Henry Clay at Ashland: Public and Private

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YOU ARE HERE -> c1810s-1852

The extroverted and politically ambitious Henry Clay did not jealously guard his space or his privacy as other public figures did, but willingly shared them as one who fully understood his status.  Even at Ashland where he sought peace and refuge, he remained accessible to those who came to his door.  And there were many Americans who trekked to Ashland to meet their idol.

Idealized view of Henry Clay’s Ashland, 1852. Lithographed by Thomas Sinclair.

Clay’s estate in the western frontier city of Lexington began attracting the public early in the nineteenth century as his celebrity emerged.  The Ashland estate was probably as well-known as Clay and was soon fixed in the American imagination.  During Henry Clay’s lifetime and after, Ashland was a destination of devotion to the Great Compromiser who singularly stood for the antebellum struggle for ‘Union.’  It was said that “Ashland was from the earliest years of the nineteenth century a place of almost pious pilgrimage to visitors from other countries as well as to citizens of the United States.”[1]

Not only did Henry Clay receive some of the most influential figures of the time under his roof, he opened his house to multitudes of the less influential.  Merrill D. Peterson describes a typical Ashland scene: “On some days as many as four or five parties of visitors, often total strangers, often without prior notice, drove out from Lexington and wound their way up the resplendent tree-lined carriage road to Clay’s door.”[2]

Over the years the number of uninvited visitors to Ashland grew in direct proportion to Clay’s mounting political disappointments.  His many devotees could not understand why Americans “refused” to elect him President and they flocked to Ashland in support.[3]  Visitors came for many reasons, but most came with respect, admiration, and excited anticipation.

Political cartoon by H.R. Robinson, New York, 1848, depicting some of the profound disappointment and anger among Henry Clay’s many supporters at the nomination of Zachary Taylor at the June 1848 Whig convention in Philadelphia. The convention’s act was seen as a betrayal of the elder Whig statesman.

It became the habit of many patriotic Americans in the nineteenth century to travel to the homes of the living and departed statesmen they admired.  Pilgrimages to presidential homes were popular—Mount Vernon most of all—as were journeys to the homes of favorite statesmen such as Henry Clay.  These patriotic pilgrims hoped to meet and talk with the famous man or at least expected to gain a glimpse of his estate, his family, his house.  Kenneth Walsh explains that “Americans considered their former presidents and Founding Fathers to be public property and they thought nothing of dropping by and expecting to chat, and perhaps stay for a meal.”[4]  Writing in the 1850s, Mrs. C. M. Kirkland advocated pilgrimages as a patriotic duty for all Americans, but admitted that “to see great men at home is often more pleasant to the visitor than advantageous to the hero.”[5]

George Washington (1732-1799) was the hero par excellence and he appealed to every American; sites related to his life drew pilgrims of all political views.[6]  Alan Morinis says that secular places such as Mount Vernon, as well as Monticello, the Hermitage, and Ashland would rightfully be called ‘shrines’ in that leaders of nations were the “contemporary symbols for national ideals.”[7]  The drawing power of these homes came from the promised physical connection to the hero’s life or the proximity to his mortal remains.

The pilgrims to Ashland sought inspiration or transformative experience through contact with Henry Clay and his home.  Many believed that Clay’s greatness had sprung from the “ever-glowing altar-fire at Ashland” and they wanted to feel a bit of that.[8]

Henry Clay, 1843

Lucky Ashland callers would find themselves in the presence of Henry Clay.  The naturally sociable Clay was known as an unusually generous and welcoming host, taking particular pleasure in meeting and talking with all of his visitors.  He often invited them for more than the expected polite conversation: perhaps dinner with his family, maybe an evening concert, almost always a tour of his farm.  It was said that “it was easy for the humblest citizen to approach him.”[9]

Henry Clay, the consummate politician, was also undoubtedly motivated by his political aspirations, the ongoing need to win over the hearts of as many Americans as possible, shaking hands and signing autographs anytime and anywhere.  Yet he saw more than political maneuvering in his role as host.  American society was undergoing dramatic change in the early decades of the nineteenth century and a democratizing force swept through the country encouraging ordinary citizens to make their voice heard while rewarding such political figures as Andrew Jackson for being a “Great Commoner.”

