Ashland in the Path of the Bulldozer

YOU ARE HERE -> 1920s

Ashland endangered

The people of America…make no mistake in paying homage to the memory of Henry Clay; but our debt of gratitude, my friends, will not be liquidated until the historic home of Henry Clay, his dearly beloved ‘Ashland,’ is rescued from the menace of encroachment by advancing civic development and a growing population and dedicated and preserved for all future time as a sacred patriotic shrine.

So urged Judge Samuel M. Wilson, the chief advocate for Ashland’s preservation in the 1920s.  By the fall of 1926, it had come down to a public vote: “Voters to Decide Fate of Historic Clay Estate,” the choice before Fayette County citizens: “whether Ashland…shall be sacrificed to the expansion of the city or be preserved as a beautiful city park” (Lexington Herald).

In the 1920s, great-granddaughter Nannette McDowell Bullock was the Clay descendant residing at Ashland.  Her father Major McDowell had intended that Ashland be preserved both for his family and for the public.  Upon his death in 1899, his will transferred Ashland to his wife and children, stipulating that the estate was to be held in trust until the last of his children died.  Land from the sizeable estate could only be sold if all of the siblings agreed.  The idea—and now the means—of preserving Ashland was passed on to the McDowell heirs by their father.  Major McDowell had planted these early seeds of preservation back in the 1880s when he spoke to the Chicago Tribune:

It is the Major’s intention that Ashland shall forever be kept as it is today, so that all who desire to visit the home of Henry Clay can do so without money and without price…Fortune has favored Major McDowell and he will no doubt be able to leave a fund sufficiently large for the maintenance of Ashland on the lines he has laid down…so that Ashland is likely to continue to be preserved for lovers of liberty and human freedom as long as there is a member of the McDowell family living.

For Major McDowell it had not been a question of whether his children would endeavor to preserve Ashland, but a matter of how and when.  After their mother’s death in 1917, the fate of Ashland rested in the hands of the six McDowell heirs.  The siblings wrote many letters between themselves regarding the ownership and maintenance of the estate.  One possibility they considered: would—and could—they preserve Ashland by passing on the estate to their heirs for private occupancy?  By the 1920s, this was not looking like a feasible option for them, the burden too great for any one family.  No one appeared interested in, or capable of, taking on the tremendous amount of care, upkeep, and hospitality to the public that the occupancy of Ashland would require of them.

With the dawn of the twentieth century, residential development was knocking on Ashland’s door and the cost of maintaining the large estate began to grow burdensome for the family.  Land values began skyrocketing: the land surrounding Ashland had become too valuable as residential property to retain for farmland.  Selling off some of Ashland’s abundant acreage for development was a logical action to ensure Ashland’s viability.

The sale of portions of the Ashland estate began in 1908 when the McDowell heirs made plans to sell about 95 acres of the farm for a subdivision. Lexington had expanded its city limits to include the Ashland estate and municipal services such as gas, water, and road maintenance set the stage for subdivision.  The family contracted with the renowned Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm of Massachusetts to design the development called “Ashland Park” and the first lots went up for sale in 1919.  The fact that the land was once Henry Clay’s virtually guaranteed its salability.

All of these changes in Ashland’s borders and surroundings were a cause of alarm for some.  They worried that the development would ‘steamroll’ over Ashland and the historic estate would be lost forever.  In the postwar period, critics decried the social and psychological consequences of the demolition by the highway and housing industries and argued that the destruction of communities and social networks was depriving people of connectedness to their history.  Now Lexington was facing just such a loss…which would be irreversible.

In this uncertain context, the McDowell siblings were seriously dealing with the question of the occupation and maintenance of Ashland—and now considering 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 stating that she and her husband had been seriously considering moving to and managing Ashland, but after much deliberation, decided against it.  The improvements needed on the estate were cost-prohibitive.

By the spring of 1922, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that the McDowell siblings had indeed put Ashland on the market:  “The disposition of Ashland, the famous home of Henry Clay, is a question which has been much in the minds of Central Kentuckians in the last few months… Ashland is not only the most famous of the many old Kentucky homes, but it is practically the only one that remains in the hands of the original owners.”

