Henry Clay’s House

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YOU ARE HERE -> 1805-1815

Early in 1805 Henry Clay contracted with Lexington builder John Fisher for the construction of a mansion at Clay’s Ashland property.  Architectural historians Patrick Snadon and Michael Fazio in The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe theorize that Latrobe may well have designed this initial structure for Clay. When the two-story Federal style house was complete, Clay and his family settled there for the remainder of his life.  SEE: HENRY CLAY ESTABLISHES ASHLAND.

Popular image of Henry Clay in front of his mansion at Ashland.

While the house was of a relatively simple Federal design, it was more spacious and substantial than most Kentucky homes of the period.  Fazio and Snadon state that as “a spreading, multi-part country house,” Ashland was “unusual for [its] time and place.”  Most Kentucky homes of that time were plain, dark, and dirty; a house like Clay’s stood in striking contrast: refined, smooth, gracious, and comparatively fashionable.  The Ashland mansion, like many large-scale American homes of the time, was designed to accommodate a large family and graciously receive numerous guests.

Although Henry Clay’s house would be popularly perceived as humble but handsome, unostentatious but elegant, it is undeniable that Clay cared a great deal about owning an appropriately stylish house.  George Washington, who was also said to have possessed a plain “republican style of living,” and who lived in “noble simplicity” at his “modest” Mount Vernon, was actually keenly aware of how architecture proclaimed status.  He planned Mount Vernon to reflect his aristocratic standing.  Much like Washington, Clay clearly desired his house to announce his nascent status both as a national statesman and a man of the people.  As Clay carefully shaped his public image, he deliberately crafted a house to complement that persona.

The fact that Clay attached public significance to his private home was an idea that had long been developing in America.  Richard Bushman explains that the “refinement of America” commenced in the late seventeenth century when the gentry began living in style, adopting amenities associated with genteel living.  Americans began to consider how they looked in the eyes of others and subsequently sought to make everything in their homes and on their estates beautiful.  Henry Clay’s social and economic status was on the rise, and outer appearances mattered to him.  A home in particular could express his ideals and aspirations. The compulsion to build ever-larger homes began in the eighteenth century and continued into the nineteenth when Clay built his mansion.  Bushman explains that, “the great house was the most forthright statement of a person’s cultural condition.”

Clay’s ideas about home design and function were attuned to his time.  As Americans of the period sought to live this more aristocratically-inspired life, their homes needed to exude a certain charm.  As guests entered the front door, they were to immediately sense a peaceful ambience and refinement in the entrance hall which flowed to the parlor, the porch, and out into the yard.  The interiors of homes were divided into distinct work areas and ‘refined’ public zones.  The parlor, especially, was to remain absolutely oblivious to work and business.

Ashland’s interior layout bore this out.  In Clay’s original two-story center block, a spacious octagonal hall with thirteen-and-a-half foot ceilings and extra tall doorways, was the first thing that visitors saw and formed the nucleus of the public zone of the house.  Straight ahead was the formal parlor, where Henry Clay received all of his guests.  To the right of the formal parlor, a second parlor opened off the entrance hall.  The staircase hall, to the immediate right of the entrance, contained an elliptical staircase.  To the immediate left off the entrance was a small room that Clay used as an office.  These rooms that radiated from the entrance hall comprised Ashland’s public zone in which visitors would have been welcome.

Floor plan of first Ashland mansion, original central block in color.

But Ashland’s wings served as thresholds between public and private in that they contained semi-public spaces such as guest rooms, a family breakfast room, and domestic service spaces.  Upstairs was the most private zone: a spacious central landing with large Palladian windows that opened to a master bedroom, an adjoining nursery, and two smaller bedchambers.  The third floor, a half-story, likely was used for storage.

This original structure, the central block, was home to Henry, Lucretia, and six of their children for about seven years until Clay began expanding the house to include a library, additional bedchambers, and a domestic service area.  The addition of two wings presumably allowed for guest rooms and space for four more children to come.  Clay began construction of the two single-story, “L”-shaped wings that projected to the front.  The north “Chambers and Nursery” wing, as Fazio and Snadon explain, was built first (late summer into autumn 1813), while the south “Kitchen wing,” was built either before Clay’s trip to Ghent, Belgium or afterward (early 1814 or late 1815).

The wings were designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820), the British-born American architect best known for his work with Thomas Jefferson and his design of the United States Capitol.  The timing of Clay’s additions to Ashland, Snadon and Fazio state, “would have corresponded both with Clay’s increased status on the national political scene and with his and Latrobe’s collaboration at the Capitol.”  Clay may have met Latrobe as early as 1806-07 during his first Senate term, but their acquaintance was first documented in 1811 when Clay (then Speaker of the House) worked directly with Latrobe to “refit the House of Representatives chamber and improve its acoustics,” and the Latrobes and Clays subsequently became close friends.

From Michael W. Fazio and Patrick A. Snadon, The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Despite Clay’s implementation of designs by the most progressive professional architect in America, Clay’s “handsome and substantial edifice” was popularly perceived as unpretentious and dignified as its owner.  A contemporary observed: “The mansion itself is a plain two story brick building with wings, without the appearance of parade or pretension…for all the world, without knowing its occupant or owner, it is just the spot one would take for the home of an intelligent and thriving farmer.” (Lexington Observer & Reporter, 31 October 1846.)

But Latrobe’s plans for the wings of Ashland were anything but plain and uncomplicated.  While his style was unornamented and deceptively simple, it was based on complex concepts.  He had brought sophisticated European ideas as well as his extensive experience as an architect and engineer to bear on his American designs.   Henry Clay wanted to exploit these in the creation of his home.

But Clay and his local builder apparently strayed from Latrobe’s designs upon implementation.  Fazio and Snadon theorize that Clay’s gift for compromise affected the ultimate design of the house: “Henry Clay was notable for his skill in crafting political compromises; the design process for Ashland seems consistent with these proclivities.  The final Ashland, representing the combined efforts of Latrobe, the Clays, and their builder, had a sophisticated and almost palatial plan but old-fashioned, almost Georgian elevations.”  So while Latrobe’s designs were avant-garde and formed the basis for the sophistication of the mansion’s design, the compromised end result with its old-fashioned charm and lack of pretension actually worked well for Clay’s public image—the great statesman also known as “The Great Commoner.”

