The Cottage At Ashland

It is the picturesque little building that most Ashland visitors first encounter: The Keeper’s – or Gardener’s – Cottage.  Adjacent to today’s modern parking lot, this original structure from Henry Clay’s time is a charmer.

The Cottage was designed in 1846 by Thomas Lewinski, the Lexington architect who had helped Clay with some mansion remodeling, had designed homes for two of Clay’s sons, and would, a decade later, design the current mansion.

The Cottage was intended as a residence for Ashland’s head gardener.  Clay’s wife Lucretia oversaw the extensive gardens on the estate, aided by a white gardener and his enslaved black workers.

The Cottage, 1975

After Clay died, when son James rebuilt the mansion, there is evidence that he and/or part of his family may have stayed at least temporarily in the two-story Cottage while the home was rebuilt (1854-57).   A year after the old house had come down, an 1855 newspaper announcement by James shows him at Ashland, fending off trespassers and thieves:

Others come to Ashland, and without asking permission, carry off whatever happens to suit their fancy.  Against all such trespassers and depredators, the subscriber is determined to put the law in force, and takes this mode to give notice of his intentions.  JAMES B. CLAY. Ashland, April 11, 1855.[1]

Whether James and his family were living on the Ashland estate—probably in the Cottage—or nearby, is unclear, but they were somehow using the Ashland grounds on a daily basis.

James was known to have salvaged material from his father’s house and it appears that some salvaged pieces were used in the Cottage.  Kentucky architectural historian Clay Lancaster wrote in 1961 that “The woodwork of the early Ashland was of indigenous character…judging from two mantels and parts of the stairway in the gardener’s cottage…The fittings in the cottage are presumed to have come from the original house.”  This is likely because they were of an obviously higher – and more decorative – quality than would have been found in a simple cottage.

One of the mantels in the Cottage

While the Civil War raged, James had fled to Canada and Susan made preparations to join him.  The correspondence between James and Susan indicates that they were attempting to sell off some of their possessions to raise cash to transport the family to Montreal and support them there.[2]

Eventually the estate would be rented, but it appears they may have considered selling Ashland at this time.  In 1863 a description of the property was drawn up for the purpose of advertising a public auction of Ashland.  Whether this was James and Susan’s intent – and who wrote the ad – are unknowns.  The auction never occurred, but the description provides a glimpse of Civil War-era Ashland, including “the brick cottage suitable for a head farmer”:

Ashland, the former residence of the Hon. Henry Clay for Sale at Public Auction…The estate consists of some three hundred & twenty five acres of land, every foot of which is susceptible of the very highest cultivation.  A large proportion, in fact an undue proportion, consists of beautiful woodland pastures filled with trees of every variety.  The place is well watered with Springs, Wells & ponds.  The pleasure grounds which are quite extensive were laid out near half a century ago under the personal supervision of the Hon. Henry Clay.  The walks & the lawns are studded with an infinite variety of evergreens & shrubbery of all descriptions; and fruits of every variety abound upon the place…It has Greenhouses, Bathrooms, Cisterns & in short every convenience.  Contiguous to the dwelling is a brick Cottage suitable for a head farmer & his assistants & there are also upon the Estate two or three other brick Cottages which might be used for tenants’ houses.  The Stables are also of brick, large and commodious.[3]

In 1863 the Cottage was offered for rent in The Lexington Observer & Reporter: “FOR RENT. … on Ashland, one and a half miles from the Court House, a BRICK COTTAGE, containing four rooms, which, with sufficient ground, for garden, will be rented for $10 a month, payable in advance.  Enquire of Ms. J. S. Wilson, in town or on the premises of MRS. SUSAN M. CLAY.”  It is assumed that the Cottage was rented out in Susan’s absence.

Kentucky University occupied Ashland after Clay’s family sold the estate (1866-1878).  According to an 1868 annual University report, the Cottage was used to house students: sixteen young men fit in the cottage, four to a room, in what was called the “Ashland Batching Club.”  The “ell,” or back extension of the Cottage housed a kitchen and dining area.

The Cottage, 1941

During the McDowell period (1882-1950), little mention is made of the Cottage, but it was in all likelihood used to house hired help.  One 1887 visitor saw the Cottage as evidence that Ashland remained as Henry Clay had left it:

…the general appearance of Ashland is unchanged…the walk of Mr. Clay, where he ‘thought up’ some of his most celebrated speeches; the dairy, where Mrs. Clay continued through half a hundred years to keep her milk and butter; the old pigeon house, the cottage, cabins, walks and trees, are still as they were in the days of the orators lifetime, and it is hoped will remain unchanged and undisturbed for many generations to come. -Lexington Daily Transcript, 15 May 1887

In the early 20th century, in the years leading up to the formation of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, Henry Clay’s great-grandchildren, the McDowell siblings, were seriously dealing with the question of the occupation and maintenance of Ashland – as well as its inevitable sale.

