Ashland’s Opening Day

(originally posted 9/12/11)

YOU ARE HERE -> 1950

Ashland, the Henry Clay estate, has since the early nineteenth century been an important American historic site.  During Clay’s lifetime (1777-1852), the estate was often equated with the man and ‘Ashland’ became a household word.  After Clay’s death and while four generations of Clay’s descendants occupied the estate, Ashland served as a memorial to Henry Clay, symbolizing his life’s work and the period in which he lived.  In 1950 after his family relinquished ownership of the estate, Ashland became a historic house museum under the auspices of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation.  For more than half a century, this National Historic Landmark in Lexington, Kentucky has been open for public tours and has accommodated hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Even though this opening blog entry places us somewhere in the middle of Ashland’s story, it was a transformative moment in its history: the day it officially became a public place.

It was April 12th, 1950, auspiciously chosen because it was Henry Clay’s birthday.  After nearly 150 years as a private home, Ashland was officially opening its doors to the public.  Clay’s great-granddaughter Nannette McDowell Bullock, who had died in 1948, had been largely responsible for the formation of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation and for the preservation of Clay’s beloved estate.

Henry Clay’s original farm was more than 600 acres in size, but over the century after his death in 1852, the estate had shrunk to 17 acres in the middle of a burgeoning Lexington residential neighborhood.  Fortunately, the large mansion, a great number of mature trees, and a smattering of outbuildings remained.

For Opening Day, the Foundation set out its vision for Ashland: “The Henry Clay Memorial Foundation now has the pleasurable task of opening Ashland to the nation as a public memorial.  The Foundation hopes, in the next several years, to restore the stables, ice houses, the smoke house and other outbuildings, and to develop the gardens and grounds to the point where they will not only represent the finest Clay tradition, but where Ashland will be recognized as the loveliest spot in the bluegrass of Kentucky.  The Foundation hopes, further, constantly to increase the number of Henry Clay memorabilia to the point where Ashland will be a mecca for the research scholar as well as for the patriotic American who wishes to see the home of one of America’s favorite sons.”

Prior to Opening Day, the local papers built anticipation for the event.  A year in advance, plans for the museum were coalescing.  The Lexington Leader explained that no remodeling of the mansion was planned, only “reconditioning.” Landscaping of the grounds was a priority, as well as the collection of artifacts.  Maintenance of the museum was to be financed by visitor “fees” and Foundation membership. In the days before Opening Day, the papers ran photos of Henry Clay artifacts and the progress inside the mansion.  The April 10th Lexington Leader wrote that “50 groups” of Henry Clay items had been collected by the Foundation and placed in Ashland “to furnish authentic atmosphere of the time of Henry Clay.”

Opening Day festivities opened with a parade that began at the Cheapside square downtown. Students and faculty of Henry Clay High were to be dismissed as the procession passed the school on East Main Street to join it on its final leg to Ashland.  The dedication featured concerts by the Henry Clay High School and University of Kentucky’s bands.  Mayor Tom Mooney proclaimed it “Henry Clay Day” in Lexington and urged all citizens to attend the opening.

And, on that chilly April day, thousands (estimates from 3,000-6,000) gathered on Ashland’s sprawling back lawn.  Children climbed trees to get a better view. Photographers maneuvered to get the best shots.  Keynote speaker and fellow Kentuckian, U.S. vice president Alben Barkley declared: “This fine mansion now will rank alongside Mount Vernon, Monticello, the Hermitage, and other public memorials to great men of this nation….generations to come will thank you for preserving this shrine” (Louisville Courier-Journal).

While Barkley was a draw, his glamorous wife, Jane Hadley Barkley, was a sensation: “Mrs. Barkley was on hand for the event, too, to the great delight of some 3,000 Central Kentuckians who didn’t bother to disguise that they had come to see the charming ‘Veepess’ as much as to witness the dedication….[during Mr. Barkley’s speech] the crowd gave its attention largely to her…” (Lexington Leader).

Even with the “50 groups” of Henry Clay artifacts, the mansion could not to be interpreted strictly to Clay’s era.  Not only were there not enough of Clay’s belongings extant to do so, but so many of his descendants’ objects then filled the house.  The Foundation was careful to describe Ashland’s interior as “in the spirit of Clay’s time.”  The first rooms to be opened to the public in 1950 were all on the first floor: the entrance hall, dining room, drawing room, office, library, a room dedicated to Nannette, as well as the Henry Clay bedroom.

Two Clay descendants dressed up in historic clothing from Ashland’s collection – something that current museum practice would never consider – and acted as host and hostess for the reception held in the mansion.  Mrs. Stuart Platt, a great-great-great granddaughter of Clay, wore a ruby red gown which was mistakenly thought to have belonged to Mrs. Clay, while Goodloe McDowell, a great-great grandson, wore the dashing blue and gold ceremonial jacket donned by Clay when he signed the Treaty of Ghent.  The thin and wiry Henry Clay’s jacket proved to be even too narrow for the slight Mr. McDowell; a sleeve seam was torn that day.

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