Fazio and Snadon also relay that Clay tellingly made one major adaptation to Latrobe’s design, a change that may show how Clay desired to communicate a hospitable appearance and invitation to Ashland guests: Latrobe had originally designed “four, giant three-part ‘Venetian’ windows” for the rear façade of the house which faced the pleasure lawn, with “small single windows and loggia-like arcades” on the entrance façade.  As Fazio and Snadon speculate, Latrobe probably believed a “more closed character” was appropriate for the front as larger windows were for the “‘garden front.’”

But Henry Clay wanted to reverse that, instead locating the four giant windows on the front façade and the smaller openings to the back.  Henry Clay oriented his house—its public face—to the outside by situating the largest windows in front.  Even Ashland’s front elevation proclaimed this openness.  Clay’s home was, in more ways than one, oriented toward the public.

Ashland wings facade as designed by Latrobe.
Ashland facade as Henry Clay had built.
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Giving the Impression that Henry Clay “may return at any moment”

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YOU ARE HERE -> 1880s-1940s

When Henry Clay’s son James and his wife Susan left Ashland during the Civil War, they placed their precious Clay heirlooms safely in family hands.  Their family line would retain a large portion of Henry Clay artifacts, many of which eventually found their way back to Ashland after 1950.  But following the post-bellum Kentucky University period, another line of the family came to Ashland with their own collection of Clay relics.

Major Henry Clay McDowell and Anne Clay McDowell, c1890s

In 1883 granddaughter Anne Clay McDowell and her husband, Major H.C. McDowell, resumed the display of artifacts in the house for the public to admire, eventually filling much of the house with them. While the extant Clay artifacts continued to be scattered among many family members, the McDowells apparently had inherited a sizeable number.  They were highly motivated to memorialize their great ancestor, determined that their revitalized Ashland resurrect the spirit of Henry Clay.

They also understood the public’s ongoing attraction to Clay artifacts on display within his former home.  As an early twentieth-century visitor described it:  “Soon we…stood in the presence of many mementos of America’s great statesman…There are many pictures hanging on the walls and there are numerous articles that were a part of Henry Clay’s life.” (Clarence P. Wolfe, “Editorial Comment,” unidentified newspaper).   Even more than James and Susan had done, Henry Clay’s personal—and sometimes quite mundane—belongings, such as his “quaint washstand,” were now objects of reverence at Ashland.

Now that Ashland was reclaimed and reinhabited by the family, the McDowells wanted to present a full picture of Henry Clay’s life to visitors, but many choice artifacts (e.g., his bed, The Washington Family painting, the Ghent jacket, the George Washington goblet) were not in their possession.  The McDowells went about augmenting their collection with the purchase of artifacts, especially portraits of Henry Clay.

Entrance Hall, 1907, with Jouett portrait of Clay above doorway, right

And this portrait collection was one aspect of the McDowells’ interiors that never failed to impress.  As Elbert Hubbard recalled of his 1890s visit to Ashland, “In the library, halls and dining-room are various portraits of the great man, and at the turn of the stairs is a fine heroic bust, in bronze, of that lean face and form.”  The well-known c.1818 Matthew Jouett portrait of Clay as a young man hung in the entrance hall, while a copy of Joel T. Hart’s impressive 1847 marble bust was displayed in the library.  The many portraits in the McDowells’ handsomely remodeled Ashland undoubtedly gave the interior the appearance of a fine art museum.

The McDowells’ bust of Henry Clay by Joel T. Hart

But they also created a type of exhibit at Ashland that furthered the ‘museum feel’ even more: they evidently dedicated two rooms specifically to Henry Clay’s memory: the study and the library.  When they entertained, guests had free access to these rooms.

A glimpse of the McDowell-era Henry Clay study as seen from the entrance hall, c. 1890s

Clay’s former study, off the entrance hall, was a natural choice for homage as he spent much time in the room.  The McDowells went beyond a simple assemblage of his belongings there:  “The room formerly used by Clay as an office was restored in the minutest detail,” and “was very carefully modeled after the original…” (Chas. W. Coleman, Jr. in December 1886 Century Magazine, and Mary Hodges in June 1907 House and Garden).  If any room at Ashland was ‘frozen in time,’ this was it:  “The office he used is still just as he left it for the last time, giving one the impression that he may return at any moment…” (Kentucky Explorer, October 1998 – recap of an article from 1898).  Henry Clay’s study was preserved and presented almost as a ‘period room,’ but one in which the lingering presence of its occupant was palpable.  The McDowells endeavored to perpetuate Clay’s legacy at Ashland through a dynamic reenactment of his life there (e.g., hospitality, farming), but also through an evocative portrayal of how he lived, worked, and used particular parts of the house.

The octagonal library also naturally lent itself to his memory.  As James and Susan had done, the McDowells utilized this unusual room as a showplace of Henry Clay artifacts.  But unlike the study, this was not a re-creation of the Henry Clay library.  From photographic evidence of the McDowell era, it is clear that the family used the library for contemporary needs, as well, at one time creating a family sitting room.  But some illusory impression of Clay’s time must have remained, as one 1920s visitor was fully convinced that he was in Henry Clay’s actual library (Chesla C. Sherlock in Fruit, Garden and Home, May 1924).

McDowell-era library

The numerous Clay artifacts on display included private possessions such as his pistols, spurs, saddle, and memorandum-books, letters “faded and yellow, dusted with black powder on ink that has been dry a hundred years,” a manuscript copy of one of his speeches, and his mahogany table and inkstand “in which he dipped his pen to make his name immortal…” (Coleman).   James and Susan had emphasized Henry Clay the international statesman, but the McDowells portrayed him as a more accessible figure through the personal objects on display.

While Henry Clay’s artifact collection at Ashland had provided a national historical tribute, and James and Susan’s collection served as an immortalizing homage, the McDowells’ collection at Ashland was something of a humanizing document.

After the McDowells died (the Major in 1899, Anne in 1917), great-granddaughter Nannette seems to have frozen Ashland in time; photographic evidence suggests that no more significant changes were made to the house and the McDowell-era collection remained in situ.  Before her death in 1948 when Nannette bequeathed Ashland to the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, she stipulated that the contents of the house be included.  Thus the McDowell artifacts eventually formed the basis for the institutional museum’s collection.