Clay fit easily into this egalitarian picture.  In his domestic environment, Clay was able to successfully put forth his image as one of America’s “Great Commoners” – just another farmer opening his door to neighbors.   Invited guests in 1843 were impressed by the lack of pretension at Clay’s home: “His manners are as plain and republican as they are gentlemanly and unaffected…”[10]  Clay in his parlor was described as sitting in his easy chair, taking some snuff, and offering tea and conversation.[11]

A generation before, hospitality to the public had been similarly practiced by George and Martha Washington at Mount Vernon.  Washington was visited by “a galaxy of people from all walks of life.”[12]   In all the “noise and bustle” and endless influx of visitors, Washington marveled at an unusual occurrence in June of 1785: on that day he “dined with only Mrs. Washington” which he believed was the first time that had occurred since his retirement from public life years before.[13]  Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), too, offered hospitality to scores of visitors at Monticello.

Clay’s peers, in particular, embodied the new spirit of egalitarianism in their homes.  Clay’s rival and great foe, Andrew Jackson, practiced genteel hospitality with a common touch toward his many visitors.[14]  The Hermitage received dozens of guests daily, “…all made welcome, and all well attended to…”[15]  Daniel Webster was considered “‘the very perfection of a host.’”  Despite his reputation as “the Great Man,” he shed any pretensions at Marshfield, and was jovial and down-to-earth with his company.[16]

Ashland’s hospitality during Henry Clay’s lifetime was directed toward many privately invited guests, but more and more became a public audience of uninvited admirers, supporters, and enthusiastic pilgrims.   Ashland as a celebrity’s home evolved from a place of mostly intimate gatherings with family and friends to an open house for a copious flow of complete strangers.  Even at home, Henry Clay increasingly lived his life in the public eye.

While Henry Clay’s family and domestic life were not emphasized or even mentioned in the many contemporary biographies written of him, Clay in public often and affectionately referred to Ashland and his family.  Public image, for Clay at least, was wrapped up inextricably with home life.  His domestic identity as farmer and “Sage of Ashland” worked well for his public image as a ‘Great Commoner.’ His down-to-earth concerns struck a chord with many Americans.  Clay publicly identified himself as a man with great love for home.  The public man shared his private life and the private man welcomed the public.

Henry and Lucretia Clay on their 50th wedding anniversary, 1849.

Yet Ashland was above every other place Henry Clay’s private retreat and sanctuary. Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett explains that the “desire for private time, the longing for private space” were conspicuous goals of nineteenth-century Americans, but there were many “impediments that might foil circumvention, making privacy something that was often unattainable.”[17]  This was perhaps doubly true at Clay’s Ashland.  Clay and his wife, children, extended family, employees, and slaves went about their lives at Ashland—while innumerable strangers came to the door.

Late in his life, Clay privately admitted of growing weary of the many visitors to Ashland, as Peterson describes:

He had sought adulation, and perhaps he should have been gratified by this display of it, but it was sometimes, as he told a friend, ‘excessively oppressive.’  If the hour was right, tea was served to guests in the drawing room.  ‘I am obliged to supply, when these strangers come, all the capital of conversation…’ he said. ‘They come to look and to listen…that I could find some obscure and inaccessible hole, in which I could put myself, and enjoy quiet and solitude during the remnant of my days.’[18]

That the extroverted Clay in his later years sought an “inaccessible hole” to put himself proves how desperately he sought peace at Ashland.  For all of his ambition and conviviality, he was also a man who longed to retire permanently from the political limelight.  Clay was well aware of other statesmen’s successful retirements to private life; Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson had all successfully retired as private citizens to their estates at the end of their lives.   Henry Clay had planned to retire permanently in 1842, determined to become a private citizen once more, but as a biographer put it, “his devoted people, inconsiderate in their enthusiasm, would not resign him to the tranquility of private life…”[19]

Clay had long accepted the public’s possessiveness, yet the cost to him and his family was not small, as a writer later said of him:  “It is one of the penalties of greatness and worldly fame that the possessor of them passes in a great measure out of his own control and comes to belong to the public to such an extent that private life and domestic joys are almost entirely denied him.”[20]   The private needs of Clay and his family were often subordinated to those of the public.

