“Henry Clay is dead and Ashland is a ruin…”

YOU ARE HERE -> 1854-57

First and second Ashland mansions

We made a promise some days ago to give an account of our visit to Ashland, which for so many years was the home of Henry Clay, a name dear to the American people… Ashland has often been described by abler pens than ours, and its name has gone forth to the ends of the earth.  Those who have preceded us, however, saw Ashland in its full glory, as a quiet, modest, unpretending dwelling, and when the occupant was in his pride of place, first in the race of men.  Those days have passed away, never to return.  Not only has the jewel vanished from our sight, but the casket has been broken which contained it.  Henry Clay is dead and Ashland is a ruin. (17 October 1854.)

So wrote shocked visitors to Ashland who were witnesses to its demolition-in-progress and reported their unsettling experience in the Cincinnati Gazette.

James Brown Clay, new owner of Ashland, had given public notice in the July 8, 1854 edition of the Lexington Observer of his plan to raze the old mansion in August, repeating the notice in several issues.  His ad stated that there would be offered for sale “a large quantity of the old material” and that “any one wanting such material could get a bargain by applying on the premises.” (Louisville Journal, 21 July 1855.)   James defended his attempt to sell “portions of the old material…doors, sash, etc. which were utterly useless to me….”  He was fairly unsuccessful in that effort, stating that he would have to make a bonfire to unencumber his place of the “old rubbish.”

James described how he had often been asked for pieces of old Ashland, which he never refused, and the occurrence of frequent theft of house relics and of estate plants.  The public had eagerly—and without permission—collected such souvenirs as sprigs of greens from Ashland the day of Clay’s funeral and pieces of the old house and other items from the property.  James explained his decision to have Ashland souvenirs made from some of the old lumber:  “Some 140 ‘little boxes’ and 100 canes.  At last it occurred to me that I might put some of the old lumber…to a good and worthy use; I determined to have some little articles made, as souvenirs of Ashland…with the understanding…that the proceeds…should be devoted to some public charity.”

The pulling down of the old house began as planned that summer of 1854.

The Cincinnati witnesses believed, as others did at the time, that the physical structure of Ashland was sacred because it had “contained” the now vanished “jewel,” Henry Clay.  Lacking awareness of James’s rationale for razing, they continued:

We were not prepared to find the dwelling totally demolished, but all that remained of it was a brick wall, which had once served to divide the parlor from the library, and upon this some half dozen men were at work with crowbar and pickaxe, leveling it to the ground.  All, therefore, that remains of the old homestead of the statesman, is a pile of bricks and rubbish.  We were told that the present proprietor of the estate – a son of Henry Clay – is about to erect on the site of the old dwelling a new edifice of its exact form and character.  This will make some amends for the work of demolition he has completed, but it will hardly pardon it.  The old house might have been repaired; it should not have been destroyed.  It was one of those consecrated spots, those shrines of liberty, to which the pilgrim would oft retire to revive hope and strengthen his love of country…But its glory has departed – Henry Clay’s home is razed to the earth.  It was with a mortified and disappointed spirit that we left Ashland…

The impact of witnessing the demolition of Henry Clay’s famous home must have been dramatic.  Even if one knew the facts behind the decision—James had provided them to the public—and even if one believed it was necessary and for the greater good, it cannot be denied that beholding a veritable ruin would have broken the public heart.  Henry Clay, “The Great Commoner,” and his beloved Ashland now belonged to the people at some intangible level and they could not easily swallow the loss of this key physical connection to him.  These witnesses would be among the first—but not the last—to deride James for his decision.

James and his family lived in the decaying structure for a time after his father’s death until his mother was able to move out into her son John’s home.  James and his family may have stayed in the two-story cottage on the estate while the mansion was being rebuilt.  James was working with a variety of contractors early in 1855, according to a series of letters dated February through June, which provide a glimpse of the new construction:  a general contractor acquired the new red brick and high quality lumber, and discussed the planned alterations to the staircase (18 March),  a Lexington lumber merchant suggested yellow pine for flooring (26 April), a bricklayer wrote of the new mansion’s corners of stone (14 February), and local roofers agreed to do the copper and tin work (14 May). (Henry Clay Family Papers, Library of Congress.)

The old house had been completely razed by the end of 1854, but some of the fiercest backlash toward James would occur during the following summer – and not solely because of the demolition of Ashland.  The new house was under construction for all of 1855, and James had in the meantime become entangled in the political conflicts of the time.

James had stepped into his father’s shoes at Ashland – and now also followed him into the political arena.  In a later account of his life, this tumultuous period was described: “…for the first time in his life, he appeared before the people as a political speaker…” and James’s eulogist pinpointed an 1855 speech as the beginning of James’s troubles:  “And with this, his first appearance, began that singularly malignant onslaught upon his private and public character by the partisan press, which was continued almost uninterruptedly until his death.”

In July of 1855, as the new Ashland was going up, editor of the Louisville Journal, George Prentice, a former friend of Henry Clay who apparently had an axe to grind with James because of his political views, chose to publicly ridicule James.  In an editorial, he called him, “the young gentleman who tore down the old mansion of his immortal father instead of leaving it to be resorted to and gazed on with emotions of reverential awe by men of future generations…” (Louisville Journal, 13 July 1855.)