Ashland Drawing Room, 1941

Historic Homestead as College Campus

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YOU ARE HERE ->1866-1879

After the Civil War, Kentucky University took ownership of Ashland.   (SEE ALSO: Clay Family Loses Ashland, University of Kentucky Predecessor Moves In.)

Ashland post Civil War (credit: Louisville Library)

Regent John B. Bowman believed that Kentucky University was to be permanently located at Ashland, so he made plans for the buildings and grounds to prepare them for University use.

The extant buildings at Ashland and the adjoining Woodlands estate had proved adaptable for University use, although “many of them were in a poor state of preservation,” as Bowman remarked when the University had first settled there.  He described what they had to work with: “Over these grounds there are scattered about thirty separate buildings, which are used for educational purposes, professors’ residences, dormitories, club houses, mechanical shops, etc.”

Since the University initially lacked the resources to embark on a major building campaign, the extant buildings would suffice.  Bowman made plans to establish most University buildings on the Ashland and Woodlands estates: residences, dormitories, and lecture halls.  The old slaves’ quarters were possibly converted for use as student housing and the mansion itself was presented as a residence to Bowman and his wife by the University Board, since Bowman refused monetary compensation.  Other houses on the estates were offered to faculty members.

The Agricultural and Mechanical College situated at Ashland, in particular, had specific needs for experimental farming and mechanical shops.  Bowman erected a large barn and stables on the grounds.  The Mechanical Department’s shops for carpenters and blacksmiths were erected.  Over 100 young men worked and learned a trade, while also helping maintain the buildings and grounds at Ashland.

In 1868 Bowman constructed a large, two-story brick building, the “Ashland Mechanical Works.”   It featured a distinctive three-story tower and was equipped for the manufacture of agricultural implements. A Pennsylvania inventor looking to test his new mowing machine, donated $25,000 to the College, which Bowman used to construct the building.

Ashland Mechanical Works building

He also devised a program for beautification of the campus.  All of the land between the Woodlands border and the Ashland mansion was cleared for cultivation.  Bowman’s plans for the University’s physical plant ultimately never progressed far, but farming operations were successfully established on the A & M campus (Hopkins).

During the University’s years at Ashland (1866-1879), the Ashland mansion served as institutional headquarters while Regent John B. Bowman and his wife Mary made their home there.  Bowman and his wife surely savored living in the large and famous house.  People of the day noted that, to the already illustrious residence the Bowmans added “distinction through their celebrated hospitality…”   It is presumed that the Bowmans utilized the second floor for private living space.  But it is known that they hosted dinners and parties at Ashland, thus surely making use of the first floor public and domestic service rooms.

Kentucky University’s A & M College letterhead

But the mansion served as more than home and headquarters: the University’s burgeoning Natural History Museum would be located within the house.  Bowman explained the new museum’s situation: “…for the accommodation of this Museum, I have fitted up rooms at Ashland, which will answer our purpose until we can erect a suitable Museum building.”

The Museum of Natural History probably occupied space on the first floor of the mansion.  The collection was stored and displayed there along with facilities for a taxidermist.  It is likely that the museum was in the library wing of the house because the parlors, dining room, and domestic service wing were used by the Bowmans for their intended purposes.

The Museum in the mansion was a source of great pride for Bowman, proving the progressive character of his new University.  It was intended first for the education of the students, but it also provided the impetus to invite the public to Ashland.  Bowman opened his University museum for the benefit of the community, merging the University’s role as educator of private students with the education of the public.

The Lexington Daily Press described the Museum that Bowman had been busy “creating at Ashland for several years, almost entirely by donations from liberal individuals throughout the country” as being visited “constantly” by Lexington citizens for “pleasure and profit.” By that point, the collection contained 20,000 specimens that had been gathered in the “various departments of natural history” (11 June 1872).  Donations described include eighty “specimens” from the Smithsonian Institution and a “valuable box of birds and mammals” from Australia.  The article stated that Bowman had set aside rooms in the Ashland mansion (“his private residence”) to exhibit part of the collection, but the majority of items was stored in boxes “awaiting the liberality of some wealthy citizens to erect a museum building…”

The Kentucky University Museum of Natural History could have developed into a great institution.  It possessed the Smithsonian collection, had employed the former Harvard museum director as its curator, its huge numbers of items and contributors—over 200 individuals and organizations had made donations (including the Chicago Academy of Science and the British Museum of London)—but the driving force behind it, John B. Bowman, was at cross purposes with the organization and in the end, it was largely forsaken…

Ashland Restoration Raises Interpretive Questions

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YOU ARE HERE -> 1990s

The 1991-92 restoration was a major turning point in Ashland’s history.  Not only was the house repaired and renovated, but its interpretation was thoroughly examined, questioned, and redone.  The restoration project became a remarkable opportunity to consider the interpretation “from scratch,” curator Eric Brooks says.  For the first time people asked how the structure and furnishings could work for the interpretation of the house instead of treating everything as permanently located and bending the interpretation around it.[1]  Interpretive choices could be freshly made tabula rasa.  Now it became possible to actively plan the interpretation, room by room, era by era, and to place artifacts and furnishings in the most appropriate places.  Suddenly there was something of a master plan to interpret Ashland.  And better yet, there was solid research—instead of simply family memories and local myths—to back it up.[2]

A vital decision had to be made before work began: to which period should the house be restored?  The Foundation and Mrs. Seay had for decades opted to emphasize Henry Clay even though the house and much of what filled it were not his.  They did not seriously consider a multiple-generation approach; the 1850s reconstruction of the house was almost entirely ignored and the non-Henry Clay furnishings were, at best, downplayed and, at worst, considered irrelevant and expendable.

Could Ashland now be restored to Henry Clay’s era or not?  It was the consensus at the time that restoring to the second quarter of the nineteenth century would be impractical: expensive and too little extant visual evidence to facilitate the process.  The rebuilt house and remodeled interior were simply too far removed from Clay’s era.

