Leaving a Legacy
Hermitage Farm to become an
Steve Wilson, Laura Lee Brown combine
love for land, art in their ventures
GOSHEN, Ky. – When Steve Wilson’s driver pulled up to the entrance of Hermitage Farm, it took a few minutes before the door opened. But then Wilson emerged from the black Audi, sporting his familiar white beard, his signature bright colored blazer (blue today) and his trademark red-rimmed glasses. The eccentric-yet-affable Wilson had agreed to an interview at the Goshen, Ky., farm that he and his wife, Brown-Forman heiress Laura Lee Brown, had purchased in 2010, to discuss their plans to turn it into a quintessential Kentucky Agri-tourism attraction.
Wilson and Brown are familiar on the Louisville social scene for many reasons. Some know them for their fame as worldwide contemporary art buyers and collectors. Or they know the couple for their 1996 purchase of the 1,000-acre, 1790s-era farm in Goshen, Ky., where they live and garden, raise bison for their Kentucky Bison Co. and free grazing pigs, and grow fruits and vegetables through sustainable growing practices. Or they have become familiar with the couple from their creation and development of the art-centric 21C Museum Hotels around the United States – the first one of eight opening in Louisville in 2006 and housing Proof on Main bourbon bar and restaurant.
Steve Wilson and his wife, Laura Lee Brown, are pictured during the 2016 Hermitage Classic horse event at their farm in Goshen, Ky.
Wilson in recent years also has developed quite a reputation as a talented horseman as a driver in the U.S. Equestrian Pair Combined Driving events around the world. Brown, meanwhile, has a long family history in the bourbon industry as the great-granddaughter of Brown Forman Corp. founder George Garvin Brown.
But now as the couple begins to reflect on their legacy – Wilson turned 70 this year; Brown is 76 – he says he thinks their biggest impact may lie in their land conservation efforts – essentially saving Kentucky farmland from becoming residential subdivisions or shopping centers.
“My wife was born and raised on Sutherland Farm in Prospect; now it is Sutherland Subdivision,” Wilson said to open a one-on-one interview Aug. 16 inside the main house dating to 1835 at Hermitage Farm, site of the couple’s latest project.
After Brown’s family farm became a subdivision, her family bought 50 acres of the Ohio River bottomlands to prevent its development into a marina. Instead, that land is now the public Hays Kennedy Park in Prospect. The couple owns other Oldham County farmland not far from Hermitage.
Wilson and Brown bought the famed Hermitage Farm in 2010 from thoroughbred horse owner Carl Pollard. Pollard operated the farm for 16 years, taking over in 1994 after legendary horse owner Warner Jones, whose tenure there produced 1953 Kentucky Derby winner Dark Star. The farm had 150 brood horses in its heyday and producing 200 stakes winners, Wilson said. It still has 50 brood mares that produced foals each year that are sold at the Keeneland Thoroughbred Yearling Horse Sales in Lexington. Longtime farm manager Bill Landes stayed on after Wilson and Brown purchased Hermitage to guide the horse breeding operation.
Photo by Bernie Kasper
Steve Wilson poses at Hermitage Farm in August with one of his eight Hungarian Lipizzan horses, this one named “Tuzes.”
Wilson and Brown, meanwhile, plan to expand upon the horse theme at Hermitage Farm with a $15 million investment to create a pure Kentucky-themed, Agri-tourism attraction that not only offers horse farm tours but also bourbon tastings, a restaurant featuring Kentucky products and more. They plan to put the 700-acre farm into a land conservation easement to preserve it from future development. Once that is done, they will have preserved 2,500 acres of Oldham County farmland in land conservation easements.
“I look at our project here at Hermitage Farm as a legacy for my wife and I – and for Kentucky,” Wilson said. “Our union brought together a love affair we have with land and art. So this project is about preserving the farmland but in an active way.”
During the meeting in which plans were presented to neighbors, including the part about saving the farm from future development, attendees not only gave it a unanimous thumbs up but gave a standing ovation. “I don’t think that’s ever happened before,” Wilson said proudly.
In 2015, the couple has played host to the lavish Hermitage Grand Gala, a Kentucky Derby party.