It was at this time that the idea of Ashland as a “memorial museum” emerged.  The Courier Journal reported that it was “being urged in many quarters that Ashland be purchased by the State or Nation as a memorial museum…[and] that if such an offer should be made to buy this property for this purpose that the heirs should consent to sell it for a nominal sum…”

But even with the intent of selling for a reasonable sum, four years later Ashland still had not sold and the remaining heirs’ eagerness to unload the estate came to a head.  In the face of escalating costs and other burdens, their ideal of a memorial museum had to be abandoned.  It seems that the family felt limited in their options and in a hurry to act.  A local newspaper notice in February announced that, “…steps are now being taken by the owners of ‘Ashland’ looking toward the placing of the property on the market for sale as a residential subdivision and whatever action is taken in the matter should be taken speedily.”

The situation had become dire: Ashland was to be sold off as a potential subdivision.

Residential growth—the devouring of acres of open space, farmland, and signs of rural life—seemed frightening and uncontrollable.  If even Henry Clay’s historic property was in imminent danger, people wondered where it would stop.  So the public grew increasingly involved in the quest to save Ashland from what they dreaded would be certain destruction by greedy developers.

A figure who would play a crucial role in Ashland’s fate, noted historian and Henry Clay admirer Judge Samuel M. Wilson, accepted the leadership role in the campaign to save Ashland.  He announced in February 1926:  “Every Lexingtonian and every Kentuckian is interested in this movement…and the time is ripe to act.”

The idea and motivation to preserve the estate had germinated in the McDowell family for decades, but now Nannette and Judge Wilson would take concrete steps to make it a reality.  They determined that what remained of Ashland should be protected from encroaching development. Further, they returned to the idea of establishing Ashland as a public museum, one of the proven means to preserve a historic site.  Ashland curator Eric Brooks says that by the 1920s, “…setting aside Ashland as a museum…was one of the few options that existed for Nannette that insured that the last piece of the estate, Nannette’s family legacy and responsibility, would be protected from development.”

Some suggested that because Clay was a prominent national figure, the entire nation should be invited to take part in the preservation of Ashland.  National attention resulted through the New York Times which became a sponsor and supporter of Ashland’s preservation, as the Louisville Herald-Post explained the motivation, “…it will only be when the home of Henry Clay is actually made a part of us, by being preserved—and by being thrown open to the public that Henry Clay will again be what he was at an earlier period—very much more than a name…When Ashland is opened to a public which has given something from its pockets to make it part of Kentucky—then we shall have a beginning of appreciation for Henry Clay.”

The Henry Clay Memorial Foundation is established

Changes occurred rapidly in 1926.  In May, the McDowells decided that the large brick stable that stood in the way of the planned Sycamore Road had to be razed.  In July assurance that the Ashland estate was to be saved for the public was announced in the Lexington Herald:  “Instead of subdividing the grounds immediately surrounding the homestead, some 20 acres will be kept intact with the view of converting it into a public park.”

In August, the first recorded meeting of the Board of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation was held in Judge Wilson’s office.  At that meeting, the Board discussed raising funds to purchase Ashland by means of a city bond issue.  Judge Wilson explained that the Foundation had “proceeded to a point where municipal aid would be necessary to their efforts to preserve the historic house at Ashland.”  The Board voted unanimously to present to the Lexington Mayor and Board of Commissioners an ordinance asking that a $200,000 bond issue be submitted to the voters in the November election.

Public debate regarding Ashland heated up in the months leading up to the election.  While there was general city-wide agreement that Ashland was worth preserving, many felt that the asking price was too expensive for the city.  Judge Wilson argued the opposite:

It is contended by some that the price of $200,000 asked for the ‘Ashland’ property which the city contemplates buying, is too high.  How much too high, who shall say?…Nothing is ever ‘too high,’ if one really desires it and has the means to pay for it…will anyone say that it is beyond our means or that it is a prohibitive price, in view of the priceless asset we seek to save for the city of Lexington and the immeasurable loss that would be sustained, if this historic and hallowed home is not saved? (Lexington Herald)

Wilson’s rallying cry became: “Ashland must be saved eventually; why not now?”

Still, the citizens of Lexington were not proving enthusiastic about the bond issue.