But the Foundation looked to professionals to guide them in this decision.  Architects for Ashland’s restoration, Tim Mellin and Bruce Goetzman, made their recommendation: because of the changes that the McDowells (Clay’s granddaughter) had made in the 1880s, they said, “it would be most appropriate to interpret both the interior and the exterior, as well as the outbuildings, to the mid-1880s period.”[3]

Phase IV worked on Ashland’s restoration

Restoration in process

Restoration in process

In 1993 Ashland director Colleen Holwerk talked about the rediscovery of the McDowells’ artwork and furnishings:  “Looking at that [McDowell 1890 photo] album, we realized that the museum owned nearly everything in those pictures.  As we rearranged the house for the reopening of it, we used those photographs and rearranged it the way [“Mrs. McDowell”] had it when she lived here.  It’s very charming in a way…Almost everything in the museum is a Clay family piece.  It’s four generations of Clays’ life at Ashland, reflected in their collection.  That’s very unusual.”[4]  Not only did the furnishings and the photos drive the decision, the McDowell era was the most accessible because it was most recent.

A great deal of study and consultation with experts resulted in a close imitation of the McDowell-era Ashland.  Frank S. Welsh, a historical paint expert who had also worked on Monticello, the Lincoln home, and Independence Hall, conducted extensive tests of the various wall finishes at Ashland and his findings dictated the choice of paint colors.  Gail Caskey Winkler, an expert on historic interiors, was brought in to advise on interior decoration and furnishings.

Ashland’s decision to restore narrowly to one particular era, but to interpret multiple eras would later prove to be problematic.  The five-generational legacy at Ashland has been an ongoing challenge for the museum.  And with the 1991-92 restoration, its interpretation took a decided detour away from Henry Clay.

Yet the McDowell family emphasis was considered fresh and exciting.  A 1992 Lexington Herald-Leader feature declared:

Ashland isn’t just Henry Clay’s home place anymore.  Warmer, more inviting…[Ashland’s history] comes to life, enriched by the integration of day-to-day experiences and personal histories of the people who lived their lives and raised their families at Ashland.  It’s a place where families laughed and cried, lived and died…[5]

Entrance Hall after Restoration

Entrance Hall after Restoration

It appeared that Ashland could be significant and “hold its own” with or without Henry Clay as its focus.  Historian and Board member Thomas D. Clark said of the restoration, “‘I think they’ve done a lot to enliven it…The place has been enlivened so much that Henry Clay would not recognize it, but his granddaughter would feel right at home…’”[6]

It seems that the restoration brought with it a heightened interest in the decorative arts at Ashland.  Tours in the 1990s concentrated largely on the interior design and unique features of the house (lincrusta and anaglypta wall finishes, the ‘secret’ library storage, etc.).  Though there were a few designated spots on the tour when docents would discuss Clay’s life and career, tours focused more upon the McDowells because the rooms reflected their time.[7]  The interpretation was driven by what was in front of their eyes: rooms furnished to the 1880s.

Dining Room after Restoration

Henry Clay’s full significance was obscured in the enthusiasm for the McDowell family interiors and furnishings.  When the National Trust for Historic Preservation conducted a facilities survey at Ashland in 2000, their strongest recommendation was to return the focus to Henry Clay: “Henry Clay is Ashland’s raison d’être – both historically and at present.  He is the site’s founder and primary draw.  Visitors come to see Henry Clay’s estate; not just any old house.  House museums are a dime a dozen in central Kentucky; Ashland is one in a million…a Clay-based master plan is what the Foundation needs to guide all aspects of Ashland’s management.”  The Trust advisors were wise enough to recognize the futility of strict period interpretation:  “This does not necessarily impose an ‘either/or’ proposition that limits itself exclusively to Clay or eliminates the contributions of the McDowell family, but the ‘Henry Clay Estate’ part of the billing should take center stage.”[8]

But they acknowledged that Ashland’s interpretation presented a distinct challenge:  “As it stands – in an effort to be honest and comprehensive – the current interpretive themes try to be everything to everyone and consequently visitors often leave happy but bewildered.  The team certainly did.  By extrapolation, the same can be said about the Foundation’s staff and board.  They are a bit bewildered by having to tackle so much (interpretation, conservation, education, etc.) in a seemingly incongruous setting…”

Interpreting Henry Clay’s antebellum world while standing in an upscale 1880s environment had produced this “incongruous setting.”  They pinpointed the central challenge of Ashland’s interpretation: Henry Clay “out of context.”  But the Trust advisors had a suggestion:  “…the Foundation’s allocation and use of space should be tied more closely to a single theme – Henry Clay…Clay can still be appreciated and understood out of context, but to do so requires more attention on the man and his work and less on the trappings of the given context: the main house, the McDowells, and the decorative arts…The McDowells will get their due, but not until Clay gets his and the visitor is clear on the distinction between the two eras.”[9]

Previous efforts to make the house totally Henry Clay – and more recently, fully McDowell-centered – had always come up short.  Efforts to make the interpretation “everything to everyone” were also unsatisfactory.  But the suggestion to concentrate on Clay more than any other aspect – yet allowing them all to co-exist – would prove more successful.

One method the Trust recommended to accomplish the focus on Henry Clay was to create an exhibit space at the beginning of the tour that would feature his life and career.  This exhibit, they said, would “establish Henry Clay’s importance and explain away the potential confusion of touring what is not Clay’s.”[10]  The permanent exhibit room was completed for the 150th Anniversary celebration of Clay’s death and opened to the public in 2002.[11]

With the new century, Ashland’s vision for interpretation had expanded and was no longer forced to fit into neat little boxes of time.

Henry Clay Exhibit Room


[1] Eric Brooks, interview with author, Lexington, Kentucky, 8 April 2005.

[2] Eric Brooks, interview with author, Lexington, Kentucky, 8 April 2005.

[3] “The Preservation and Renewal of Ashland, The Estate of Henry Clay.”  Tim Mullin and Bruce Goetzman, architects.  c. 1991.  Ashland archives.

[4] Cubbison, Laurie.  “Ashland Worth a Second Trip After Remodeling Project.”  Winchester (Ky.) Sun, 27 April 1993.

[5] Farmer, Nancy.  “A New Page In Ashland’s History.”  Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, 28 October 1992.

[6] Mead, Andy.  “Revisiting the Past: Ashland Reopens After $1.4 Million Restoration.”  Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, 5 September 1992.

[7] Carmichael, Mary Ellen. interview with author, Lexington, Kentucky, 10 June 2005.

[8] “National Trust for Historic Preservation Recommendations to the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation for a Space Allocation and Use Study for Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, July 2000.”  Ashland Archives.