Clay had long endeavored to reconcile both at Ashland.  After all, American statesmen of that time understood that their duty to fellow citizens extended to their homes.  But when it grew overwhelming for Washington and Jefferson, they drew the boundary between the public and the private at their homes.  But Clay, even when aged, defeated, fatigued, and in need of respite, continued hospitality as the magnanimous celebrity.  There is no evidence that he checked the flow of visitors.  Clay had privately balked, but he continued to respond generously to the public to the end of his life.


[1] S. P. Breckinridge,  “Southern Pioneers in Social Interpretation: I. Madeline McDowell Breckinridge.”  Journal of Social Forces, November 1923, 105-106.

[2] Peterson, The Great Triumvirate…, 372.

[3] John T. Faris,  “Henry Clay Took the Keenest Pleasure in His Estate Near Lexington.” c. 1918, Kentucky Explorer, (November 1993), 14.

[4] Walsh, Kenneth T.  From Mount Vernon to Crawford.  A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats.  New York: Hyperion (2005), 47-48.

[5] Mrs. C. M. Kirkland.  “Washington.”  Homes of American Statesmen: With Anecdotal, Personal, and Descriptive Sketches by Various Writers.  Hartford, CT: O.D. Case and Co., 1855.  Also: (New York: Alfred W. Upham, 1862), 3.

[6] Smith, 48.

[7] Alan Morinis.  Introduction to Sacred Journeys.  The Anthropology of Pilgrimage.  Alan Morinis, ed.  Westport, CT: Greenwood (1992), 3-5.

[8] “Letters of Henry Clay Reveal His Intense Interest in Ashland.”  Lexington (Ky.) Herald, 14 April c. 1920s, 20.

[9] “Links With History: Grounds of a Kentucky Gold Club Once Henry Clay’s.  Ashland’s Great Farm…Interesting Personality of the Great Commoner’s Nephew.  Major McDowell’s Generosity.” The Chicago Tribune, 28 January 28, 188?.

[10] “Mr. Clay at Home.” Green Mountain Gem; a Monthly Journal of Literature, Science and the Art, 15 July 1843, 1.  The article relays the account of a visit to Ashland by the editor of a Cincinnati Methodist Episcopal paper, Western Christian Advocate.

[11] “Visit to Mr. Clay at Ashland.” C.D.S. Niles National Register, 21 June 1845 (In New York Tribune, 25 May 1845).  Peterson, The Great Triumvirate…, 373.

[12] “Introduction to the Diaries of George Washington.”  George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.  Library of Congress web site:  http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/3gwintro.html.

[13] George Washington,  17 June 1785, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.  Library of Congress web site.  http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/3gwintro.html

[14] Andrew Jackson was a populist hero, the first “commoner” to hold presidential office, elected in part because he personified the young country’s brash, bold spirit, and sense of destiny.

[15] Mary French Caldwell.  Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage.  Nashville, TN: Ladies’ Hermitage Association (1933), 67.

[16] Peterson, The Great Triumvirate, 387-388.

[17] Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett. At Home: The American Family 1750 – 1870.  New York: Harry N. Abrams (1990), 238-239.

[18] Peterson, The Great Triumvirate…, 373.

[19] Chas W. Coleman, Jr., “Ashland, The Home of Henry Clay,” Century Magazine (December 1886), 167.  Yet the brief period of retirement that Clay did achieve in 1842 was not in fact a retreat from “the busy scenes of public life,” as Washington had described it.  Instead, as biographer Joseph Rogers explained, “The interim was not one of repose…He was constantly called upon to make tours, or to write letters, or deliver speeches…he was, perhaps, as active as at any other period of his life.”  Joseph M. Rogers. The True Henry Clay. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott (1904), 330-331.

