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Henry Clay’s tenth child, James Brown Clay (1817-1864), was the first descendant to own and occupy Ashland after Clay’s death in 1852. The enormous legacy of his father hung over every decision he made.
In Clay’s final months when the family realized his death was imminent, James reassured his father that he would assume the responsibility for Ashland, as Clay had desired. James felt the tug of filial duty and knew this would give his dying father peace. Having recently settled his family on a farm in Missouri and attempting to start a new life separate from his father’s world, James now prepared to surrender his plans.
James would soon become the owner of 325-acre Ashland proper. Instead of older son Thomas, Henry Clay had selected James, his ambitious, wealthy, and well-married son as his successor at Ashland. Now that James had agreed, he took this mandate very seriously and accepted the enormous responsibility involved. He would endeavor to perpetuate his father’s private life and his public reputation: “I shall purchase Ashland, this I promised my father – I think it gave him happiness, and it is my intention faithfully to perform my promise…Nothing would so much have added to my happiness as to have been able to take my father’s place at Ashland, and to have done all in my power to have perpetuated his great name…” (July 1852).
James would purchase—not inherit—Ashland. Clay biographer Joseph Rogers states that it was “necessary to sell Ashland in order to distribute the estate.” Clay family historian Lindsey Apple explains that James got nothing in Clay’s will but the privilege—the blessing—to take on the house and estate.
Lucretia authorized that Ashland be sold at public auction on September 20, 1853. James was the highest bidder, paying double the assessed value of the estate to become its owner. Each subdivided portion of the original Ashland land that had gone to a Clay son was a sizeable, fully operational tract of prime farm land: while Thomas had a fine house at his 125-acre “Mansfield” portion and John would live in his new home on the 200-acre “Ashland-on-Tate’s-Creek,” only James would possess the mansion at Ashland that uniquely symbolized their father.
While James understood the legacy of Ashland for the public, he was keenly aware of the personal legacy his father had left him, as James declared in a speech in 1856: “In the course of his long life he had accumulated a small estate, and that Ashland, next to his wife and children, he loved above all things else. I have become connected with Ashland and am successor to its halls and fields…purposely to preserve Ashland in the family – from becoming a mule pen.”
The need to keep Ashland in the family and to preserve it for them and the public became James’s passionate purpose. He knew that his father’s estate was the undeniable symbol of his family’s status.
James, his wife Susan Maria Jacob (1823-1905), and their children planned to move back to Lexington and occupy the historic estate. But there was a serious problem: Henry Clay’s nearly fifty-year-old house had been rapidly deteriorating for some time and the structure was by this time dangerously unstable. James acknowledged that his father had been aware of the problems but had chosen not to rectify them in his last years and to live with the defective dwelling.
James asked family friend architect Thomas Lewinski to ascertain whether the structure was safe for his family to inhabit. Lewinski “pronounced it unsafe, and, moreover, that it would tumble down of itself, in a very few years.” Susan later described the precarious condition of the house: “…the venerated edifice of the father had become insecure, threatening the safety and comfort of his family…the children had been endangered by the falling plastering…” (Cincinnati Daily Gazette, 4 July 1857).
Against the protests of some, James made his decision: “Under these circumstances, I determined to rebuild…” He would not slavishly reproduce the old Federal-style house, but would create a new home in a style “suitable to my own taste, and not wholly unworthy of my father.” James and Susan came to envision Ashland as a beautiful and habitable home for themselves and as a world-class memorial to Henry Clay. They would build a solid, handsome, up-to-date dwelling, embellishing what was once plain with ornate details and the richest materials.
Once Henry Clay was gone, the symbolic significance of the Ashland mansion grew, but he had unfortunately left behind the seriously dilapidated structure; Clay’s growing legacy was ironically accompanied by a falling-down house. James was the one to reconcile these opposing realities by rebuilding the mansion. James wanted a fresh, improved Ashland as a proud tribute to his father while remaining faithful enough to the original. He wanted to reconstruct the old “reality” as something new and better, to offer an Ashland that was a polished ideal.
After his death, the public expectation was that Ashland should be ideal in the way that Clay was idealized. The physical walls became important to people because they were tangible ‘containers’ of the memory of the man. The public thought it wanted the “real” Ashland, but in truth wanted a glorified version.
This was part of James’s motivation to rebuild. Would the public actually want a decrepit house to remind them of Henry Clay? The deteriorating structure would signal some uncomfortable truths about the great statesman: that he didn’t buy high quality building materials or that he couldn’t afford to maintain his house. So James sought to recreate the house as a fully functioning family home, but make it a fitting lasting memorial to Henry Clay.
The issue of the authenticity of the Ashland mansion arose for the first time with James’s decision. The new Ashland would be similar to but not exactly like his father’s. Which, then, was the authentic home of Henry Clay: that which was razed or that which was rebuilt? This concern would subsequently emerge throughout Ashland’s history as James’s choices were repeatedly called into question…