Ashland Restoration Raises Interpretive Questions

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 rebuilding of the house was almost entirely ignored and the non-Henry Clay family 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 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.  With the 1991-92 restoration, its interpretation took a decided detour away from Henry Clay.

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

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 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.

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