[20] “A Visit To Ashland…”, Henry Clay’s Famous Home, 100 Years Ago.” c. 1898.  The Kentucky Explorer, (October 1998), 31.

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Ashland: A Must-See Tourist Destination

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YOU ARE HERE -> c1900s-1940s

During the first half of the 20th century, Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate was on the tourist map.  Even as it was still the private home of Henry Clay’s descendants, Ashland was firmly on the “list of noted attractions and shrines advertised so widely to visitors,” as C. Frank Dunn, founder of Blue Grass Tours and manager of the Lexington Automobile Club, put it in 1926.

It wasn’t until 1950 that Ashland was actually open to the public as a museum, but prior to that time, patriotic and history-minded tourists flocked to the famous Henry Clay estate.  And the Lexington community was very proud to showcase it.

One of the reasons Ashland was so popular with early 20th-century motoring tourists was that it was located on the “transcontinental highway” – U.S. 25 – that, prior to the national interstate system, was a popular north-south route that ran from Michigan to Georgia.  Ashland in Lexington was a “must see” for those making this automobile trip.

Despite its being a private family residence, Ashland was always included in tourist guides as a highlighted destination in Kentucky, and that didn’t stop stores throughout the region from making a profit on the colorful postcards of the famous statesman’s home.  Here, some early 20th-century examples:

 

Lexington History Museum

1952 tourist book featuring Ashland

Ashland as Fin de Siècle Showcase of Sophistication

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YOU ARE HERE -> 1880s-1890s

In the early 1880s, Henry Clay granddaughter Anne and her husband Major McDowell transformed the Ashland mansion into a fin de siècle showcase of sophistication as they utilized a mix of decorative styles at Ashland.  Before moving in in 1883, the McDowells remodeled and restored the mansion.  After moving in, they remodeled the main rooms at least once.  Not completely forsaking Victorian sensibilities, they embraced some cutting-edge ideas in interior design, particular the Aesthetic Movement and the Eastlake style.

James and Susan a generation before had also created the most up-to-date interiors in their newly rebuilt Ashland.  Once the McDowells purchased Ashland from Kentucky University, they decided to keep some elements of the 1850s interiors while replacing others.

The fine mantelpieces were kept in every room but one: the original family dining room was converted to a Butler’s Pantry and the McDowells moved that colorful stone mantel to an upstairs bedroom.  The Butler’s Pantry gained floor to ceiling storage instead.

The McDowells kept all of the ceiling plasterwork – James and Susan’s Victorian cornices and medallions – most likely repainting them in colors of their choosing, but they replaced the 1850s light fixtures with gas—soon to be electrified—fixtures, which remain at Ashland today (including the infamous serpent head fixture in the Library).

The McDowells kept the 1850s flooring in much of the house intact but replaced the floors in two rooms: the Entrance Hall with thinly-slatted oak parquet and the Drawing Room with cherry.

The most dramatic changes the McDowells made came at the center of the house: James and Susan’s elliptical staircase and the walls surrounding it were replaced by a more open space with straight flights of oak in the Eastlake style.  A second “service” staircase was added toward the back wing, and a hallway beneath was converted into a “Bath Room” for the family and “Lavatory” for guests, complete with walnut wainscoting and the latest plumbing fixtures.

The McDowells endeavored to open the house “en suite” by keeping doors between the public rooms open while entertaining, by the addition of a door-sized mirror in the Entrance Hall, and by the addition of a new “room” on the back of the house: the conservatory.  All of the central rooms of the mansion, then, formed one large space for entertainment, as a number of contemporary accounts attested.

Interior design at Ashland had evolved from the lightness, straightness, and relative simplicity of Henry Clay’s era to the heavier, ornate, more colorful aesthetic of James and Susan’s Ashland.  But the McDowells leaned toward lightness again as they moved away from Victorian ideas.  Simplicity and less ornament became tasteful and prized, while artistry and hand-crafted quality became more important.

The McDowells were the first known occupants at Ashland to photograph the interiors of the house.  From these images, we can determine many things about the spaces they lived in.

