New Life as a House Museum: Just Like A “Real Home”

YOU ARE HERE -> 1950-1970s

1950s – Henry Clay Memorial Foundation

SEE ALSO: Opening Day!

Perhaps you will want to join the thousands who visit the historic old home of Henry Clay…

In the 1950s the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation had begun to advertise, inviting Americans to Ashland, the new patriotic shrine. The public responded wholeheartedly to these invitations.  Not only was visiting historic sites a popular activity, access to Ashland was relatively easy for American travelers.  Before the Interstate system was built, Richmond Road had served as a piece of the main travel route between Michigan and Florida, so Ashland naturally attracted tourists en route.

In its first five years as a museum, Ashland received 70,000 visitors from across the nation and around the world.  This popularity continued through the 1970s with some thirty to forty visitors arriving on bus tours daily.  The museum’s first director and hostess, Lorraine Seay, reported that in a single month in 1966, Ashland hosted a record 5,000 visitors and in August 1971, 7,500 people had visited.

Lorraine Seay

Lorraine Cloyd Seay was hired in June of 1950 as the first Executive Secretary of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation with a salary of $150 per month.  Mrs. Seay was the main tour guide at Ashland for over thirty years, but her roles were many: hostess, curator, director, and “administrator of the home.”  Seay took her hostess role exceptionally seriously, in a way believing that she was inviting people into her own home.  She personally took great pride in the fact that people felt as if they were visiting a ‘real home.’  After the first three years open to the public, it was reported that she had guided most of Ashland’s 40,000 visitors through the house.

People saw Mrs. Seay as the lady of the house and she did not challenge that perception.  When she died in 1998, her former assistant said that some people called her Mrs. “C” or ‘Mrs. Clay’ and that her tours made visitors feel they were in “a real home, not sightseers in a museum…”  The highest compliment for Mrs. Seay came from visitors who said, “‘I feel as if the family has just stepped out for the afternoon, and we’ve come in and just missed them.’” (Lexington Herald-Leader, 12 November 1998).

Mrs. Seay understood Clay’s national prominence and Ashland’s history of entertaining dignitaries, so she made a point of regularly inviting prominent guests to Ashland: President Eisenhower and President Johnson (who both declined), and Pat Nixon who visited Ashland in 1960 with a group of wives of senators and cabinet members.  In 1955, Mrs. Seay proudly told the Lexington Herald-Leader that among Ashland’s visitors in its first five years were “a vice president, senators, governors, a general, persons from all 48 states and many foreign countries,” but for all that, she emphasized, Ashland seems “a very personal kind of place, still very much a home.  And that’s the way it should be…” (20 February 1955).

Mrs. Seay at her desk in Entrance Hall

Mrs. Seay welcomed guests at her desk in the front hall where registration and payment was required, or in the case of large groups, she would greet them from the front doorstep.  The large groups would be led through the house by tour guides, but smaller groups of visitors were often allowed to freely wander through the house, limited by the barriers erected in many of the rooms and closed doors that delineated off-limits rooms.

Former Ashland director Bettie Kerr recalls how house museums were maintained in the 1950s-70s, the days before professional museum practices became common: “There were all these ladies’ organizations…and it was a hobby kind of thing and they meant terribly well, but they didn’t understand what we do now. They ran it like their homes.  They dusted the furniture and did all the proper things.”

Kerr explained Mrs. Seay’s great pride in tending to the house.  She remembered that they faithfully shuttered the rooms from the sun during different parts of the day, “so in her way, that preserved things…”  The mansion was kept exceptionally clean.  Mrs. Seay wanted to present the house at its best to her guests, as Kerr describes:  “The public wasn’t invited in to this grungy place – they were invited in to this place where the silver was polished (probably overly much).  But there were beautiful flowers …every room had a substantial arrangement…[Visitors] left here I think having had a lovely visit…”

Mrs. Seay sets the Ashland dining room table, 1951

Despite the absence of Henry Clay’s original house, efforts to make Ashland seem like Clay’s authentic home environment began the day it opened to the public as an institutional museum.  Clay descendants dressed up in historic clothing from Ashland’s collection and acted as family “hosts and hostesses” for the reception held in the mansion (SEE Opening Day!).  The museum’s goal was to evoke Clay’s home with a conspicuous attempt to make it seem as if his family still lived there.  Ashland was no longer a real home, but the enduring efforts to make it seem so had begun.

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