Unusual Architecture and Dolphins at Ashland

YOU ARE HERE -> 1850s

When James Clay rebuilt his father’s Ashland mansion in the 1850s, his intent was to create a tribute to Henry Clay.  James sought to create an impressive home so that they could receive the public (many of Henry Clay’s still devoted fans) and impress the world with the legacy of Henry Clay.

So James preserved significant elements of his father’s house, but adapted it to his time and aesthetic.  By the mid-1800s, the original Ashland house was of an outmoded architectural style. The original unembellished Federal design with whitewashed facade was by mid-century no longer a suitable style for such a historically significant mansion.  Since Clay’s time, tastes had changed and status was now demonstrated by way of ornamentation.

If James had wanted to perfectly reproduce his father’s home, he would have had to remain unfashionably plain in his plans.  But he did not seem to consider returning to his father’s ‘antique’ style.  This is where he left the literal Ashland behind for the spiritual Ashland, one that he envisioned as noble and world-class, a home that honored his father’s memory in the most distinguished way possible.

He had salvaged as much of the old house as possible before it was razed, saving woodwork for reuse in the new structure.  Robert Spiotta says that, “working a little like a modern preservationist, James salvaged all that he could—both in style and materials—from the old ruin and built a more permanent and worthy monument to the memory of his father.”

Architect Thomas Lewinski managed a complex feat of design by integrating the Federal style with the newer Italianate and Greek Revival characteristics, combining the basic design of the old house with the fresh characteristics of an Italian villa.  He utilized the same massing as the original structure: a pedimented center pavilion on the two-story main block with low pedimented end pavilions connected by wings. The new house rests on a rusticated stone basement just as the original had.  He also borrowed most of the major features of the original façade.

The new roofline followed the original, the windows positioned in the same locations, and the small round window in the front gable borrowed from the old.  The bayed entrance with colonnetted doorway and a fanlight in the polygonal projection and the balcony with a Palladian window directly above it closely quoted the originals.  But the new structure featured high, browed windows in the Italianate style, enlarged and thickened cornices with supporting brackets, elaborated chimneys, prominent rusticated quoins, a service porch, and iron balconies and porches.  The entire effect of the combination Federal-Italianate architecture was decidedly unusual, but successful.

And James decided to add a touch of whimsy to Ashland’s exterior, features that still delight visitors to Ashland today: cast iron downspouts in the form of heraldic dolphins.  They may have been inspired by similar downspouts found on early nineteenth-century homes in Savannah, Georgia. The 1813 Oliver Sturges House in Savannah also features them.

From Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art by John Vinycomb:

The heraldic dolphin…is an ornamental monstrosity bearing but slight resemblance to the natural form of this celebrated historic marine symbol… Like its near relative the porpoise, it is an air-breathing animal; its apparent gambollings on the water may, therefore, be more truly attributed to its breathing and blowing whilst in pursuit of its prey…Torqued… from the Latin torquere, to twist…bent in the form of the letter S, turning contrary ways at each bending; …As signifying the conquest of the sea, it appears in the shields of many seaport cities.

And, curiously, two chairs that James and Susan used in the house, which remain at Ashland today, have backs with interlocking dolphins.

One of the mysteries of Ashland: precisely what the dolphin symbols meant to James and Susan….

For more about heraldic dolphins: http://www.sacred-texts.com/lcr/fsca/fsca70.htm

For more about James’s rebuilding, see Robert S. Spiotta, “Remembering Father: James Brown Clay, Merchants, Materials, and A NewAshland.” (MA Thesis, Cooper-Hewitt Museum and The Parsons School of Design, 1990).

For more about Ashland architecture, see Clay Lancaster, Vestiges of the Venerable City: A Chronicle of Lexington, Kentucky, Its Architectural Development and Survey of Its Early Streets and Antiquities.  Lexington, KY: Lexington-Fayette County Historic Commission, 1978.

3 thoughts on “Unusual Architecture and Dolphins at Ashland

  1. We are working on opening a bed and breakfast in a very historic home in Virginia. It was the property where James Madison was born and his mother grew up. So I love history and all that it covers. Thanks for the great post! I really enjoyed it!

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