[9] “National Trust for Historic Preservation Recommendations to the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation for a Space Allocation and Use Study for Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, July 2000.”  Ashland Archives.

[10] “National Trust for Historic Preservation Recommendations to the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation for a Space Allocation and Use Study for Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, July 2000.”  Ashland Archives.

[11] Ashland Celebrates the Life of Henry Clay invitation. June 2002.  Ashland Archives.

Lavishly Furnishing the New Ashland

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YOU ARE HERE -> 1855-1856

Henry Clay’s son James and his wife Susan rebuilt the Ashland mansion in the 1850s with an Italianate flair.  Yet Henry Clay’s Federal-style floor plan remained at the heart of the structure, and the rooms were assigned for uses corresponding to those in Clay’s original house.

Second Floor landing with Henry Clay windows, James chairs

But now the interiors were much more lavishly adorned in a cosmopolitan and decidedly Victorian style.  Some of the original ash woodwork was polished and refashioned into innovative pocket window shutters throughout the house.

Pocket shutters in Drawing Room

Also added were deeply carved plaster medallions around the bases of the chandeliers and elaborate plaster cornices decorating the edges of the ceilings.

Fashionable Greek Revival wood trim with Sheffield silver hardware and particularly fine marble and stone mantelpieces brought the house new elegance.

Pocket doors with silver trim

James then furnished the interiors with the best that money could buy (and likely went into deep debt in the process).  He and Susan had enjoyed an upper-class lifestyle from the start of their marriage and through their travels (including to Europe) had cultivated sophisticated taste in art and furnishings.

James often shopped on the east coast, and New York City is where he focused his shopping for the new Ashland.  One of his trips to Manhattan in December 1855 lasted nearly two weeks.  Staying at the Astor House and enjoying the many fine New York restaurants, James reported that he spent his days from breakfast until 5 p.m. shopping for Ashland.

Most of the finest stores were concentrated on Broadway and featured household items manufactured in Europe.  But James preferred one merchant: the internationally renowned and incomparable A.T. Stewart.  The largest store of its kind and the first department store in the country, James would have undoubtedly been impressed and inspired by his visits to the breathtaking “Marble Palace.”  Owner Alexander Stewart often worked personally with his important clients, as he did with James on the Ashland project, assisting with the choice of furnishings and financing.

A.T. Stewart’s Marble Palace at 280 Broadway

James’s December 1855 trip yielded the main furnishings for the new Ashland interiors.  He carefully chose mantels, fireplace grates, carpets, and “looking-glasses” (mirrors).  He ordered custom-designed furniture, chandeliers, and the finest window treatments (cornices and silk damask curtains).  He chose wallpaper with French-influenced design. The carpets he selected were the most luxurious and expensive available in America at that time.

The rare and costly marble mantelpieces were probably crafted by Ottoviano Gori, an Italian sculptor working in New York.  James purchased twelve mantels of different designs for the fireplaces at Ashland, ranging from the most simple for the private bedrooms to the most elaborate for the Drawing Room.

Mantel in the Ash Bedroom

Mantel in the Billiard Room

Mantel in the Drawing Room

Mantel in the Master (Henry Clay) Bedroom

Mantel in the Library

Mantel originally in family Dining Room (later moved upstairs to a bedroom)

The two massive overmantel mirrors—among the most expensive items James bought—were to hang on opposite walls of the double parlors at Ashland to create, as Robert Spiotta put it, “a grand sense of space progression from one room to the other.”

Drawing room “looking glass”

While Henry Clay, too, had furnished his Ashland with items from France and England as well as fine American-made goods, James’s taste for the most opulent foreign furnishings reveals that the new Ashland was a very different place.  Henry Clay’s straightforward Federal sensibility gave way to his son’s rich Victorian aesthetic.

An indispensable resource on James and Susan’s rebuilding and furnishing of Ashland: Robert S. Spiotta’s “Remembering Father: James Brown Clay, Merchants, Materials, and A New Ashland.” MA Thesis, Cooper-Hewitt Museum and The Parsons School of Design, 1990.  Many thanks to Mr. Spiotta for his work!

George Washington at Ashland

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Henry Clay personally delighted in the historic artifacts he displayed at Ashland.  But he stressed that such objects were intended to reach the public – that vast public that always found its way to his doorstep.

Memorializing George Washington was the special focus for Clay and his visitors at Ashland. While Clay proudly exhibited such objects as a miniature ‘Liberty Bell’ made from shavings of the original and presented to Clay by the city of Philadelphia, his most treasured artifacts honored and recalled George Washington who perfectly symbolized national union – Clay’s passionate purpose.

The original Washington’s Family by Edward Savage

The Washington goblet was undoubtedly the most awe-inspiring artifact at Ashland.  This artifact, which Washington’s hand had touched, was a precious memorial of the Founding Father’s achievements.  Henry Clay was described as bringing out this “‘greatest treasure’” for an 1847 visitor.[1]   Clay also owned a fragment of Washington’s coffin that he utilized as a prop in one of his speeches.

Henry Clay’s George Washington goblet

But another Washington-related highlight for visitors was the frequently mentioned painting of The Washington Family which dominated the parlor.  Nearly every visitor recalled the huge picture and gazed upon it “with renewed respect and well nigh reverence.”[2]

The Washington Family by Henry Inman at Ashland

This huge painting was presented to Henry Clay for Lucretia in 1844 as a gift from James C. Johnston.  Johnston had commissioned it of the artist, Henry Inman.  Inman made a fine copy of Edward Savage’s iconic Washington’s Family (1789-1796), that hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (Copying well-known paintings was not considered a second-rate thing at that time.)

It was said that Johnston’s motivation in that election year was to demonstrate that Henry and Lucretia would so aptly follow George and Martha as President and First Lady.   Clay lost the election by a narrow margin, but the portrait remained as a symbol of the high hopes many American’s held for Henry Clay.

Henry Inman (1801-1846) was a New York portrait, genre, and landscape painter. He studied under John Wesley Jarvis, then served as director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1834, and as president of the National Academy through the 1840s.

Henry Inman, daguerreotype by Matthew Brady, c. 1844

The Washington portrait depicts George and Martha with their adopted children, actually Martha’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis and granddaughter Eleanor Parke Custis, and an enslaved servant, probably William Lee.

