There are few things I love more than the fall. Give me a crisp breeze, pumpkin-flavored everything and a good ghost story and I'm a happy lady.
If you agree, a wonderful way to enjoy the weather, some amazing architecture and a ghostly tale is to take a twilight stroll through Covington's Licking Riverside Historic District, where gracious, Southern-style mansions are dimly lit by the soft glow of street lamps. While I'm sure many of these old homes have stories to tell, THE CARNEAL HOUSE is particularly well known -- not only for its historic value but also for its resident phantom, the "lady in gray."
Named for its believed architect, Thomas Davis Carneal, one of Covington's founders, the home also goes by the title of the Gano-Southgate house after two of its distinguished owners: Aaron Gano and William Southgate.
It's likely that Carneal designed the residence -- the oldest brick structure in Covington -- for the son of his business partner, John S. Gano. In Great Houses of the Queen City, architectural historian Walter Langsam posits that Carneal designed and constructed the home, from 1820-1822, as a "show house" to attract people to Covington, which was then still a small but elegant residential alternative to its easily accessible neighbor, Cincinnati.
Federal in style, the home's massive, symmetrical facade is perhaps most notable for its two-story recessed portico. This unique facet is a distinctively Palladian feature, derived from the designs of 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio.
As Langsam states, these porches "evoke the feeling of 'rooms,' suggesting that they were perceived as extensions of the interior rather than merely as covered outdoor spaces." The columns supporting each level graduate as the eye moves upward, from Ionic to Corinthian, and a pediment tops the bi-level portico.
Subtle details add to the home's remarkable beauty, such as four decorative stone panels beneath the cornice, Gothic-style pointed arch windows with switch-line tracery and an interesting feature most of us will never actually see in person -- the woodwork adorning the front door matches an interior mantle.
Speaking of unseen aspects, if you catch a glimpse of the back of the house, which is almost completely obscured by dense foliage, you'll notice the Greek Revival rear wing. Southgate, a prominent lawyer, politician and slave owner, added this section 10 years after his original purchase in 1835. A tunnel leading from the basement to the Licking River is rumored to have been used by the Underground Railroad, but it was more likely a discreet service entrance.
Walking past the Carneal House, one probably wouldn't guess that as recently as 2001 the home was a working bed-and-breakfast. It now looks as though it's seen better days, which tends to lend credence to the rumor of a haunting.
The oft-repeated story goes like this: From 1824-1825 the Marquis de Lafayette toured the United States, eventually stopping in Covington at the Carneal House (then known as the Southgate House). The family threw a ball in his honor, and a young lady in a gray chiffon dress asked the Marquis for a dance. He declined. Devastated by the rejection, the woman hanged herself that same night.
She has allegedly never left the scene of her rebuff, making herself known through heavy footsteps, slamming doors, sudden drops in temperature and a rocking chair that has been known to sway back and forth independently. So if you do take a twilight walk past the Carneal House and happen to meet the lady in gray, dance with the woman. She's been waiting a long time.
The Carneal House is located at 406 Second St. in Covington. View pictures online at www.cincinnatimemory.org.