The plan takes shape
The Hermitage Farm project has several features, many of which are expected to be complete in time for the 2019 Kentucky Derby:
• The barns were all numbered on the property from years back. “Barn 8,” one of 52 structures on property, will become a farm-to-table restaurant. Wilson said he plans to hire a yet-unnamed East Coast chef to run it. Haviland Argo, 39, a Cynthiana, Ky.-born, Harvard-educated architect, was hired by Wilson and Brown 11 years ago to help construct the first 21C Museum Hotel in Louisville and the ones in Cincinnati and Lexington. He now lives at Hermitage Farm, where his team is designing the renovation of the 100-year-old hay barn into the 14,000-square-foot restaurant, surrounded by five acres of vegetable gardens and 100 parking spaces nearby. The restaurant will have a unique atmosphere, allowing guests to dine in what were once horse stalls. Only these renovated stalls will feature a glass wall on one side, allowing guests to peer into the open kitchen. Barn 8 also will house a visitor’s center, gift shop, ticketing and information center.
Photo by Bernie Kasper
Steve Wilson discusses his plans for a pure Kentucky Agri-tourism experience at Hermitage Farm in Goshen, Ky. He hopes to have it open by next year’s Kentucky Derby.
“It has the original wood floors,” Argo said. “We’re lucky it survived the load of the square bales of hay that were stored in here. Our goal is to upgrade this space but also retain as much of the original feeling as possible.”
• In another building, visitors will learn about the bourbon-making process and be able to sample or purchase more than 80 Kentucky bourbon brands from around the state.
A bourbon “library” will be built to house select barrels of premium bourbons from different distilleries known as “Hermitage Select.”
• A Stud Barn at the farm has been converted into a small visitor’s center and space for Wilson and Brown to store their horse carriages and stable their own horses. The collection includes an 1882 carriage used by actors Clark Gable and Vivian Lee in a scene from the movie, “Gone With the Wind.” There is also a trophy display room to pay tribute to Hermitage Farm’s past successful horses and to showcase Wilson’s many equestrian ribbons and trophies.
• Farm tours will allow visitors to see first-hand the daily activities involved in raising and breeding thoroughbred race horses. Farm tours are currently available through the website www.HorseCountry.com. Argo said they host a couple of group tours a week.
• There will be art installations around the property and in the restaurant, plus a cabin dating to the Civil War era that the couple plan to use for artists-in-residence opportunities. The 1830s cabin that was enclosed inside a building was discovered during the renovation. Wilson said he wants the artists to explore historic topics and contemporary issues, including slavery. “The mansion on this farm was built with slave labor, and we want to explore that history.”
• The farm also will be a rural refuge for school groups and families to come and picnic on the grounds and explore the natural surroundings, including an art walk along Lower Sinking Fork Creek which runs on the farm. Philadelphia artist Ricardo Rivera has been hired to curate the art walk. Rivera uses 4K projectors to create artistic landscapes that will be displayed across the 1,000-foot-long walk.
• The original brick mansion has been renovated to accommodate weddings, receptions and other events. Hermitage Farm has been hosting weddings for four years now, Argo said. Twenty-two weddings were held there just last year, he said. The house has seven bedrooms and a smokehouse, all of which can sleep a total of 14 people.
“I’m trying to implement Steve’s vision here at Hermitage,” said Argo, who earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Kentucky. “He knows how to entertain people – that’s what he’s good at.”
The farm currently employs about 40 people. Once the project is complete, Argo says about 25 employees will be added to help with the tours, and another 30 to 50 people will be hired at the restaurant and event space.
Wilson says he hopes that the farm’s only 30-minute drive from downtown Louisville will allow the project to capitalize on the growing number of visitors to the Kentucky Derby Museum and those who come to experience the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
“They’ve been getting 250,000 to 300,000 visitors a year at the Kentucky Derby Museum, and many of them want to visit a horse farm. But Lexington is an hour and a half away, so now they can drive 30 minutes and come here and experience Kentucky bourbon and horses – all in one place,” Wilson said.
Steve Wilson grew up on a farm in western Kentucky in the small town of Wickliffe in Ballard County. Though born in Indiana, Wilson said his father bought a farm in the swamps along the Ohio River when he was very young. Wilson spent the first six years of his life living on that farm in a four-room home with no electricity or running water until he was 6 years old.