Entrance Hall: Major McDowell

Entrance Hall: anaglypta in Japanesque design

Entrance Hall

Entrance Hall: Eastlake Stair

Entrance Hall: oak parquet flooring

Drawing Room

Dining Room

Dining Room: sideboard

Dining Room: lincrusta

The Study: Major McDowell

The Study: anaglypta

Library

Library

Billiard Room

Interpreting Henry Clay in a Charming Home Environment

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YOU ARE HERE -> 1950s-1970s

Unlike many historic house museums, the public display of Ashland’s collection began during the domestic life of the founder’s—Henry Clay’s—home some 150 years before.  The coexistence of home and museum actually has a long history at Ashland; exhibiting and interpreting artifacts for the public has been occurring for almost two centuries.  Clay interpreted America’s history at home while his descendants at Ashland interpreted his life.

Mrs. Seay leading a tour of Ashland, dining room, c1950s

With the departure of the family and the entrance of museum professionals in the 20th century, the interpretation of Ashland shifted.  As Clay and his family had chosen to display historic artifacts within their private home, the institutional museum similarly had to work to exhibit Clay artifacts within a domestic environment.

Ashland, an official public museum since 1950, experienced challenges related to its artifact collection that Clay descendants had never known.  Without family occupants naturally lending legitimacy, the onus of establishing authenticity belonged to the museum.  The desire to make the museum appear to be a ‘real’ family home was paramount, but it was coupled with the drive to display authentic Henry Clay artifacts.

Clothing on display in the c. 1950s Henry Clay bedroom (current Ash bedroom)

As Clay’s reputation began to fade in the national memory, it was Ashland’s mission to make him known.  But it would face the fundamental contradiction of the house museum: the more Clay artifacts to display, the more the house looked like a museum and the less it looked like a ‘real’ home.  The more it was made to look like a ‘real’ home, the less of Henry Clay’s life could be shown.

Yet Henry Clay was Ashland’s star attraction.  The museum’s compromise solution was to give a general impression that Ashland was indeed the real Henry Clay family home filled with Clay memorabilia.  The presence of the great array of items belonging to his descendants and unrelated to him—especially the rebuilt house—had to be downplayed or simply ignored.

Henry Clay would feel “right at home…” Excerpt from Lexington Herald-Leader, 19 April 1975

Donations of items with dubious or confused provenance were sometimes accepted by the museum, and any possible link to Clay was claimed.  Lorraine Seay in published interviews increasingly exaggerated the provenance of Ashland’s artifacts, as she knew that possessing Clay items added to Ashland’s appeal:  “Ashland’s charm,” she told Southern Living in April  1967, “is partly derived from the large number of furnishings which were actually used by Henry Clay and his family in the first half of the nineteenth century…”  By 1973, she asserted that “everything” on display at Ashland belonged to the Clay family, and much of it to Henry Clay.  In 1974 she went so far as to claim that Ashland’s collection was fairly complete:  “The house was so completely furnished with family items when we opened it to the public that there are not that many family possessions which are not already here.” (Lexington Herald, 15 May 1974.)  While it is true that the initial Ashland collection was relatively substantial and the house appeared adequately furnished from the start, Mrs. Seay had no inkling of the great number of significant Henry Clay artifacts that would come to Ashland in the decades ahead.

Lorraine Seay with new Ashland artifact, 1969

Mrs. Seay was the creator and shaper of the Ashland interpretation from the 1950s through the 1980s.  Without the professional tools or training that would arrive after her time, she endeavored to craft a suitably Clay-centered and crowd-pleasing narrative from history books, family accounts, and local recollections.  This approach resulted in some erroneous interpretations, such as her exaggeration of the authenticity of Ashland’s appearance in 1975: “The reason Ashland’s twenty rooms are today so little changed from Henry Clay’s Ashland is that all the Clay generations succeeding him fortunately had the habit of storing currently unused furnishings in the attic.” (Lexington Herald-Leader, 19 April 1975.)  She clearly wanted to give the impression that the Henry Clay collection had always been located at Ashland, though, in fact, much of the collection had been long dispersed …and, in fact, had never been stored in Ashland’s attic.

