I must have been in the wrong place. All the highway signs on Interstate 24 pointed toward a welcome center with restrooms. But after parking my car, I looked through the windshield at a giant three-story antebellum home. Elaborate Corinthian columns supported a towering portico. Wooden shudders flanked double-hung windows. The bricks were painted a brilliant white.
I must have been in the wrong place.
But after getting out of the car, I found the restrooms and the racks filled with tourism brochures. A map on the wall pinpointed my location in Paducah, Kentucky. I heard the familiar plop from nearby vending machines.
This was a welcome center. The Whitehaven Welcome Center. And it’s the only welcome center in the country in an antebellum home.
History of Whitehaven
In 1865, Edward Anderson built a two-story brick farmhouse. Typical of the construction methods at the time, the bricks were fired in a kiln on site.
In 1903, the Anderson family sold the house to Edward Atkins. Atkins hired his friend, architect Alda Lafayette Lassiter, to remodel the brick farmhouse in the Greek Revival style. Lassiter added the front portico supported by eight Corinthian columns, intricate crown molding, and built a grand staircase in the center of the house. Atkins painted the brick house white and named it Whitehaven.
After the death of his wife, Atkins sold the house to James Smith, the ninth mayor of Paducah, in 1908. James and Nell Smith had six children and needed more room in the house. The attic was converted into a third floor with bedrooms, and a large kitchen was attached to the back of the house. Nell renamed the house “Bide-A-Wee,” a Scottish phrase meaning “Stay awhile.”
In 1968, the last member of the Smith family moved out. The family hired caretakers to maintain the property, but instead, they began selling anything of value and pocketing the cash. When the last caretaker moved out in 1979, squatters promptly moved in. Nearly every window in the house was broken, the floors and ceilings rotted, and a portion of the east wall collapsed.
In 1981, the Smith family sold the 32-acre property and the house to the Paducah Junior College. The small college needed land to expand its campus but had no interest in the house. The luxurious mansion continued to deteriorate.
Whitehaven Welcome Center
While visiting the area in 1981, Kentucky Governor John Y. Brown Jr. learned about the historic house on the side of the recently completed Interstate 24. Along with Secretary of Transportation Frank Metts, Brown decided the house would be the perfect location for a welcome center for southbound traffic from Illinois.
The state purchased the house and a small tract of land from the Paducah Junior College. The house was restored to its early 1900s glamour featuring a Greek Revival style. The kitchen wing at the back of the house was renovated to serve as the restrooms and welcome center. The second floor was converted into a museum displaying memorabilia of Vice President Alben Barkley, a Paducah native who served in the Truman administration from 1949 to 1953.
The original carriage house, storm shelter, and gazebo were also restored and repurposed for storage. Picnic tables were installed beneath a few trees near the carriage house. And an access ramp for southbound traffic was built directly to the welcome center.
On June 23, 1983, the Whitehaven Welcome Center was open, the only visitor center in the country located inside an antebellum home.
Guided Tours of Whitehaven
The Whitehaven Welcome Center has clean restrooms, outdoor picnic tables, a place to walk the dog, and racks of travel brochures. In many ways, it’s just like any other interstate welcome center.
But visitors can also take a guided tour of the historic house.
Tours begin at the top of every hour, and I was just a few minutes early. I waited in the small lobby as a group of five additional visitors gathered. The tour began in a room with a gorgeous white brick fireplace and grand piano. The tour guide explained that original materials were used during restoration in the 1980s.
The tour included the foyer with sunlight pouring through the large glass doors and windows, built-in benches, and the grand staircase. Upstairs, rooms were decorated with period furniture, although not original. The Barkley Room displayed Alben Barkley’s desk used while he was a congressman and another desk used while vice president.
The tour lasted only half an hour. But I had never been on a guided tour at a welcome center before, so it was already better than most.
And I had never seen a welcome center inside a historic antebellum home.