“My father was a true pioneer, clearing the land for farming,” he said.
His father became mayor and his sister the county attorney. “I was big in 4-H because of our farming roots.”
After high school, Wilson attended Murray State University in Murray, Ky., where he planned to study art. “I took my first drawing class, and after that, my teacher told me I have no future as an artist,” he said with a laugh. “So then I went into politics. I majored in political science and art – an usual combination.”
After college, Wilson spent 15 years working in Frankfort for three governors – Julian Carroll, John Y. Brown and Wallace Wilkinson.
Meanwhile, Wilson said he continued his interest in art and especially art that pushed the boundaries of sexuality and social norms. “My mother was the organist in the Methodist Church, and we were never allowed to talk about certain topics like sexuality because we were in the Bible Belt. I always wondered why those topics were off limits.”
Wilson’s curiosity led him to explore artwork “that stimulated the mind and went against convention. I was drawn to art that melted hearts and broke down barriers.”
Wilson married Brown 25 years ago, in October 1993 at Woodland Farm. It was the second marriage for both. The couple became a force on the Louisville art scene, sitting on several boards.
Wilson, meantime, made up for lost time in exploring provocative art as a youth by decorating his 21C Museum Hotels with contemporary artwork that for many pushes the boundaries, featuring nudes or images that challenge social norms. The company expanded quickly as Wilson and Brown traveled the country overseeing the progress of each hotel while also attending art shows to purchase artwork for them.
“My wife and I love to collect contemporary art, and we wanted a way to share the collection,” Wilson has said. “So we sort of dreamed up the idea of 21c in Louisville for that purpose and also to help revitalize some empty buildings.”
Wilson admits, “I didn’t know anything about running a hotel when we started 21C.”
As for his sense of judging art, Wilson told Louisville Magazine writer Chris Witzke in 2016, “How do I identify art? I don’t know. It’s an emotional reaction, and it seems to be an ability that I have.”
In fact, a documentary titled “In Frame: The Man Behind the Museum Hotels,” was produced by Louisville filmmaker Edward Heavrin that focused on their work at 21C. It specifically follows Wilson on art buying trips in 2013 and during the construction process of one of the 21C hotels. The film premiered in April 2016 at the Kentucky Theater and has since been aired on Kentucky Educational Television. In it, several senior officials at the 21C company explain what it is like working for Wilson during these hotel construction projects.
Sarah Robbins, Chief Hospitality Officer, said in the film, “Steve provides the overall vision for how this should look and function to a certain standpoint.”
Molly Swyers, Chief Brand Officer, said, “We look at him to challenge us, and there are many times during design meetings when we think something can’t be accomplished, or we overlook an opportunity that he sees. And it really takes him to challenging us and prodding us to push the envelope even further than we might without him sitting in the room.”
Terrence Schroeder, a design architect with 21C, says in the film, “I think Steve brings a perspective and good sense of design and also just a fun energy that really makes the projects more interesting. And I think that filters through the whole project at all levels.”
Swyers later adds,” He’s so difficult to read and to anticipate. And he’s so creative you never quite know what he’s going to respond to.”
Wilson stepped down as CEO at 21C Museum Hotels in September 2017. Harvard-educated Craig Greenberg, the company’s president, stepped into that role. Wilson stayed on as board chairman until this past February, when he abruptly announced his retirement – just a week after turning 70. “Upon reflection, I recognize that I thrive when I’m creating. That said, I have come to realize that I need some time to rejuvenate and nurture my creative spirit. I have other projects and interests I’d like to pursue,” he said at the time.
Greenberg, 45, a Louisville native, has been with the couple for 17 years, serving as their attorney before 21C was formed. He has traveled around the world with Wilson, witnessing first-hand Wilson’s inquisitive ways of exploring other cultures and cuisines and his approach to buying art. He says Wilson is trying to bring that same type of experiential approach for visitors to Hermitage Farm.
“Steve is a big thinker; he is a man of unlimited ideas, so it’s been very fun and an interesting experience to work with him,” Greenberg said in a late August telephone interview.
“Steve is such a creative individual. He likes to challenge existing norms to create interesting experiences for others.”