The painting dominated Ashland’s parlor from 1844 until after the Civil War.  It stayed in family hands until the 1950s when William J. Alford purchased it at a New York auction, then donated it to Ashland, the newly opened house museum.

The portrait at Ashland, 1957


[1] Lida Mayo.  “Henry Clay, Kentuckian.”  The Filson Club Quarterly 32 (1958), 173.

[2] “Scenes and Incidents in the Life of Henry Clay.”  Cincinnati (Oh.) Daily Gazette, 4 Jul 1857.

Wedding of the Decade at Ashland

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YOU ARE HERE -> April 19, 1892

Nannette’s wedding gown, on display at Ashland

Henry Clay’s great-granddaughter, Nannette McDowell, was married at Ashland, her home, in one of the most celebrated weddings of 1890’s Kentucky.  The wedding of Nannette and Dr. Thomas S. Bullock was celebrated on a Tuesday and Lexington was “all agog over the pending event…the State-at-large feels an interest in this evening’s nuptials…up to 300 guests at Ashland.” [1]

Nannette and Thomas Bullock

Nannette had moved to Ashland with her family a decade before, at the age of 22.  She – as well as her sisters – married relatively late.  Madeline and Julia would also marry at Ashland, but Nannette’s wedding would, for many reasons, be the most elaborate celebration.  A local paper described the setting:

In the whole of Kentucky no more beautiful mise en scene could have been chosen for a wedding than Ashland…The event tonight is typical of the South’s best enlightenment and gracious hospitality.  Major McDowell is the very prince of entertainment…the good cheer for which he is noted will know no stint.  Yet withal an utter lack of display and ostentation characterizes every detail of the affair.  There is sumptuous, quiet simplicity everywhere…Dignity, elegance and unaffected grace will be the keynote of the festivities tonight…[2]

The wedding ceremony took place in Ashland’s drawing room, “the oaken trappings of the entire interior making an effective surrounding for the pretty scene.”  Petite Nannette wore a stunning gown of shimmering ivory with matching shoes.  (Her gown and shoes are in Ashland’s collection.)  A few years earlier, a journalist who visited Ashland described the bride-to-be: “She was slight, graceful, with auburn hair, blue eyes, a perfect oval face, a little pale and serious, save when the sweet, refined mouth breaks into a wonderful smile, between two delicious dimples.” [3]

Nannette McDowell Bullock

The many lavish wedding gifts were assembled in a chamber in the north wing of the house.

Afterward, the wedding reception occurred in an “extemporized banqueting hall running the width of the house at the back.”  The banquet table held 100 guests at a time, which suggests that the wedding meal was served in shifts.

Ashland Dining Room, commemorating Nannette’s wedding

But the most spectacular sight for the guests was the newly installed electric lighting at Ashland.  The lighting was in portions of the mansion now, but most beautifully in the wedding hall: “Electric lights will blossom from pink rosettes draping the ceiling.”  Lexington street cars would be running to Ashland all evening, the paper announced, so that locals could come by and see the amazing sight.

Detail of Nannette’s gown at Ashland

Nannette and Tom left Ashland for about a decade: moving to Louisville after their wedding, then to New Mexico.  They had their first and only child, Henry McDowell Bullock, on November 21, 1893, and returned to Lexington in 1903.  Dr. Bullock would die at Ashland in 1929, Nannette surviving him by almost twenty years.

Nannette and son Henry, c1894


[1] “Witnesses the Beautiful Nuptials at Old Ashland…” Lexington, KY: The Kentucky News Leader, April 19, 1892.

[2] “Witnesses the Beautiful Nuptials at Old Ashland…” Lexington, KY: The Kentucky News Leader, April 19, 1892.

[3] Andrews, Maude.  “A Visit To Henry Clay’s Home.” Atlanta Constitution, June, c. 1887.

Ashland’s Opening Day

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YOU ARE HERE -> 1950

April 12th is Henry Clay’s birthday – and the day chosen as Ashland’s opening as a public museum.

Ashland, the Henry Clay estate, has since the early nineteenth century been an important American historic site.  During Clay’s lifetime (1777-1852), the estate was often equated with the man and ‘Ashland’ became a household word.  After Clay’s death and while four generations of Clay’s descendants occupied the estate, Ashland served as a memorial to Henry Clay, symbolizing his life’s work and the period in which he lived.  In 1950 after his family relinquished ownership of the estate, Ashland became a historic house museum under the auspices of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation.  For more than half a century, this National Historic Landmark in Lexington, Kentucky has been open for public tours and has accommodated hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Even though this opening blog entry places us somewhere in the middle of Ashland’s story, it was a transformative moment in its history: the day it officially became a public place.

It was April 12th, 1950, auspiciously chosen because it was Henry Clay’s birthday.  After nearly 150 years as a private home, Ashland was officially opening its doors to the public.  Clay’s great-granddaughter Nannette McDowell Bullock, who had died in 1948, had been largely responsible for the formation of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation and for the preservation of Clay’s beloved estate.

Henry Clay’s original farm was more than 600 acres in size, but over the century after his death in 1852, the estate had shrunk to 17 acres in the middle of a burgeoning Lexington residential neighborhood.  Fortunately, the large mansion, a great number of mature trees, and a smattering of outbuildings remained.

For Opening Day, the Foundation set out its vision for Ashland: “The Henry Clay Memorial Foundation now has the pleasurable task of opening Ashland to the nation as a public memorial.  The Foundation hopes, in the next several years, to restore the stables, ice houses, the smoke house and other outbuildings, and to develop the gardens and grounds to the point where they will not only represent the finest Clay tradition, but where Ashland will be recognized as the loveliest spot in the bluegrass of Kentucky.  The Foundation hopes, further, constantly to increase the number of Henry Clay memorabilia to the point where Ashland will be a mecca for the research scholar as well as for the patriotic American who wishes to see the home of one of America’s favorite sons.”

Prior to Opening Day, the local papers built anticipation for the event.  A year in advance, plans for the museum were coalescing.  The Lexington Leader explained that no remodeling of the mansion was planned, only “reconditioning.” Landscaping of the grounds was a priority, as well as the collection of artifacts.  Maintenance of the museum was to be financed by visitor “fees” and Foundation membership. In the days before Opening Day, the papers ran photos of Henry Clay artifacts and the progress inside the mansion.  The April 10th Lexington Leader wrote that “50 groups” of Henry Clay items had been collected by the Foundation and placed in Ashland “to furnish authentic atmosphere of the time of Henry Clay.”