But Mrs. Seay admittedly faced a difficult interpretive task.  Not only were there five generations’ objects to manage, but Clay’s original house was gone.  Ashland nonetheless had to single-mindedly promote Henry Clay and attract visitors in order to remain a viable institution.

While Clay’s family had lived comfortably with many of these same objects that represented their own and prior generations, the need to teach visitors about Henry Clay had been nearly non-existent for them: nineteenth-century Americans did not need to be told who he was and what he had done; significant artifacts required no explanation.  But the mid-twentieth-century interpretation needed to explain Henry Clay to ever greater numbers of visitors who were ignorant of him and his historic role.  Seay and her colleagues had to explain Clay in a complex and potentially confusing environment.

Mrs. Seay and the Foundation worked to interpret Henry Clay at Ashland, yet the desire to communicate the charm of the domestic—‘real’ home—environment remained strong.  Mrs. Seay accomplished this by highlighting particularly attractive furnishings such as draperies, wall-coverings, china, and silver, insinuating that these very contents once graced Henry Clay’s abode.  Personal items like beds, washstands, chamber pots, and grooming items were now out in public view and delighted visitors, as did the Ashland kitchen, which was presented as a crowd-pleasing colonial kitchen.

Ashland kitchen as interpreted c. 1960s-80s

Considering the appeal of accurately-furnished period rooms, it is not surprising that interpretive tension ensued when the museum needed to incorporate non-domestic Henry Clay artifacts.  Ashland possessed a growing collection of Clay artifacts, many important illustrative items that would not normally have been on display in a home.  The need to provide accurate historic interpretation—of Henry Clay most of all—was weighed against the presentation of an idealized domestic vision.  As much as Ashland wanted to be the charming, old-fashioned home, Henry Clay artifacts took precedence.  Telling the Henry Clay story through these items, however unrealistic their display in a room, was one of Ashland’s early interpretive approaches.

A Henry Clay campaign banner hanging in the drawing room, c. 1950s

The conflict between the appearance of a home and the educational obligation of the museum was seen in such things as the display of a large framed Henry Clay campaign banner in the drawing room—a decidedly out-of-context display.  Also, a glass display case in the Henry Clay bedroom featured Clay’s Ghent jacket and a ruby red dress, thought to have belonged to Lucretia Clay.  These fragile items were adequately protected and on display to enlighten visitors, but consequently the rooms no longer looked like ‘real’ rooms in a family home.

The Henry Clay Study served as a museum room in the museum’s early years.

Ashland’s Glorious Ginkgo Trees

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YOU ARE HERE -> today 

Of the many hundreds of trees at Ashland today, the ginkgo biloba trees that stand so majestically in Ashland’s front lawn are treasured examples of the ancient and unusual species.  Ginkgos are unique in many respects and have no close relatives in the tree family.

Photo by Sally Horowitz

The ginkgo tree may be thought of as a living fossil, one of the oldest living species on earth, and unchanged for millions of years.  Originally native around the world, the North American ginkgos did not survive the last ice age.  After the species was brought from Europe to North America about two hundred years ago, Henry Clay was believed to be the first to re-introduce the species to central Kentucky.

The ginkgo is a long-lived, slow-growing tree.  The largest ginkgo in Ashland’s front yard was planted after Clay’s lifetime, sometime around the Civil War; it has taken nearly 150 years for it to reach its current size.  Ginkgos can reach a height of 115 feet and live for hundreds – and even thousands – of years.

Beyond the unique flat, fan-shaped leaves, one hallmark of the ginkgo is the method by which it prepares for winter: while most trees experience a gradual change of color and then drop leaves over a period of many weeks or even months, ginkgo leaves will change to a golden yellow in a much shorter time with leaf drop following quite rapidly, sometimes within a matter of days.

Ginkgos are also dioecious, meaning that some trees are male, some female.  While the male trees produce pollen cones, female trees produce a fruit-like seed that contain butanoic acid that notoriously smells like rancid butter or cheese when fallen.  The trees at Ashland (many would say, fortunately!) are male and do not produce the mess and stench that the female ginkgos in the surrounding neighborhood do.

