Sallie Bingham, foundation she endowed face of in court over future of Hopscotch House

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

LOUISVILLE — Tucked away on a 412-acre farm in eastern Jefferson County, Hopscotch House, a rambling, five-bedroom farmhouse dating to 1848, was envisioned as a peaceful sanctuary for women artists and writers when the Kentucky Foundation for Women acquired it in 1987.

But its plan to sell the house has triggered an acrimonious battle with philanthropist Sallie Bingham, who launched the non-profit foundation to support female writers and artists in Kentucky and has filed a lawsuit to try to block the sale.

“There didn’t seem to be any way of persuasion,” said Bingham, who founded the foundation nearly 40 years ago with proceeds from the sale of her family’s media companies including The Courier-Journal and the Louisville Times newspapers.

Sallie Bingham (Photo by Camila Motta)

A major complication: Hopscotch House, on a 10-acre site, is surrounded by Wolf Pen Branch Mill Farm, owned by Bingham, who placed the entire farm in a conservation easement to bar development.

The farmhouse, off Wolf Pen Branch Road on a small island of land inside her farm, is listed for sale at $2.75 million.

“I don’t want to see it broken up and some strip mall put in or houses or whatever,” said Bingham, who now lives in New Mexico and operates the farm primarily as a wildlife refuge.

Bingham filed a lawsuit in March in U.S. District Court, demanding that the foundation drop the planned sale and honor her initial vision for Hopscotch House as a retreat for women artists and writers. 

“Creativity demands that women be allowed to retreat, at times, from their world and their obligations,” said the lawsuit, quoting Bingham, who was the foundation’s first executive director. “Hopscotch provides the setting for such retreats.”

As an alternative, her lawsuit proposes the foundation be ordered to turn Hopscotch House over to her or to a Kentucky charity of her choosing.

Complicated tax rules governing nonprofit foundations prevent her from buying the property herself, Bingham said.

There is no contract specifying the use of the farmhouse the foundation owns. Bingham said her original plan for establishing the foundation was by agreement among “friends who understood what I was talking about.”

‘Lacks basic amenities’

The foundation, which no longer uses Hopscotch House for workshops and retreats, has fired back, in a counterclaim calling Bingham’s lawsuit a “malicious, coordinated effort” to block the sale, discourage potential buyers and diminish the property’s value.

The aging farmhouse, which the foundation bought in 1987, needs extensive renovation and its isolated location deters some women from attending events out of safety concerns, its lawsuit claims. Further, lack of reliable internet and water service have become increasingly problematic.

“The house lacks basic amenities that female artists use in the 21st century,” the lawsuit said.

Internet access is outdated and spotty and the farmhouse has no outside water source; it relies on a cistern with water supplied by truck. Upgrades would be extremely costly and likely impossible because the conservation easement protecting the farm restricts construction, digging or disruption to the surrounding property, it said.

Bingham’s true motivation, the counterclaim says, is to block the sale and potential development of the Hopscotch House property, which she has proposed placing in a conservation easement that would enhance the value of her surrounding farm.

The counterclaim, filed by lawyers with Wyatt, Tarrant and Combs, accuses Bingham of defamation through comments and posts on her website,, and of breaching her duty as a former executive director of the foundation.

In a reply filed by her lawyers with the Denton Bingham Greenebaum firm, Bingham denies the allegations, dismissing them as a “kitchen sink full” of meritless claims.

“This lawsuit concerns the foundation’s brazen attempt to sell off for its own financial gain certain real property located in the middle of Ms. Bingham’s historic Wolf Pen Branch Mill Farm,” the lawsuit said, property intended to be used for “retreats and residencies for women artists.”

The case, assigned to Senior U.S. District Judge Charles R. Simpson III, is pending.

Meanwhile, efforts to sell the property have stalled, said Sharon LaRue, executive director.

Sharon LaRue (Kentucky Foundation for Women)

Bingham controls access to the site and informed the real estate agent she did not have permission to drive through the farm property to show the home, the foundation’s lawsuit said. This caused the agent to cancel one showing and has left potential buyers in doubt about access to the property, it said.