As an example, Greenberg cited Wilson’s decision in 2011 to purchase from Turkish artist Serkan Ozkaya a 30-foot-tall, golden statue of Michelangelo’s “David” to set in front of the flagship 21C Hotel in downtown Louisville. “I remember thinking to myself I’m not sure if this is possible, or a good idea or not,” Greenberg said. “But it turned out to be a phenomenal idea. It has become an icon, not only for 21C but for downtown Louisville.”
Greenberg said the couple’s agricultural roots and their dedication to preserving the land “is a passion they both share, and the Hermitage Farm project brings that passion together in a new and exciting way for travelers coming from around the world who want a true Kentucky experience that is first class – and all in one place.”
In addition to Louisville and Cincinnati, the company operates hotels and restaurants in Lexington, Ky., Bentonville, Ark., Durham, N.C., Oklahoma City, Okla., Kansas City, Indianapolis and Nashville, Tenn. They plan to open another six hotels over the next four years, with the next one opening in Des Moines, Iowa.
In late July, 21C officials announced the sale of 85 percent of the company to the multinational, French-owned Accor Hotels group for $51 million. Wilson and Brown will retain 15 percent, the real estate and the contemporary art that decorates their eight hotels.
“The sale of part of 21C to Accor Hotels is a way to expand the company into Europe,” Wilson said of the sale. “My wife and I could not do that on our own.”
Wilson said the management team will remain intact, and the company headquarters will remain in Louisville.
Love for horses
Wilson’s love for horses is apparent judging by his success for the past decade as an athlete in U.S. Equestrian events and other riding events. Wilson and Brown have played host to the U.S. Equestrian Federation-sanctioned Hermitage Classic in 2016 and again this past July at the farm.
And with that, he disappeared into the back seat of that black Audi. The car sat idling for a few minutes, then slowly pulled away – down the long, narrow, blacktop lane that cuts across a wide, lush, green, manicured pasture to Hwy. 42 – pasture that will never see the likes of a bulldozer or construction trucks, thanks to the conservation-minded actions of it owners, Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown.
An avid horse lover, Wilson in 2017 was selected to compete in the World Championship for Pair Horse Driving as a member of the U.S Equestrian Team. Wilson, who keeps his eight Hungarian Lipizzan horses for the sport at Hermitage Farm, at age 69 competed in the World Championship last year in Lipica, Slovenia.
Prior to that, Wilson had competed in combined pair horse driving contests for eight years. The event features two horses pulling the rider in a carriage. The competitions have three phases: dressage, cross country marathon and a cones course. Wilson took his own three horses to Slovenia for the world championship, which consisted of 100 competitors in various events from more than 20 countries and 300 horses.
In May, Wilson won Pair Horse Championships and was Reserve Single Horse Champion at the annual Devon (Pa.) Horse Show and Country Fair, the oldest and largest outdoor multi-breed horse show in the United States.
About 30 minutes into the interview at Hermitage Farm, Wilson stood and said, “Want to go take a look at the barn?”
He exited the house and had his driver bring him around to the Stud Barn, where he stables his horses and displays his equestrian ribbons and trophies. The black barn with red trim also has a room where his Pair Combined Driving event carriages are stored, including the one used in “Gone With the Wind.” The tack room walls are lined with leather harnesses, shiny bridles and a cache of other riding equipment.
Wilson eagerly opens the door to the row of stables and greets his horses – four on each side of the barn. Wilson approaches the first stall as the horse named Pluto Revans sticks out its head and becomes very animated when seeing its owner. “This one here is the ugliest one but also the most friendly,” Wilson says as the horse wags its head up and down for attention.
Wilson agrees to pose for photos with one of his horses, so he puts a bridle on another horse named Tuzes and leads it just outside the barn door. The horse gets excited, and the two spend a few minutes standing together in the sunshine enjoying the moment as the photographer fires away.
The horse man is in his element.
Wilson then puts Tuzes back in the stall, and the interview ends with Wilson stopping to pose for one last photo in front of the horse barn. Asked about his penchant for wearing those signature colorful jackets and his stylish glasses and attire, he replied, “I think fashion is an extension of art, don’t you agree?”
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