Ashland’s popular seasonal cafe is named for its famous tree: The Ginkgo Tree Cafe.  (see Ashland website for more info: http://henryclay.org/visit/ )

Ashland’s 2012 calendar featured a lovely photo of ginkgo leaves by Ashland’s former Director of Tour Operations, Avery Malone.

Photo by Avery Malone

Many thanks to Joel Damron, groundskeeper at Ashland from 2007 to 2010, for his historical botanical research and expertise.

With Civil War Looming, James and Susan Clay Open Ashland to the Public

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YOU ARE HERE -> 1857-1865

Once the second Ashland mansion was complete in 1857, normal hospitality resumed.  Henry Clay’s son James and his wife Susan were, for at least the first years of their tenure, quite open to the public’s visitation, “extending cordial courtesies to almost unnumbered visitors.”

James, Susan, and some of their children on front porch at Ashland, c1860. From left to right: Susan, probably Tommy, family dog, James, probably Charles, probably Susan (Sukie), and probably Lucretia (TeeTee).

The public was especially curious about the new Ashland and flocked to see it.  Visitors to the new, richly furnished Ashland wrote of the powerful impact it had upon them.  Not only were the opulently appointed interiors stunning, but Ashland had now become a shrine to Henry Clay.  Ashland, Clay’s home, even in its new incarnation, remained firmly planted in the public consciousness.

James was eager to retain “the respect of the world and the love of his [father’s] friends,” so he and Susan continued life in the public eye.  They were both well-suited for it as neither of them was a stranger to public prominence: James had been appointed Charge’ d’Affaires to Portugal, serving there with Susan, and the highly-educated Susan had served as Henry Clay’s secretary.  James and Susan placed themselves in the role of public servants and witnesses to the memory of Henry Clay.

Their private needs and issues were often pressing and dire, but their relationship to the public—for the sake of Henry Clay—remained a priority for as long as they occupied Ashland.  They came into the stewardship of Ashland knowing well that their role as hosts would be much like Henry Clay’s with the public descending upon their home.  The spotlight had turned on James and Susan and now life at Ashland meant a very public existence.

1857 view of Lexington. Limestone Street, left; Rose Street, center; and High Street, top. (Ashland would be off this map, right)

A new national popular movement was afoot that coincided with Ashland’s reopening.  Patricia West in Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America’s House Museums, says that by the mid-nineteenth century, a substantial audience existed for house museums—especially Mount Vernon—and American tourism was thriving.  Tourists of the time visited everything from prisons to cemeteries in search of recreation and inspiration.  Places with historical associations, such as Ashland, became patriotic shrines which called for more meaningful travel, popularly known as pilgrimages.

Mount Vernon had been a popular pilgrimage destination for decades before its founding as a public house museum.  The large number of visitors had caused great alarm about damage to the property.  Mount Vernon Ladies Association spokesman Edward Everett wrote in 1860: “‘It is quite natural that the People should wish to visit Mount Vernon, but if they insist on doing it in numbers that put to flight all ideas of private property, they ought to be willing to acquire a right to do so.  They ought to possess themselves legally of the property and not insist upon using it illegally.’”

The concern about pilgrim behavior was a significant impetus to open Mount Vernon as a public museum.  Washington’s estate had been private property, which the public had claimed as its own, much as the public was beginning to do at Ashland.  Ashland, like Mount Vernon, experienced crowds that “put to flight all ideas of private property,” but Clay’s descendants tried to cope with the traffic because of the precedent Henry Clay had set for them.  Law-abiding patriotic pilgrims were always welcome, but James experienced problems with unruly trespassers while the mansion was being rebuilt and he was forced to set limits.

In April of 1855 James gave warning in a local paper:

Others come to Ashland, and without asking permission, carry off whatever happens to suit their fancy.  Against all such trespassers and depredators, the subscriber is determined to put the law in force, and takes this mode to give notice of his intentions.  JAMES B. CLAY.

