Ashland in Trouble

YOU ARE HERE -> late 1980s

By the 1980s, the Ashland mansion had fallen into serious disrepair.  Bettie Kerr, director at Ashland after Lorraine Seay, describes how this happened: while some maintenance issues extended back to the McDowell era (1880s-1940s), after the 1950s, things began to quickly deteriorate.  Maintenance had not always been done well during the McDowells’ time, Kerr says, because Ashland was considered a family home, so when the family needed something done, they just called the repairmen they knew. But once Ashland opened as a historic house museum with thousands of visitors, maintenance needs grew in size and scope.

And once-minor problems snowballed.  Kerr explained that the structure of the house deteriorated because the mortar had not always been taken care of correctly, the vines on the exterior of the house had taken a toll, and the shrubs next to the house and the faulty grading caused foundation problems.

Bettie Kerr points out structural problems at Ashland

By the time Kerr came on as director in the mid-1980s, the house was in perilous condition.  She also believes that Ashland had fallen into disrepair through the previous decades in part because Mrs. Seay hadn’t wanted to

…rock the boat in terms of going to the Board and saying, ‘We have a crisis…the house needs…’  You know she’d have a painter paint the front door and the door trim…you know a little here, a little there – a leak in the roof, patched probably… I have to hope that the reason nothing was done was the lack of funds – and that she just didn’t feel empowered to say, ‘we need more money’…[1]

Kerr had come to Ashland at this crisis point, but the Board was slow to recognize it as such.  But her efforts to call attention to Ashland’s damaged condition ultimately initiated the momentum to completely restore the house.  In 1988 she arranged to have the National Park Service conduct a structural report which proved to be the catalyst – the “outside ammunition” – to get the Board to take the deterioration seriously: “Getting the Park Service report was a big help because they gave us a legitimate document to take around and say to people, ‘It’s not three people’s imagination.’”

Kerr says that she was able to get a lot of press at the time by saying, “We’re in trouble!” It was her perception that unless the public heard to the contrary, they assumed that things at Ashland were proceeding well…which they certainly were not.

Water had been the culprit in some of the structural problems that afflicted Henry Clay’s original house, and, as Kerr told the press, “The latter-day Ashland may be suffering as much as its predecessor.  And the problem, as always, is water.”  Water seepage had not only compromised the structure, inside the house, it had ruined wallpaper and paint and rotted some of the woodwork.[2]

National Park Service Landmark Condition Assessment Reports are specifically intended for National Historic Landmark properties and the report for Ashland summarized the problems:

Unfortunately at this date, Ashland’s long-term preservation is jeopardized by serious deterioration….In spite of the concerted efforts of the owners to maintain the property, the main house – in particular – is suffering from chronic moisture problems and needs extensive and costly work to survive.  The most threatening problem is deterioration of the original limestone foundation caused, in part, by faulty grading around the house and by inefficient roof gutters.  Portions of the interior also suffer the effects of water damage – plaster in significant interior spaces is cracking and falling; a staircase has separated from the wall.  Finally, the walkways are buckling in places, making it dangerous for public visitation.  Work should proceed immediately.  Although the Foundation is dedicated to restoring the Landmark property, insufficient funding is a continuing dilemma.[3]

The required funding was substantial: the estimated costs were $200,000 for the exterior and site, $15,300 for the interior, and $110,000 for the outbuildings.  But later estimates rose to well over $1 million for the full restoration that was projected to last eighteen months.

The Foundation’s financial plan eventually included public funding.  Lexington Mayor Scotty Baesler detailed the plan: the city would finance Ashland’s restoration by taking title to the house and some of the land around it, then lease the property back to the Foundation.  The city would sell bonds to raise the $1.25 million while the Foundation’s Board of Directors pledged to match the city money with approximately $1 million of its own.  The Henry Clay Memorial Foundation would retain ownership of the acreage surrounding the house and would continue to maintain the remaining city-owned acreage and operate the museum as previously.[4]  The June 1991 “Restoration Challenge Fund” flyer explained that in order to celebrate Kentucky’s 200th anniversary in 1992, the city of Lexington was helping with the restoration of Ashland, “Lexington’s premier historic site,” with a goal of raising the Foundation’s matching $1.25 million.[5]

This was the first time major work had been done on the house since the McDowell era over a century earlier.  Restoration work began in the summer of 1991 and Ashland was closed to the public in September for one year’s time.

NEXT TIME: The Restoration Process

[1] Kerr, Bettie, interview with author, Lexington, Kentucky, 27 June 2005.

[2] Nance, Kevin.  “Clay Estate Losing Its Stateliness.  Repair Bill at Ashland May Reach $1 Million.” Lexington Herald-Leader, 17 July 1989.

[3] Landmarks at Risk: Ashland (Henry Clay House) brochure.  National Park Service Preservation Assistance Division, c. 1989.

[4] White, Jim.  “City, Group Develop Plan to Restore Clay’s Home.”  Louisville Courier-Journal, 4 September 1990.

[5] Restoration Challenge Fund brochure.  Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, June 1991.  Ashland Archives.

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