Further, the legal battle is interfering with the foundation’s main purpose — to use proceeds from the endowment from Bingham to fund the work of women writers and artists throughout Kentucky, LaRue said.

The foundation awards about $350,000 a year in grants, sponsors artists and writers and hosts workshops and retreats.

“This process is keeping us from doing our mission,” LaRue said.

Bingham acknowledged it may be a protracted battle.

“I think we’re in for a long process of legal maneuvering to try to force the foundation to do what it was intended to do,” she said.

The Bingham break-up

The year was 1986 when Barry Bingham Sr., the head of the family-owned Kentucky media empire, shocked the community and made national headlines with the news he was putting the companies — which included two newspapers, WHAS TV and radio stations and Standard Gravure printing — up for sale.

The year before, Sallie Bingham — one of three Bingham siblings who held shares in the family-owned companies — began planning the foundation, which she expected to fund with her share from the sale. She already had been attempting to sell her 15% share in the company, which media watchers said helped trigger the sale.

In a piece on her blog, Bingham said it was her time at the newspaper that inspired her to create the foundation.

“I was aware from my years as book editor at the Courier-Journal of the amount of work that women did at the Bingham companies; almost entirely in lower-paid jobs such as distributing mail, cooking and serving in the company cafeteria, working as secretaries, or cleaning,” Bingham wrote. “These women were about to lose their jobs with the sale of the company.”

Bingham decided to create and endow a foundation that would support and help fund women artists working for social change.

Bingham served as the foundation’s first director from 1985 until her 1991 move to New Mexico.

Bingham, in an interview, said she relinquished management to the board and a new executive director.

“I felt it was better, since I was not going to be living in Kentucky, not to be hovering over the foundation,” she said.

Meanwhile, Bingham had begun acquiring two tracts that make up her Wolf Pen Branch farm. 

When the farmhouse and five acres of land became available, the foundation, under her direction, bought it from the owners with the intent of making it a retreat for women artists and writers. Later, Bingham said five acres and a smaller house  contiguous to the farmhouse became available, which she bought and donated to the foundation.

Bingham, in a blog post, said she named the farmhouse Hopscotch House “because I want the women there to have fun.”

Changing mission

The foundation initially was started with a plan to “spend down” its funds in order to help as many writers and artists as possible, the foundation’s court filing said.

But Bingham later changed the mission to one of maintaining and investing the endowment and using proceeds to fund individuals, it said. The endowment has grown to about $16 million and gives away about 5% of its income annually.

Hopscotch House was meant to be the center of its activities but over time, began to be less feasible as a site for hosting women from across the state, LaRue said.

The 2020 COVID pandemic forced it to suspend hosting group events at the site and because of the need for repairs and other limitations, the foundation ended use of the site in 2022.

It instead has been hosting workshops and retreats through a partnership with the Sisters of Loretto on their campus in Marion County, which LaRue said is more suitable for its participants with lodgings, a dining hall, internet access and other amenities.

In a newsletter sent to members in March 2024, the foundation staff and board members said the foundation had sought professional advice on possible upgrades and repairs to Hopscotch House and learned they would be very costly and difficult to achieve. 

The foundation also surveyed participants for their opinions.

Some mentioned concerns about personal safety, because of the remoteness of the site. Others, including women of color, mentioned not feeling comfortable in the affluent, Eastern Jefferson County neighborhood. Others said they preferred a site in closer driving distance.

“Everyone wanted updated electricity, a sustainable water source, better internet/Wifi options” and other improvements, it said.

After considering these and other factors, the board decided to sell the property, it said.

LaRue said the foundation is seeking to further its mission while adjusting to changing times and needs of artists and writers it supports.

For example, contemporary philanthropy promotes meeting needs of recipients rather than dictating terms. That might involve funding someone’s trip to a conference or providing a grant for an artist or writer to choose a location to work.

“Trust-based philanthropy is the big thing right now,” she said. “People know what they need. We want our community to be part of the decision making.”

LaRue said she and the board remained focused on that mission, but the lawsuit has complicated it, blocking access to funds from the potential sale of Hopscotch House and causing it to spend money on costly legal fees.

“We are still giving out grants, but we are blocked from any action on the house,” LaRue said.

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