But the warning wasn’t as effective as he had hoped.  In July he again posted warning in the Lexington Observer & Reporter:

NOTICE.  The subscriber regrets the necessity which compels him to give notice that he will no longer suffer trespassers upon his land.  His pastures are pleasure grounds in which his family are in the habit of riding daily; they are full too of valuable stock; regardless of either persons recklessly amuse themselves by firing guns where there is nothing to shoot at, unless it be singing birds, endangering the lives of people and stock…

James and Susan had responded to the public’s desire for access while they concurrently raised their large family and maintained Ashland.  As they viewed it, living in their new home provided them an opportunity to preserve and present the memory of Henry Clay in an impressive way to the public.  Yet eighteen-room Ashland remained a shelter for their growing family.  James and Susan brought seven children to Ashland and they managed to carve out private space much as Henry Clay had.  Susan gave birth to three children at Ashland, and three of them died in close succession.  Even as their sorrows mounted, there is no evidence that James and Susan’s personal needs or losses prevented them from opening Ashland’s doors to the public.

James and Susan made a point to invite journalists to report on the changes to the house presumably with the expectation that the writers would publicize and cast the new Ashland in a positive light.  These visits occurred when James was running for the U.S. Congress, thus the timing of the visits was presumably related to James’s campaign.

The two reporters’ visits occurred back-to-back in July of 1857.  Susan took one of the men on a tour, James the other.  The writers were shown the grounds and several rooms in the house.  Both published accounts were extremely positive, emphasizing the similarity between the old and the new Ashland, making many pointed references to Henry Clay, and praising the rebuilding by James.  The first visitor, from the Cincinnati Daily Gazette, described what he felt as “sensations of no ordinary emotion,” while the second writer described James and Susan’s hospitality as “elegant” and “generous.”

James’s bid for a United States congressional seat required campaign gatherings, such as the August 1857 political rally on the Ashland grounds which attracted some 5,000 people.  This event was one of the largest gatherings in Ashland’s history (next to Henry Clay’s funeral) and was likely held on the back “pleasure” lawn.  Vice-president John C. Breckinridge, James Clay, and other dignitaries spoke while an “excellent” barbeque dinner was served.

The outbreak of war, however, interrupted the hospitality at Ashland.  As a southern sympathizer in a border state fraught with tension, James could no longer make himself available to the public as his father had.  His visibility as a politician and as Henry Clay’s most prominent son meant that James’s embrace of the Secessionist cause would bring persecution.  He fled in 1861 to exile in Canada.

With James away, Susan and the children faced a frightening event at Ashland: a skirmish broke out on the grounds within view of the house.  Nearly 300 Union troops faced John Hunt Morgan’s 1,800 troops on the morning of October 18th, 1862, resulting in four Union deaths, dozens wounded and an unknown number of Confederate casualties.  Ashland opened its doors to the public in a way it never had or would again: after the skirmish, the house was used temporarily as a hospital for the wounded.

Skirmish at Ashland details – Kent Masterson Brown

Susan rented Ashland out to a sister-in-law when she and the children followed James to Montreal; they were at his bedside when he died of tuberculosis in 1864.

During the Civil War, the public no longer visited Ashland as freely as in the past due to the chaos of the war and general interruption of travel.  The number of visitors to Ashland greatly diminished, but those who managed to come continued to seek inspiration from the spirit of Henry Clay in his former surroundings.  As the war raged, the public’s interest in Ashland continued because Clay increasingly symbolized the antebellum era of hard-won peace and union.  Two men from a Wisconsin regiment made their way to Ashland late in 1862 and published their observations in The Baraboo Republic.   They were undoubtedly tapping into a national longing for union by visiting the Great Compromiser’s home and publishing their account for northern readers.  But the reality of war had intruded upon Ashland’s aura.  The skirmish at Ashland had occurred only weeks before their visit and, as they observed, it ironically took place on the very grounds where the Great Compromiser walked and planned his speeches to save the Union.

The public wanted reassurance that Henry Clay was still with them.  James and Susan responded by making Ashland an open and available memorial site to Clay, but the Civil War effectively removed the family and repelled visitors from Ashland.

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.

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.