family, a mansion was constructed on the site, and it eventually was sold to the city of Lexington - but the details of that history are much more rich. 

In 1795, William Morton purchased a 22 acre plot of land just north of the settlement of Lexington for one sterling shilling. Morton, an immigrant from England who was a successful mercantilist in Pennsylvania, operated a drug store at the corner of Main and Upper Streets. In 1810, Morton constructed his home on the lot, facing Mulberry Street (now North Limestone).

Morton died in 1836, and the house was then sold to Cassius Marcellus Clay. Clay, the son of Green Clay, the largest slave-holder in the west, was a cousin to Lexington’s famous Henry Clay. Cassius was a staunch and vocal abolitionist. He attended Transylvania University, located just a few blocks south, and Yale College - where he was inspired by William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery movement. 

He served in the Kentucky House of Representatives, and, in 1845, Cassius Clay began printing an anti-slavery newspaper called The True American. One of the most hated individuals in Kentucky, Clay would survive an assassination attempt during a debate with a pro-slavery group. In 1850, Clay sold the home to Dr. Lloyd Warfield, who subdivided it to create what is now the Martin Luther King neighborhood. 

Herman Heaton Clay, the ancestor of a slave owned by the Clay family, named his son after Cassius Clay, who would in turn name his son Cassius M. Clay Jr. This Cassius later changed his name to Muhammad Ali, saying that Cassius Clay was his “slave name”.

The True American - printed by Cassius M Clay courtesy: KY Digital Archive

Eventually, the house and surrounding acreage ended up as the property of Henry T. Duncan - a two-term mayor of Lexington and co-founder of the Lexington Daily Press (which eventually became the Lexington Herald-Leader). The five-acre area surrounding the house became a public park in 1912, designed by the firm of Frederick Olmsted - who also designed NYC’s Central Park. 

In 1915, Duncan Park was the site of a significant women’s suffrage demonstration. From 1916 - 1956, Duncan Park was part of Lexington’s segregated parks system, only admitting whites to the park, with Douglass Park serving as its counterpart for the black community. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s “white-flight” of white, middle class residents to the suburbs, the neighborhood saw a significant increase in African-American residents, yet the park still remained segregated. 

In the 1970s a 200-person civil rights demonstration took place in Duncan Park in protest of the closing of inner-city schools. In the 1980s and 1990s the park was largely neglected by the city of Lexington, as it was said to be a hot-bed of crime for the neighborhood. Although the city of Lexington did create a Master Plan for Duncan Park in the early 1990s, the only aspect of this plan that was executed was the closing of the swimming pool in Duncan Park in 1995, and its demolition in 2000.

Duncan Park viewed from MLK courtesy: Jayoung Koo

Currently, Duncan Park houses a basketball court and a small playground. Inside the Morton House is The Nest Center for Women, Children, and Families. Due to the original siting of the mansion, Duncan Park looks largely like the private estate that it once was. The Morton House blocks street view of the playground from North Limestone, a steel fence runs along Fifth Street, and the Northern edge of the park is closed off by the backyards of houses on Rand Ave. Together, these barriers give Duncan Park a very “closed off” feel from any approach except North Martin Luther King Drive.

In a series of community engagement sessions, residents mentioned several aspects of Duncan Park that made it feel welcoming to them. Similar to Castlewood, residents expressed that the large, historic trees in Duncan Park were one of their favorite, defining characteristics. In addition to the trees, residents said that the recreational activities in the park - the playground and the basketball courts - were very important to have in the neighborhood. Many also mentioned that the location and easy access made the park special to residents that could walk to it.  

There were more aspects that residents wanted improved in Duncan Park than Castlewood Park. Residents were very frustrated by the removal of benches and trash cans from the park - their removal made it much more difficult to have family gatherings and generally spend time in the park. Alongside the benches and trash cans, residents mentioned that the park needs more upgraded drinking fountains, and permanent brick-and-mortar bathroom facility. The portable toilet in the park made residents feel unsafe, and is occasionally overturned. One of the largest needs mentioned by residents was for additional basketball facilities.

Residents said that from the North Limestone side, Duncan Park seems very inaccessible. Residents mentioned potential ideas which could better activate the “front” of Duncan Park - including public art, colorful flags, and information about the history of the park. Interestingly, many also mentioned that the deteriorating columns at the front of the park made the park look uncared for. Similar to Castlewood Park, the picnic table (there is only one) is chained to a tree - instantly implying that the park is unsafe.