Some found it inconceivable that the community would be so apathetic.  One such person was C. Frank Dunn who wrote to the Lexington Herald to argue for passage of the bond issue based upon Ashland’s modern status as a major tourist destination.  He criticized the city’s hypocrisy in having benefited greatly from Ashland, but not supporting its preservation:

Lexington should either join whole-heartedly in the movement to acquire what remains of the property, with a view to opening it to the public…or unanimously withdraw it from the list of noted attractions and shrines advertised so widely to visitors…Ashland has been heralded in railroad folders and Board of Commerce literature for years as the chief attraction of the city of Lexington, and…has been the greatest year-round drawing card that Lexington possessed…

Another wrote to a local paper:

Henry Clay…has been the greatest friend Lexington has ever had.  Although he passed away more than 70 years ago, he is still helping Lexington.  There is probably not a week but that someone comes to our city to see the home of Henry Clay…Those who come spend their money…and it has been this way, not only while [Clay] was living but for more than seventy years since his death.  I would say that in this long space of time,…fully two million dollars…has been spent by people who came and went, to the benefit of citizens of Lexington…from almost every country of the inhabited globe… (E.T. Foster, October 1926).

The widespread concern about the high cost in comparison to perceived value persisted.  To many, $200,000 seemed an astronomical amount of debt for the city to assume.  Thus the bond issue was soundly defeated on November 2, 1926.  The Lexington Daily Leader provided analysis the following day: “The defeat of the park bond issue in Lexington was foreseen by those who knew somewhat of the temper of the taxpayers… in the minds of many, the price placed upon the Ashland property was too high…”  Yet the paper insisted: “By all means the residence at Ashland should be preserved as a memorial and historical museum.”

Ashland’s fate uncertain

Now that the public—the city of Lexington—had opted out of purchasing Ashland, private citizens and the family were preparing to try.  It fell entirely to the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation to raise the funds to purchase and preserve Ashland.  They wisely ventured beyond Lexington to do so.  A November 14, 1926 New York Times article proclaimed that,  “…Ashland, the historic home of Henry Clay at Lexington—an ivy-covered mansion closely associated with the formative years of the United States—will be converted into a museum.  Its spacious grounds forming a memorial park, if the plans of a group of loyal Kentuckians materialize…so that it may be forever preserved from the spoliation of time and the exploitation of the realtor and give Kentucky a shrine to the memory of her illustrious son.”

For many years after the bond issue failure, Ashland’s fate remained uncertain.  The Foundation was still at work but without the city’s help, the fundraising process was a much slower one.  A local editorial argued that:

No restoration is needed at ‘Ashland.’  The home looks today as it did in Henry Clay’s time…yet no effort has been made to capitalize on a rare opportunity to memorialize…the memory of Henry Clay’s half-century of residence in Lexington.  Surely Lexington is not too busy…to pause and reflect upon the value of this estate to the city and to make plans for the acquisition of ‘Ashland’ at as early a date as possible and make it a public shrine that all the nation may visit and enjoy.  (Unidentified newspaper, 15 December 1935).

By 1942, five of the McDowell siblings had died, leaving Ashland resident Nannette as the sole living heir.  Nannette McDowell Bullock died on July 5, 1948 at 88 years of age.  A Lexington Herald-Leader article described the stipulations of her will: “Ashland, tree-lined estate where Henry Clay once lived, will become a perpetual memorial to the great statesman of early Kentucky if provisions of the will of Mrs. Nannette McDowell Bullock are carried out.”  Nannette’s will expressed her fervent wishes for the estate: “I make this gift to said Memorial Foundation in the hope that…said foundation may be enabled to acquire, preserve and maintain Ashland and the grounds immediately surrounding it as a public park and perpetual memorial; and the gift is made in trust for that purpose…”  In December 1949, the Foundation was finally able to purchase Ashland.

So the effort to preserve Ashland had come to fruition.  President of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, Raymond McLain, wrote in 1950: “Without the sustained interest and generosity of both Mrs. [Nannette] Bullock and Judge Wilson, it would not have been possible to present this gracious home to the people of the nation as a reminder of the way of life of one of its most interesting, resourceful and valiant citizens.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s