The McDowells Update Ashland

YOU ARE HERE – > 1880s

It had been almost thirty years since the Ashland mansion had been rebuilt by 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 sizeable Natural History Museum (with accompanying taxidermy facilities) and then several tenants had occupied Ashland after the University moved away.  In 1882 when Anne and Major H.C. McDowell brought the estate back into the family, it was likely in a state of disrepair.


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

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