Ashland Grounds as Public Park: The Formal Garden

YOU ARE HERE -> 1950s-today

When Ashland opened as a museum in 1950 the estate featured seventeen acres open daily to the public.  Although the mansion was the primary focus, from the beginning the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation emphasized Ashland’s spacious grounds and encouraged visitors to “pause” before entering the mansion to see the grounds, the Clay walk, his carriage, and the garden.[1]

Ashland Garden

For those locals who had not yet discovered the urban oasis, the Lexington Leader in 1966 put out the suggestion:  “For a Quiet Spot at Dusk, Try Ashland.”  The article lamented that, “unfortunately, too many of the local residents leave this spot only for out-of-towners….”  Locals were encouraged to enjoy Ashland’s grounds and garden:  “While this majestic old house offers visitors a grand view of furniture, architecture and household furnishings from 100 years ago, the grounds abound with tranquility and beauty…Henry Clay’s home provides an excellent destination for an after-dinner drive.”[2]

Although in a densely developed residential area and on a major thoroughfare, Ashland’s spacious grounds have created a welcome sense of remoteness in the center of Lexington.  A 1969 article touted Ashland’s “serene surroundings which belie the closeness of a busy state highway and nearby residential suburbs.”[3]  Its extensive collection of old and rare trees has further added to its oasis character.  John Martin recalls that Ashland’s densely wooded grounds long gave the estate an air of a private club.

The Ashland, Kentucky Sunday Independent described the estate’s allure: “Ashland, Henry Clay’s home, offers a pastoral visit inside the city of Lexington…Although the nation abounds with historic homes appropriately furnished and open to visitors, Ashland has a charm many lack.  It’s not just the house itself, although it’s well worth spending an hour or so taking the guided tour.  It’s the grounds as well.  There serenity of the gardens and walking trails belie its location near Lexington’s busy Richmond Road…”[4]

The Formal Garden

The Foundation faced some challenging decisions regarding the grounds.  Maintaining historically accurate surroundings came up against public need.   For example, visitor need prompted the addition of signage and restrooms…and the very practical, yet historically inaccurate, early 1950s construction of a paved parking lot; modern day vehicles soon filled the historic landscape.

Ashland 1975, from Lexington Herald-Leader

The attempt to make Ashland into a public recreation spot threatened to disconnect it from its historic roots when the question arose in 1950 as to what type of garden should be created at Ashland.  The Garden Club of Lexington was chosen by the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation board to create the garden and to this day, is responsible for all maintenance.

Ashland Garden, March 1956

At the garden’s inception, a tug-of-war ensued between historic preservation advocates and the Lexington Garden Club’s ideas about the public good.  The perceived need for a lovely community garden spot and the beautification of the neighborhood was the Club’s focus.  Harriett Holladay writes in “A Short History of the Ashland Garden,” that there were two factions within the Garden Club of Lexington. One faction was the “Old Garden” group that believed they should work from the overgrown but extant McDowell garden, while the “New Garden” faction wanted to build something entirely new.

The proponents of the New Garden won by a narrow margin.  One Club member explained their rationale for rejecting the McDowell garden: “‘The garden that is there now was just his granddaughter’s garden.  It had nothing to do with Henry Clay.  Nobody knows where that Clay garden was.’”[5]  Her comment reveals the thinking of the time: it had to be ‘all Henry Clay’ or nothing at all.  Descendants’ roles and motivations were disregarded.  Had they known how the McDowells tried to reenact Henry Clay’s Ashland in so many significant ways, including restoring his gardens, they would have thought twice about dismissing an entire authentic piece of Ashland’s grounds.  And with some research, they probably could have discovered a close estimate as to where Clay’s garden was and what it contained.[6]

Ashland Garden, 1950s

Louisiana Wood Simpson wrote in 1963: “No one seemed to know where the original garden was located or what it looked like so we built a handsome one in the period manner.”[7]  The Garden Club enlisted Cincinnati landscape architect, Henry Fletcher Kenney, a Lexington native and scholar of European gardens, to design the new garden.  In the resulting formal, walled parterre design, he emphasized the eighteenth century influences on the Clays’ original gardens and apparently used “archeological study” and the “study of plans…and publications of the period” to discern this.  Rather than recreate what he acknowledged was Clay’s likely incorporation of “informal and naturalistic” European garden design, he chose to emphasize the more traditional, formal type of garden that he asserted would also have been found at Ashland. [9]

Ashland Garden plaque

Even though the garden had little tangible historical precedent at Ashland, in the press the Garden Club was nevertheless emphatically lauded for its “restoration” of Henry Clay’s historic gardens.[10]  And its identification with Clay is promulgated by a posted sign that every visitor would see:   “Please hold little children’s hands while walking through Henry Clay’s garden…”  The decision to create a garden tenuously related to Ashland’s original gardens while referring to it as “Henry Clay’s” demonstrates a greater emphasis on public appeal than historical legitimacy.  The garden is clearly more a park feature than a historic portion of the estate.[11]

Yet Ashland’s garden quickly became a neighborhood treasure, “a source of pride and enjoyment for people who live in this historic area.”[12]  A 1998 Herald-Leader feature said that the garden had provided Lexington residents “a respite from the rush of daily life” for half a century, attracting “painters and artists capturing a bit of its beauty” and neighbors making “a pass through the garden as part of their daily walk.”[13]    And for all non-local visitors to the historic estate, the garden is undeniably a highlight.

[1] “You Are Invited.”

[2] Stephen Palmer, “For A Quiet Spot At Dusk, Try ‘Ashland.’”  Lexington (Ky.) Leader, 16 June 1966.

[3] Lemert, Ann. “Ashland.  Clay Home: Kentucky Showplace.”  The Christian Science Monitor, 20 May 1969, 12.

[4] “Ashland to Ashland.  Henry Clay’s Historic Lexington Home Visited.”  Ashland, KY: Sunday Independent, 7 April 2002.

[5] Harriett Holladay.  A Short History of the Ashland Garden.  1989, 3.  Ashland archives.  Emphasis added.

[6] The 1990s Landscape Master Plan study provided such answers, and expressed concern that the historic legacy represented in Ashland’s grounds was threatened by loss: of structures, trees, and plants.  The addition of interpretive signage over the past decade has both added to Ashland’s historical value and subtracted from its recreational park identity (there is concern that too many signs will cause unsightly clutter on the grounds).  Ashland Estate Landscape Master Plan.  The Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, 1996. Ashland archives.  Ned Crankshaw (Landscape Architect) and Jeff Singer (Certified Arborist).

[7] Louisiana Wood Simpson, The Cat Who Lived at Ashland.  Lexington, KY: Garden Club of Lexington, 1963, revised 1978.

[9]  “Garden Club of Lexington to Restore Historic Ashland’s Grounds, Gardens.”  Lexington (Ky.) Sunday Herald-Leader, Social, Club and Personal News, 1 October 1950, 26.

[10] “Garden Club of Lexington to Restore Historic Ashland’s Grounds, Gardens.”  Lexington (Ky.) Sunday Herald-Leader, Social, Club and Personal News, 1 October 1950, 23.

[11] Garden club members maintain the garden, tending it every Wednesday during growing season.  Funding has come from a gift shop (1965-1979), sales of popular cookbook, grants, and donations (especially of plants from members’ own gardens).

[12] Wendy Miller,  “Ashland Estate Houses a Wonderful Café, Too.”  Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, 30 June 2000.

[13] Vickie Mitchell, “Lexington’s Beauty Spot.  Ashland’s Garden is Scenic, Peaceful.” Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, 27 May 1998.

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