By Laryn Hilderbrandt
The historic house stood on a rounded hill with a slim, autumn leaf-covered driveway looping around it. Christmas wreaths hung from the white double doors and green garland was draped over the railings. The red brick house was intentionally symmetric, reflecting the Italianate architecture. The outside was overgrown, weeds sprouting within the landscape. Light brown leaves affected by the late autumn chill littered the ground and paved path.
Inside, the wooden floors were covered by intricately patterned rugs, and every room was adorned with items reminiscent of the Victorian era. Thin lace curtains hung over the windows and horticulture-inspired painted murals were on the ceiling. Many things, like the upholstered chairs, weren’t originals of the house but were integrated to reflect what would have been in there in its prime.
Summer Meherg, a junior majoring in social work at WKU, grew up in southern Bowling Green but didn’t tour the house until six years ago with her mom.
“When I first saw the house, I was extremely impressed with how beautiful it was. The painted ceilings in a couple rooms were really breathtaking,” Meherg said. “When I learned about the history, it became even more beautiful, but unfortunately I don’t believe a lot of people know about the house.”
Riverview at Hobson Grove has sat in that spot for over 145 years. It was originally constructed to serve as the home of Atwood and Juliet Hobson but played a role in the Civil War mid-construction. After it was condemned in 1965, the city of Bowling Green purchased the house with the intent to demolish it and replace it with a golf course. It was saved when a non-profit organization restored the house. Established in 1972, Riverview is a non-profit historic house museum — the only one in south central Kentucky. It also was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Today, the house holds multiple events throughout the year like the Victorian Antique and Garden Festival, Christmas Candlelight Tours, Story Time with Santa, teas and other events.
A house with history
Construction on Riverview at Hobson Grove, named for its proximity to Barren River, began in the late 1850s until it was halted by the Civil War. A temporary roof was built over the basement of the house, and it was used to store Confederate munitions during the winter of 1861-62 while the Confederates held Bowling Green.
Kentucky as a whole was significant during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln even said in a letter he wrote in 1861, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.” Kentucky was divided between the Union and Confederate sides, so it declared neutrality at the beginning of the war. In September of 1861, that status ended after Confederate troops occupied Columbus, Kentucky. The Union army seized Paducah and Smithland. Both sides wanted control over Bowling Green and Warren County. The county had farm land, water and effective transportation — which allowed men and supplies to travel quickly — making it one of Kentucky’s most strategic cities. In November 1861, a pro-Confederate state government made Bowling Green the Capital of the Confederate State of Kentucky. After strategic advancements by the Union army, the Confederate army evacuated the city, allowing the Union to take control of it by mid-February 1862.
The construction of the Italianate house was finally completed in 1872 and was the home of Atwood and Juliet Van Meter Hobson. It stood as a sign of the wealth that came down Barren River, which allowed for goods and people to travel freely.
The Hobson family line lived in the house until 1952 and, in 1965, after a fire and abandonment, it was condemned. The city of Bowling Green brought the property and the surrounding 400 acres with the intention of replacing the house with a golf course. The house was saved by a non-profit organization that restored the house in the late 1960s and refurbished it with items reminiscent of the time.
Riverview opened its doors to the public for tours in 1972. The Friends of Riverview, the nonprofit organization of volunteers, work to protect and preserve the house’s history. In 1972 it was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places as well as being listed on Civil War tours and Heritage Trails.
Modern day presence
Today, several events are held throughout the year, some for the community and others for fundraising. In December, events include Candlelight Tours and Story Time with Santa. Riverview is available for private events for the communities with the approval of the Hobson House Commission. Weddings, receptions, teas, picnics and professional photography settings are some of the rental functions allowed.
Brooke Westcott Peterson was a docent, or tour guide, for five months at Riverview before becoming the interim director in October. She studied history at Judson College and the University of Alabama.
Peterson said the guests they see are on weekends or during the summer when the car shows bring in guests. It’s a lot of grandparents bringing their grandchildren.
According to the Humanities Indicators, a project of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, from 1982 to 2012 the percentage of people visiting at least one historical site in the previous year had fallen by more than a third. There was a decline across all age cohorts.
“One of the things I would really like to do here is get a lot of young people here. So many people don’t know that we are here,” Peterson said. “I would like to bring in some people at Western. Moms with children.”
Jake Edmunds has lived in Bowling Green all his life. A junior at WKU, he studies marketing and works as a student office assistant in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences office. He was asked if he had heard of Riverview at Hobson Grove.
“Yes, I know I have. What is it again? Is it that big house…no?” He looked around the office, turning to ask about it to the blonde woman at the desk behind him. “You know what it is?”
Getting the full story
Riverview has ties to both the Union and the Confederacy, but Margaret Gripshover, an associate professor of geography at WKU who has researched Riverview, said she thinks the house could do more to talk about the issue of slavery.
Huge houses like Riverview didn’t magically build themselves, the money came from somewhere, Gripshover said. Riverview was owned by Atwood Hobson and while he was a Union supporter, didn’t mean he was anti-slavery, she added.
“Hobson was a staunch Union supporter and they like to play that up, kind of saintly,” Gripshover said. “But his wife came into the marriage with a lot of wealth, too, and it was her father who was a major slave owner in Warren County who they don’t talk about, that the Van Meter family prefers not to talk about, that WKU prefers not to talk about.”
Juliet Van Meter Hobson’s father was Jacob Van Meter, who was said to have a number of slaves. Gripshover thinks it’s important to have those conversations and have the full context of the history.
Roma Tyrie has been in Bowling Green and worked as a docent for six years. She says tours are different with every docent, but says she takes an objective and historical approach.
“For me, I tell them how it is and that slaves did work there,” she said. “I know it’s kind of a touchy subject, but this is part of history whether we like it or not.”
Recently, the house hosted a lecture on Robert E. Lee, taught by a retired physician. Some people thought the lecture glorified the confederate general.
Teresa Christmas, the owner of Art Matters studio and gallery in downtown Bowling Green has attended lectures and events at Riverview before. After listening to the lecture about Lee at Riverview, she questioned the use of Riverview as a platform to glorify Lee.
“I thought it was really wrong to use the Hobson House to kind of recruit like-minded people,” Christmas said. Later she added, “I don’t think people who committed treason should be put up on a pedestal.”
Tyrie was watching the gift shop during the lecture at Riverview. She said she couldn’t comment because she didn’t hear it herself.
“I will say when I went in at the very end, I could feel the uncomfortableness,” Tyrie said.
A curving staircase in the middle of the house leads to a cupola at the top, common in Italianate architecture, that provides a clear, unabridged look at the Hobson land. Looking out from the cupola’s view, Bowling Green is within sight of Riverview but the house is not visible from Bowling Green.
“It’s geographically unfortunate that it’s not real visible from the rest of the town,” Gripshover said. “The disconnect from the river and the downtown is something you experience today but if I had taken you back 100 years ago, it would have been a real obvious, everyone would have known about Riverview.”
Gripshover said she is glad someone stepped in before they built the golf course over the Hobson land and cared about the history.
“We have a really bad track record in Bowling Green with restoring historic homes,” she said. “Our idea of preserving history is to tear it down and then put a marker up to commemorate what was there before we tore it down. That’s what they basically tend to do here in Bowling Green.”
Sharyn Bailey, a docent and volunteer at Riverview who was born and raised in Bowling Green, left for seven or eight years, then returned. The tours she gives are mostly unpaid, except for weekends, and each tour is individualized for the group.
“It is so important to know history and where you come from,” she said, gesturing with her hands while sitting on a couch on the bottom floor of Riverview. “I regret not asking my grandparents about our history.”