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Early in 1805 Henry Clay contracted with Lexington builder John Fisher for the construction of a mansion at Clay’s Ashland property. Architectural historians Patrick Snadon and Michael Fazio in The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe theorize that Latrobe may well have designed this initial structure for Clay. When the two-story Federal style house was complete, Clay and his family settled there for the remainder of his life. SEE: HENRY CLAY ESTABLISHES ASHLAND.
While the house was of a relatively simple Federal design, it was more spacious and substantial than most Kentucky homes of the period. Fazio and Snadon state that as “a spreading, multi-part country house,” Ashland was “unusual for [its] time and place.” Most Kentucky homes of that time were plain, dark, and dirty; a house like Clay’s stood in striking contrast: refined, smooth, gracious, and comparatively fashionable. The Ashland mansion, like many large-scale American homes of the time, was designed to accommodate a large family and graciously receive numerous guests.
Although Henry Clay’s house would be popularly perceived as humble but handsome, unostentatious but elegant, it is undeniable that Clay cared a great deal about owning an appropriately stylish house. George Washington, who was also said to have possessed a plain “republican style of living,” and who lived in “noble simplicity” at his “modest” Mount Vernon, was actually keenly aware of how architecture proclaimed status. He planned Mount Vernon to reflect his aristocratic standing. Much like Washington, Clay clearly desired his house to announce his nascent status both as a national statesman and a man of the people. As Clay carefully shaped his public image, he deliberately crafted a house to complement that persona.
The fact that Clay attached public significance to his private home was an idea that had long been developing in America. Richard Bushman explains that the “refinement of America” commenced in the late seventeenth century when the gentry began living in style, adopting amenities associated with genteel living. Americans began to consider how they looked in the eyes of others and subsequently sought to make everything in their homes and on their estates beautiful. Henry Clay’s social and economic status was on the rise, and outer appearances mattered to him. A home in particular could express his ideals and aspirations. The compulsion to build ever-larger homes began in the eighteenth century and continued into the nineteenth when Clay built his mansion. Bushman explains that, “the great house was the most forthright statement of a person’s cultural condition.”
Clay’s ideas about home design and function were attuned to his time. As Americans of the period sought to live this more aristocratically-inspired life, their homes needed to exude a certain charm. As guests entered the front door, they were to immediately sense a peaceful ambience and refinement in the entrance hall which flowed to the parlor, the porch, and out into the yard. The interiors of homes were divided into distinct work areas and ‘refined’ public zones. The parlor, especially, was to remain absolutely oblivious to work and business.
Ashland’s interior layout bore this out. In Clay’s original two-story center block, a spacious octagonal hall with thirteen-and-a-half foot ceilings and extra tall doorways, was the first thing that visitors saw and formed the nucleus of the public zone of the house. Straight ahead was the formal parlor, where Henry Clay received all of his guests. To the right of the formal parlor, a second parlor opened off the entrance hall. The staircase hall, to the immediate right of the entrance, contained an elliptical staircase. To the immediate left off the entrance was a small room that Clay used as an office. These rooms that radiated from the entrance hall comprised Ashland’s public zone in which visitors would have been welcome.
But Ashland’s wings served as thresholds between public and private in that they contained semi-public spaces such as guest rooms, a family breakfast room, and domestic service spaces. Upstairs was the most private zone: a spacious central landing with large Palladian windows that opened to a master bedroom, an adjoining nursery, and two smaller bedchambers. The third floor, a half-story, likely was used for storage.
This original structure, the central block, was home to Henry, Lucretia, and six of their children for about seven years until Clay began expanding the house to include a library, additional bedchambers, and a domestic service area. The addition of two wings presumably allowed for guest rooms and space for four more children to come. Clay began construction of the two single-story, “L”-shaped wings that projected to the front. The north “Chambers and Nursery” wing, as Fazio and Snadon explain, was built first (late summer into autumn 1813), while the south “Kitchen wing,” was built either before Clay’s trip to Ghent, Belgium or afterward (early 1814 or late 1815).
The wings were designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820), the British-born American architect best known for his work with Thomas Jefferson and his design of the United States Capitol. The timing of Clay’s additions to Ashland, Snadon and Fazio state, “would have corresponded both with Clay’s increased status on the national political scene and with his and Latrobe’s collaboration at the Capitol.” Clay may have met Latrobe as early as 1806-07 during his first Senate term, but their acquaintance was first documented in 1811 when Clay (then Speaker of the House) worked directly with Latrobe to “refit the House of Representatives chamber and improve its acoustics,” and the Latrobes and Clays subsequently became close friends.
Despite Clay’s implementation of designs by the most progressive professional architect in America, Clay’s “handsome and substantial edifice” was popularly perceived as unpretentious and dignified as its owner. A contemporary observed: “The mansion itself is a plain two story brick building with wings, without the appearance of parade or pretension…for all the world, without knowing its occupant or owner, it is just the spot one would take for the home of an intelligent and thriving farmer.” (Lexington Observer & Reporter, 31 October 1846.)
But Latrobe’s plans for the wings of Ashland were anything but plain and uncomplicated. While his style was unornamented and deceptively simple, it was based on complex concepts. He had brought sophisticated European ideas as well as his extensive experience as an architect and engineer to bear on his American designs. Henry Clay wanted to exploit these in the creation of his home.
But Clay and his local builder apparently strayed from Latrobe’s designs upon implementation. Fazio and Snadon theorize that Clay’s gift for compromise affected the ultimate design of the house: “Henry Clay was notable for his skill in crafting political compromises; the design process for Ashland seems consistent with these proclivities. The final Ashland, representing the combined efforts of Latrobe, the Clays, and their builder, had a sophisticated and almost palatial plan but old-fashioned, almost Georgian elevations.” So while Latrobe’s designs were avant-garde and formed the basis for the sophistication of the mansion’s design, the compromised end result with its old-fashioned charm and lack of pretension actually worked well for Clay’s public image—the great statesman also known as “The Great Commoner.”
Fazio and Snadon also relay that Clay tellingly made one major adaptation to Latrobe’s design, a change that may show how Clay desired to communicate a hospitable appearance and invitation to Ashland guests: Latrobe had originally designed “four, giant three-part ‘Venetian’ windows” for the rear façade of the house which faced the pleasure lawn, with “small single windows and loggia-like arcades” on the entrance façade. As Fazio and Snadon speculate, Latrobe probably believed a “more closed character” was appropriate for the front as larger windows were for the “‘garden front.’”
But Henry Clay wanted to reverse that, instead locating the four giant windows on the front façade and the smaller openings to the back. Henry Clay oriented his house—its public face—to the outside by situating the largest windows in front. Even Ashland’s front elevation proclaimed this openness. Clay’s home was, in more ways than one, oriented toward the public.