Bettye Lee Mastin, journalist who championed historic preservation, dies at 97

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

Bettye Lee Mastin (Kentucky Press Association)

Bettye Lee Mastin, a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame and champion of historic preservation in the Bluegrass, died May 8. She was 97.

Mastin said her mother encouraged her to write every day when she was growing up and that when she graduated from high school in Jessamine County her ambition was to be a poet. Saying “Betty Lee, poetry doesn’t pay,” a professor at the University of Kentucky steered her toward journalism.

Mastin worked as a proofreader at the Lexington Herald during college, graduated from UK Phi Beta Kappa and began a 50-year career at the Lexington newspaper as a reporter and feature writer.

Respected as an architectural historian, Mastin taught university classes and seminars. She was the author of “Lexington 1779: Pioneer Kentucky as Described by Early Settlers” and “A Walking Tour of Shakertown.”

In an oral history interview in 1980, she said she became interested in “old things and old buildings as a child.”

“I think anyone living in Lexington, growing up around here would become acquainted with a lot of old buildings —  until the age of the bulldozer — because we had so many of them.” 

In the 1960s, the newspaper assigned her to write about preservation and urban renewal after Ed Wilder, the executive secretary of the Lexington chamber of commerce, returned from a conference in Washington, D.C. with about 100 color slides of the posh Georgetown neighborhood, where President John F. Kennedy had lived when he was in the U.S. Senate, Mastin told the oral history interviewer.

Wilder had been struck by the similarities in Georgetown’s and Lexington’s historic architecture. He convinced the Herald’s general manager, Fred Wachs, that Lexington’s old buildings and neighborhoods were a resource the city should be using, Mastin said.

The newspaper made Mastin available to local groups to talk about preservation and to present a slide show highlighting the similarities of D.C.’s Georgetown section and the areas around downtown Lexington.

Mastin also visited other cities — Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia — to report on their preservation and urban renewal efforts and worked briefly in Lexington’s urban renewal agency.

Hopemont on Mill Street between downtown and Transylvania University in Lexington became headquarters to the Bluegrass Trust for Historic Preservation. (Kentucky State Parks)

In 1965, she became a member of the board of the Bluegrass Trust for Historic Preservation and lived in a home built in 1795. 

She was friends with the late Clay Lancaster, an architectural historian, artist and author. She  alerted Lancaster when the Moses Jones house, built in the early 1800s, in Salvisa on the Kentucky River in Mercer County went on the market. He bought and restored the property now managed by the Warwick Foundation. Mastin served on the foundation’s board and was an emeritus member when she died.

Mastin said she was disappointed that Lexington allowed so much of its built history to be destroyed and replaced with nondescript architecture and parking lots, even as awareness and interest in preservation bloomed.

When asked whether growth and preservation can coexist, Mastin in 1980 said, “When you look at the type of community we inherited and the situation now I wouldn’t say they’re coexisting very well.”  

Regular Herald-Leader readers will remember her Sunday Home spreads; many were detailed descriptions of historic residences, interviews with their occupants and multiple photographs.

In 2017, Tom Eblen, former Herald-Leader managing editor and columnist, wrote that he nominated Mastin for the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame “because no journalist did so much for so long to inform Central Kentuckians about the unique built environment that surrounded them.”

Her legacy will likely live on in  future scholarship. Mastin’s papers, covering the period from 1823 to 2013, are archived at the University of Kentucky in more than 100 boxes, including research files, urban renewal records, maps and architectural drawings.

Bettye Lee Mastin was born April 9, 1927 in Midway to the late Winfield and Ruby Glass Mastin, one of six sisters. Her obituary says she loved plants and wildflowers and knew their Latin names. She was a long-time member of Nicholasville Baptist Church where she had been a Sunday school teacher. Her family will have a private scattering of ashes at Indian Falls in Jessamine County at a future date.  

Lexington’s Western Suburb, platted in 1815. (VisitLEX)

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