Only weeks before she died in 1920, youngest sister and national suffrage leader, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, wrote a letter to her brother, Judge Henry C. McDowell, Jr.  She and her husband, Desha, had been seriously considering taking on Ashland, but after much deliberation, decided against it.  The state of the “servant’s cottage” was part of their rationale:

My dear Henry…I regret very much the delay that Desha and I have caused but it is a rather momentous decision we were making and it has not seemed possible for us to come to it sooner…We have finally decided that we cannot take Ashland on the terms proposed.  I am agreeing with Desha in this decision with some relief and much regret, as I fear it may be a permanent decision.  We have gone over the place.  We should not be willing to live there without the spending of considerable money… Desha thinks the exterior woodwork would have to be painted at once for preservation; that the servant’s cottage would have to be completely repaired… [4]

When the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation took on the day-to-day operations at Ashland in 1950, the first occupant of the Cottage was to be the Garden Club of Lexington.  The Club, founded in 1916, opened to the public on October 1, 1950 its horticultural center and headquarters in the “little garden cottage” at Ashland.  Their intentions were to found a library, and to host demonstrations and exhibits in the building.

But soon the need for a live-in groundskeeper reverted the Cottage to its original purpose.  Foundation minutes from 1951 reveal that plans were made to renovate the Cottage for use as an overseer’s residence.

Howard Hill, Ashland’s groundskeeper and maintenance man from the 1950s – 1980s, moved into the Cottage with his wife.  He considered the 17-acre estate his “domain.”  His wife had a vegetable and flower garden outside of the cottage.

Howard Hill and the Cottage

Ashland during those decades, observed former director Bettie Kerr, had a lived-in farm feel to it with the gardens, tools in the shed, and Howard’s car parked in the old carriage house.  Kerr says that mowing the whole place was considered a one-person job, which belonged to Hill for many years.  But the grounds were generally overgrown, she says, which lent it a “bit of country charm.”

Hill played the role of security guard as well.  He chased off those who had beer parties on the grounds – and once, a nude man who said God had sent him to the Garden of Eden. [5]  For almost three decades, Howard Hill lived on the Ashland estate and acted “as an envoy of good will to those who come to see the former home of Henry and Lucretia Clay.”[6]

In preparation for the pivotal restoration of the early 1990s, all contents were removed from not only the mansion, but the Cottage as well.

Thirty thousand pounds of art and antiques, souvenirs and remembrances – collected over the 180 years since Henry and Lucretia settled on Richmond Road – had to be packed up and moved out before the restoration team could even begin.   Portraits and watercolors, divans and parlor chairs – long forgotten treasures crowded every shadowy nook and cranny of Ashland’s attic, basement and keeper’s cottage.[7]

In 1992, the Cottage was completely renovated into offices on the second floor, multipurpose space, and restrooms.  Ashland’s curator at the time, Rob Magrish, relays that the first floor was used for purchasing tickets (on the right) and for watching the pre-tour video (on the left).  The museum store was located there for a time but, he said, it “wasn’t working,” so was moved up to its current location in the main house.  Artifacts were also displayed for a time in the Cottage, but that was discontinued.

Spacious and modern public restrooms have proven to be a boon to the tourists that flock to Ashland: especially large bus groups who, we have been told, strategically plan their itineraries to stop at Ashland’s Cottage for those nice restrooms.

Today’s Ashland groundskeeper, while managing the never-ending to-do list of caring for the estate – including maintaining the Cottage –  no longer lives on the premises.

Former Ashland groundskeeper, Joel Damron, making repairs to the Cottage interpretive sign (2007)

Today, Ashland’s Cottage serves as its administrative center and precious multi-purpose space.  Scores of programs and events have taken place – and will continue to take place – in this historic structure.

[1] “Notice.” Lexington (Ky.) Observer & Reporter, 25 July 1855.

[2] Wallace, Sarah Agnes.  “Confederate Exiles in Canada: Last Letters of James Brown Clay, 1864, Montreal.” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 45.

[3] Unpublished auction notice, 1863.  Ashland Archives.

[4] Breckinridge, Madeline McDowell letter to Henry C. McDowell, Jr.  5 October 1920.  Copy of letter in Ashland Archives.

[5] Nelson, Jackie.  “Hill Has a Growing Love for Ashland.”  Lexington (Ky.) Leader, 10 July 1981.

[6] Nelson, Jackie.  “Hill Has a Growing Love for Ashland.”  Lexington (Ky.) Leader, 10 July 1981.

[7] Farmer, Nancy.  “A New Page In Ashland’s History.”  Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, 28 October 1992.

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