Opening Day festivities opened with a parade that began at the Cheapside square downtown. Students and faculty of Henry Clay High were to be dismissed as the procession passed the school on East Main Street to join it on its final leg to Ashland.  The dedication featured concerts by the Henry Clay High School and University of Kentucky’s bands.  Mayor Tom Mooney proclaimed it “Henry Clay Day” in Lexington and urged all citizens to attend the opening.

And, on that chilly April day, thousands (estimates from 3,000-6,000) gathered on Ashland’s sprawling back lawn.  Children climbed trees to get a better view. Photographers maneuvered to get the best shots.  Keynote speaker and fellow Kentuckian, U.S. vice president Alben Barkley declared: “This fine mansion now will rank alongside Mount Vernon, Monticello, the Hermitage, and other public memorials to great men of this nation….generations to come will thank you for preserving this shrine” (Louisville Courier-Journal).

While Barkley was a draw, his glamorous wife, Jane Hadley Barkley, was a sensation: “Mrs. Barkley was on hand for the event, too, to the great delight of some 3,000 Central Kentuckians who didn’t bother to disguise that they had come to see the charming ‘Veepess’ as much as to witness the dedication….[during Mr. Barkley’s speech] the crowd gave its attention largely to her…” (Lexington Leader).

Even with the “50 groups” of Henry Clay artifacts, the mansion could not to be interpreted strictly to Clay’s era.  Not only were there not enough of Clay’s belongings extant to do so, but so many of his descendants’ objects then filled the house.  The Foundation was careful to describe Ashland’s interior as “in the spirit of Clay’s time.”  The first rooms to be opened to the public in 1950 were all on the first floor: the entrance hall, dining room, drawing room, office, library, a room dedicated to Nannette, as well as the Henry Clay bedroom.

Two Clay descendants dressed up in historic clothing from Ashland’s collection – something that current museum practice would never consider – and acted as host and hostess for the reception held in the mansion.  Mrs. Stuart Platt, a great-great-great granddaughter of Clay, wore a ruby red gown which was mistakenly thought to have belonged to Mrs. Clay, while Goodloe McDowell, a great-great grandson, wore the dashing blue and gold ceremonial jacket donned by Clay when he signed the Treaty of Ghent.  The thin and wiry Henry Clay’s jacket proved to be even too narrow for the slight Mr. McDowell; a sleeve seam was torn that day.

The McDowells Update Ashland

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YOU ARE HERE – > 1880s

It had been almost thirty years since the Ashland mansion had been rebuilt by Henry Clay’s son, James B. Clay …and the house had seen some serious wear.  Kentucky University had used the mansion for many purposes, including the housing of its sizable Natural History Museum (with accompanying taxidermy facilities) and then several tenants had occupied Ashland after the University moved away.  In 1882 when Henry Clay’s granddaughter and her husband, Anne and Major H.C. McDowell, brought the estate back into the family, it was likely in a state of disrepair.

SEE ALSO: RETURN TO GLORY: CLAY’S FAMILY BACK AT ASHLAND

Ashland Drawing Room, 1880s or 90s

The McDowells, like the press and the public at this time, believed that 1880s Ashland was still Henry Clay’s home.  Yet there was no question that it would serve as the McDowell family home as they modernized and remodeled to suit themselves.  They considered it crucial to bring the mansion up-to-date in order to make it suitable for entertaining, comfortable for their family…and worthy of Clay’s memory and image in the world.  They boldly made decisions that affected the permanent structure of the mansion.

During James and Susan’s time, the rebuilding of the Ashland mansion had been the focus of controversy, but the McDowells’ sweeping 1880s remodeling was greeted with nothing but praise.  As historic interior design consultant Gail Caskey Winkler observed: the “son built,” but the “granddaughter modernized.” The McDowells would leave a profound and permanent mark on Ashland as they were the ultimate definers of the mansion’s overall structure and appearance.

McDowell women with friends and family at Ashland

The McDowells were clearly unafraid to modify Ashland, even to the point of altering Clay’s Federal floor plan that James had been so careful to preserve.   A significant modification was required when the McDowells, as Caskey Winkler describes, “sacrificed the 1856 dining [breakfast] room for that most welcome of modern conveniences – indoor plumbing…”  Creating a full, modern bathroom for the family and a “water closet” for guests in a first floor passageway created the need for an alternative passage for the servants.

McDowell-era floorplan with current room labels

The new narrow service stair, which descended from the main staircase landing back into the first floor dining/breakfast room, served that need.  That room was then remodeled as the butler’s pantry.  This new service space was the “staging” area for the more elaborate formal dining that would occur in the adjacent dining room.

The domestic service wing was also altered in other ways during the McDowell period: from the installation of a servant call bell system to a water cistern (instead of the old well) to the introduction of modern kitchen appliances.

The McDowells’ updating manifested most dramatically in the replacement of the old elliptical staircase.  They installed a radically different type of staircase: oak, Eastlake style with straight flights.  They deemed James’s spiral staircase unsuitable, too narrow and awkward.  To install the new staircase, they had to completely remove the existing stairwell walls on the first and second floors with the end result an undeniably impressive, bright and open entrance hall.  The Eastlake staircase spoke more clearly to their refined taste, modernity, and desire for sophisticated hospitality.  Retaining the original staircase for preservation’s sake was not as important to the McDowells as perpetuating the tradition of grand hospitality at Ashland – and doing it with elegant style.

New staircase in entrance hall

The McDowells were interested in modernizing the mansion through the creation of a sense of spaciousness.  ‘Open planning’ was a significant architectural innovation during the 1870s and 1880s and they utilized this concept to enhance Ashland’s interior spaces.  The entrance hall, drawing room, and dining room were united—all doors open wide—as one expansive public space for entertaining.   The adjoining library and brand new glass conservatory completed this large entertainment space.  Replacing the central staircase dramatically opened up the entrance area of the house as well.  The addition of a full-length mirror in the entrance hall reflected light and gave the illusion of a larger space.

