As I exited I-24 and drove around the building to the front I was certain I was in the wrong place. I got out of the car and gazed at this gorgeous two-story Antebellum era house and told myself again I must have been in the wrong place. But just as soon as I walked inside I was greeted by a friendly woman who welcomed me to the Whitehaven Welcome Center in Paducah, Kentucky.
I was still a bit awestruck. Okay a was quite a bit awestruck. I laughed out loud as I looked around the high vaulted ceilings with the ornate plasterwork and the massive columns on the front porch. I looked at the woman who greeted me and asked the first question everyone asks when they come here, “How is this a welcome center?”
She handed me a trifolded paper brochure about Whitehaven, the name given to the house by the original owner, and began to explain the lengthy and interesting history of the home. I listened to her explain how the Victorian home was renovated into a Classical Revival mansion, bought by the local mayor for his family, eventually fell into disrepair and become a home for squatting hippies, but ultimately saved by three sequential, linked events in 1981.
But if you want to know the entire history you’ll have to visit this unique welcome center and take the free guided tour for yourself. Tours are usually offered in the afternoons between 2p.m. and 4p.m. Monday through Saturday. The guided tour begins in the foyer and continues through several rooms on the first and second floor. During the initial renovation of the dilapidated home into an interstate welcome center much of the original Classical Revival architecture was restored and period-specific antique furniture brought in from as far away as New Orleans.
One of the highlights of the tour was the Barkley Room on the second floor. Kentucky resident Alben Barkley was vice president under Harry Truman for four years. The room in Whitehaven displays his vice presidential desk, the desk he used while a member of the Congress, and several photos and memorabilia. Locals are very fond of Barkley (you’ll see his name a lot in Western Kentucky) and this room is a bit of a memorial shrine to his achievements and time in politics.
With the free guided tour through Whitehaven is fascinating it’s easy to forget this is an interstate welcome center. The restrooms and tourism brochure racks are open 24/7, and a large information desk is open during regular business hours throughout the year. The welcome center portion occupies the back half of the home but still included many of the architectural attribute and classical decor of the rest of the house.
Outside the house the grounds are kept just as beautiful as the interior. Dozens of flower gardens provide a pop of color around the typical white Antebellum era home. Brick pathways lead around Whitehaven and provide a nice way to stretch your legs after a long drive. Several picnic tables are scattered across a field beneath massive trees providing shade on sunny days.
The Whitehaven Welcome Center is one of the most unique welcome centers in the country, and the only welcome center located inside an Antebellum era restored home. It’s a great place to make a pit stop, learn about Western Kentucky and Paducah, and enjoy a free museum and testament to life in America a long time ago. At the very least it’s a pretty place to visit any day of the week, even if you’re just a local wanting an escape during your lunch hour!
Whitehaven Welcome Center – 1845 Lone Oak Rd. (I-24 Exit 7), Paducah, KY | 270-554-2077 | www.kentuckytourism.com/whitehaven-welcome-center/2481/