Living in the Museum

YOU ARE HERE -> 1950s

Many visitors to Ashland in the 1950s would never have realized that the mansion continued to be a private home.  This reality was downplayed—if not hidden—from public view for nine years. 

Museum Director Lorraine Seay’s public hospitality was complicated by the presence of great-great-grandson Henry McDowell Bullock (1893-1976), who resided on the second floor.

Henry Bullock 1917

Before his mother Nannette died in 1948, she had granted him a life estate and provided for his residence at Ashland for as long as he chose to live there.  She knew that his health was weak.  His presence may not have been a cause for problems, but Henry suffered psychological maladies of some kind and his erratic behavior substantially challenged the museum’s operation.

Clay family historian Lindsey Apple relays that there are many stories about Henry Bullock’s antics: everything from shouting from the front balcony and shooting his gun to frighten children playing on the lawn to greeting a group of ladies at the front door with nothing on but an open robe.  During an ‘erratic spell’ he damaged oil paintings in the house with a sword.

Mrs. Seay and the Foundation had initially allowed Henry to conduct tours of the mansion, but declined to follow instructions – preferring to do things his own way.  She expressed her frustration to the Board: “I tried to let him help show the house for quite some time when I first came, but found that he would not conform to what we thought was best…” (December 7, 1952.)

Henry was perhaps enjoying his role as proud descendant and imitator of Henry Clay when he conducted ‘unauthorized’ tours of the house after hours, including ‘off-limits’ areas such as the attic and basement.  In fact, he was so enthusiastic about welcoming the public that he petitioned the Foundation to open the house every day and night of the week.

Henry Bullock, 1950

He was also generous with artifacts in the home, offering to sell or give them away to visitors.  Seay found herself having to respond to an out-of-state visitor who had taken Henry’s unofficial tour and had been told that he could purchase a chair and picture frame from Ashland:

In the first place Mr. Bullock is not well and we do not want him to show people through the house particularly after hours.  Also, guests are not permitted to go all over the house – that is, upstairs and in the storage rooms.  Nothing in the house is for sale as in the future we plan to open the entire house and will need many things…I felt that you would appreciate a frank explanation of the situation. (March 13, 1953.)

Throughout the 1950s, the public and private realms clashed within the very walls of Ashland.   Public interests (represented by the Foundation and Mrs. Seay) came up against the private interests of the family (represented by Henry Bullock).  Henry’s mother’s dual desire to provide the public access – while providing her son a home – in a way prompted the struggle.  But Henry’s enthusiasm, zealous generosity, and unrestrained accommodation inevitably went too far for Mrs. Seay and the Foundation.

Henry’s unwillingness to comply with the museum’s rules may have arisen from his mental state, but may also have been due to the fact that, for most of his life, Ashland had been his private home and he naturally wanted some level of control over his private residence.  Perhaps the entire mansion—not just his second-floor apartment—still seemed his private domain.  Now a middle-aged man, he understandably thought it his right to do as he pleased there.

Henry Bullock, 1938

Mrs. Seay grew exasperated at some of Henry’s efforts at control.  Refusing to use the modern gas furnace, he would not turn the upstairs portion on, causing the downstairs portion to become “overworked” heating the entire mansion.  During the first three years that Ashland was open to the public, Mrs. Seay and the caretaker had no keys to the mansion and relied on Henry to open the doors for them each day.  But he refused to abide by daylight saving time, thus for much of the year his schedule varied by one hour, which resulted in “a great deal of confusion”  for Mrs. Seay.  The Foundation Board voted to give Mrs. Seay and the caretaker their own keys.

Henry’s problematic actions inevitably thwarted his freedom.  After giving tours during off-hours and in off-limits areas, the Foundation prohibited him from doing so.  After offering or giving away artifacts and destroying some of them, he was supervised and restricted by the Board.  After troubling and offensive encounters with the public, he was allowed less frequent contact with visitors.

His unpredictable behaviors prompted the president of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation board to write to Henry, pleading for his cooperation by appealing to the memory of Henry Clay, his mother, and the interest of the public:

It has been brought to my attention that you have given away certain pieces of furniture at Ashland…The board of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation feels that it was the intent and purpose of your mother to leave Ashland as a worthy memorial to your distinguished ancestor, Henry Clay.  I feel sure that you will want to cooperate with all the good citizens interested in Ashland in keeping this lovely home intact…in order that visitors may find the same articles of furniture that have taken on such a rich historical interest. (November 18, 1952.)

This uncomfortable mix of public and private interests—a private person living within a public museum—lasted until 1959.  With the Board’s help, Henry Bullock moved into his own home and the Foundation began to renovate the second floor for opening in 1962.

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