Major McDowell in entrance hall

The McDowells’ interior design transformed the mansion into a fin de siècle showcase of sophistication as they embraced a mix of decorative styles: the late-Victorian and Eastlake styles, but particularly the Aesthetic Style that was popular at the end of the nineteenth century.  Oriental carpets, “Japanesque” patterned anaglypta, potted palms, art pottery, portières, richly colored wall finishes and thinly slatted hardwood floors comprised this look—and found their places at Ashland.  They purchased fine woods for their new interiors: oak for the front hall flooring, cherry for the drawing room flooring, and walnut for the guest restroom wainscoting.

A further catalyst for change in the 1880s was the availability of new technology.  While James had added such upgrades as coal-burning fireplaces and probably an indoor kitchen, the McDowells would definitively usher Ashland into the twentieth century.  Many modern upgrades were regarded as necessary in late nineteenth-century upper-class homes.  Privies, outdoor kitchens, and oil lamp lighting may have been perfectly respectable in Henry Clay’s period, but would be looked upon as woefully primitive by the end of the century.  Modern innovations allowed them to make Ashland a more comfortable place than it had ever been with the addition of indoor plumbing, central heating, gas (and later, electric) lighting, and telephone service [one week after the McDowells moved in, The Daily Lexington Transcript reported what must have been groundbreaking news: “Major McDowell will have a telephone line run out to Ashland” (19 January 1883)].

Because the estate was too distantly located for municipal gas service, the McDowells introduced gas lighting to Ashland through the innovative Springfield “gas works” Machine system buried in the front yard, which supplied vaporized gas to all the light fixtures in the home.  They replaced virtually all of the light fixtures in the house with elegant gas lamps and chandeliers of European stained and beveled glass, brass and silver plate, and elaborate globes.  From the dramatic vaulted ceiling in the library, they installed an exotic serpent-shaped gasolier fixture.

Ashland library view into billiard room – with part of gasolier visible

The new McDowell Ashland, while not as sumptuously Victorian as James and Susan’s, was, all the same, much more dazzling than Henry Clay’s original.  An 1883 guest described the net effect of their changes:

Ashland is a beautifully planned house for entertaining—five rooms ‘en suite.’  Friday night it presented a most magnificent appearance.  The whole house thrown open, brilliantly lighted, elegantly furnished, and filled with rare and beautiful gems, and decorated with the greatest profusion of exquisite flowers and blooming plants.  The drawing room opens into a conservatory filled with palms and rare plants of every variety, and lighted with gas lights… (Lexington Weekly Press, 16 May 1883).

New conservatory

Unusual Architecture and Dolphins at Ashland

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YOU ARE HERE -> 1850s

When James Clay rebuilt his father’s Ashland mansion in the 1850s, his intent was to create a tribute to Henry Clay.  James sought to create an impressive home so that they could receive the public (many of Henry Clay’s still devoted fans) and impress the world with the legacy of Henry Clay.

So James preserved significant elements of his father’s house, but adapted it to his time and aesthetic.  By the mid-1800s, the original Ashland house was of an outmoded architectural style. The original unembellished Federal design with whitewashed facade was by mid-century no longer a suitable style for such a historically significant mansion.  Since Clay’s time, tastes had changed and status was now demonstrated by way of ornamentation.

If James had wanted to perfectly reproduce his father’s home, he would have had to remain unfashionably plain in his plans.  But he did not seem to consider returning to his father’s ‘antique’ style.  This is where he left the literal Ashland behind for the spiritual Ashland, one that he envisioned as noble and world-class, a home that honored his father’s memory in the most distinguished way possible.

He had salvaged as much of the old house as possible before it was razed, saving woodwork for reuse in the new structure.  Robert Spiotta says that, “working a little like a modern preservationist, James salvaged all that he could—both in style and materials—from the old ruin and built a more permanent and worthy monument to the memory of his father.”

Architect Thomas Lewinski managed a complex feat of design by integrating the Federal style with the newer Italianate and Greek Revival characteristics, combining the basic design of the old house with the fresh characteristics of an Italian villa.  He utilized the same massing as the original structure: a pedimented center pavilion on the two-story main block with low pedimented end pavilions connected by wings. The new house rests on a rusticated stone basement just as the original had.  He also borrowed most of the major features of the original façade.

The new roofline followed the original, the windows positioned in the same locations, and the small round window in the front gable borrowed from the old.  The bayed entrance with colonnetted doorway and a fanlight in the polygonal projection and the balcony with a Palladian window directly above it closely quoted the originals.  But the new structure featured high, browed windows in the Italianate style, enlarged and thickened cornices with supporting brackets, elaborated chimneys, prominent rusticated quoins, a service porch, and iron balconies and porches.  The entire effect of the combination Federal-Italianate architecture was decidedly unusual, but successful.

And James decided to add a touch of whimsy to Ashland’s exterior, features that still delight visitors to Ashland today: cast iron downspouts in the form of heraldic dolphins.  They may have been inspired by similar downspouts found on early nineteenth-century homes in Savannah, Georgia. The 1813 Oliver Sturges House in Savannah also features them.

From Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art by John Vinycomb:

The heraldic dolphin…is an ornamental monstrosity bearing but slight resemblance to the natural form of this celebrated historic marine symbol… Like its near relative the porpoise, it is an air-breathing animal; its apparent gambollings on the water may, therefore, be more truly attributed to its breathing and blowing whilst in pursuit of its prey…Torqued… from the Latin torquere, to twist…bent in the form of the letter S, turning contrary ways at each bending; …As signifying the conquest of the sea, it appears in the shields of many seaport cities.

And, curiously, two chairs that James and Susan used in the house, which remain at Ashland today, have backs with interlocking dolphins.

One of the mysteries of Ashland: precisely what the dolphin symbols meant to James and Susan….

For more about heraldic dolphins: http://www.sacred-texts.com/lcr/fsca/fsca70.htm

For more about James’s rebuilding, see Robert S. Spiotta, “Remembering Father: James Brown Clay, Merchants, Materials, and A NewAshland.” (MA Thesis, Cooper-Hewitt Museum and The Parsons School of Design, 1990).

For more about Ashland architecture, see Clay Lancaster, Vestiges of the Venerable City: A Chronicle of Lexington, Kentucky, Its Architectural Development and Survey of Its Early Streets and Antiquities.  Lexington, KY: Lexington-Fayette County Historic Commission, 1978.