Prentice found James’s decision to raze his father’s home inconceivable.  When James had endeavored to salvage as much of the original Ashland as possible, Prentice accused James of “selling the beams, rafters, posts, etc., of his glorious father’s old dwelling house to be manufactured into walking-sticks, etc… precious relics from the mansion of the most illustrious of American statesmen.” (Louisville Journal, 14 and 24 July 1855.)

Prentice did not acknowledge, and perhaps did not realize, that Henry Clay himself had allowed his home to crumble around him for years.  Prentice also did not appear to understand the extent of the deterioration of the original house and James’s reasonable desire to make things right.  Yet when one reads Prentice’s attacks against James without that context, his indignation seems justified: how could a son destroy his father’s home and trivialize it by hawking souvenirs?

But Prentice was even skeptical about the deterioration of the house:

The Ashland mansion was a plain, substantial house of brick; and brick houses do not tumble down in ‘forty-odd years’…We have seen hundreds of brick houses that have stood more than a century…The condition of the very large quantity of timber taken from the Ashland house for canes, shows that…very near all the woodwork was as sound as it was fifty years ago, and, even if a small portion of it was beginning to decay, that portion might for a few dollars have been renewed without the destruction of the edifice.  The brick-work should have outlasted half a dozen generations. (Louisville Journal, 18 July 1855.)

James replied publicly to Prentice’s accusations, especially denouncing his insensitivity toward “the sanctity of private life…” (Louisville Journal, 24 July 1855.)   It appears that James was taken off-guard by this public attack of what he regarded as private decisions.  He continued to believe that the home was ultimately a private matter and his private business, while he also knew that the accusations were likely politically motivated.  James pointedly defended his decision to rebuild Ashland as his right:

Was not the mansion I tore down my mansion?  I did not inherit it from my father, but purchased it…I am grateful to any body who even pretends to feel interest in my father’s memory, but is it not fair to presume that I, his son, feel quite as much reverence for him and any thing that was his, as any other person? (Louisville Journal, 14 July 1855.)

Believing that he spoke on the public’s behalf, Prentice boldly decried James’s actions as “unfilial…profane…almost sacrilegious.” (Louisville Journal, 18 July 1855.)  But Prentice moved to the central issue: James’s private decision that “revolted” the public:

Mr. Jas. B. Clay thinks that he was right in demolishing the old dwelling-house of his father, but we differ with him.  We think the act was vandalism, and we have never heard of any man that thought otherwise…We do not believe that there is a high-souled being upon the face of the earth, who knowing the circumstances, must not at once feel in his heart of hearts that the demolition of the old Ashland mansion by the son of him who made the name of the very place immortal was a deed of barbarism unparalleled in the annals of fathers and sons…Yes, no doubt it was HIS mansion…And THIS is the excuse for its destruction.  It was his PROPERTY; he owned it; he had a right to do what he pleased with it…and so, without a thought of his immortal father whose presence had consecrated every beam and rafter and plank and brick and shingle to the hearts of hundreds of thousands of American freemen, he TORE IT DOWN…he demolished the sacred old edifice without remorse or emotion…and we can tell him that the heart of the country revolted at it… (Louisville Journal, 18 July 1855.)

Prentice defended his editorials as a service to the people: “I merely gave utterance to the thoughts and feelings naturally and necessarily excited in my mind, and, as I believe, in the whole public mind, by your demolishing the sacred old dwelling house of your father and selling the lumber.”  The Louisville Journal stated that the public’s outcry compelled them to act fearlessly and that they would not “shrink” from their obligation in “solemn duty to our country and to the memory of his illustrious father.”  They asserted that the judgment of the nation fell upon James: “The loud and unbroken shout of scorn and indignation which has arisen from the nation tells the verdict…”

Prentice and the Journal eventually decided to end the argument, stating in conclusion that it would now “take leave” of James forever: “The welfare of the country, the memory of his immortal sire, the honor of humanity, require no more.” (New York Daily Times, 26 September 1856.)

But not everyone misunderstood James’s intentions.  Some applauded his actions, especially once the new edifice materialized.  To further charges from the Cincinnati Gazette in 1857 that James had “desecrated Ashland,” Thomas B. Monroe, editor of the Kentucky Statesman, came to his defense, making the argument for private control:

How has James B. Clay desecrated Ashland?  Why, forsooth, he rebuilt his father’s dilapidated house!…rendering his father’s mansion worthy of his father’s memory.  The old house was fast tumbling into decay, as thousands besides James well knew…He did in fact, so far from desecrating Ashland, build a monument worthy of its illustrious prior occupant and worthy of his own filial reverence for his immortal sire.

Robert Spiotta, in his 1990 study of the rebuilding of Ashland, “Remembering Father,” writes that the new Ashland “was made up of about three parts Henry to one part James Clay.”  James was going to make life for his family within its walls, yet Ashland would be most of all a monument and memorial to his father.

James preserved significant elements of his father’s house, but adapted it to his time and aesthetic.  He saved the original design and proportions of the house while simultaneously creating an idealized, modern manifestation.  He had salvaged as much of the old house as possible before it was razed, saving woodwork for reuse in the new structure.  Robert Spiotta says that, “working a little like a modern preservationist, James salvaged all that he could—both in style and materials—from the old ruin and built a more permanent and worthy monument to the memory of his father.”  In these actions, James proved that he was endeavoring to re-create the impression of the original home.

By the mid-1800s, Henry Clay’s Ashland was of an outmoded architectural style. The original, unembellished, Federal design with whitewashed facade was by mid-century no longer a suitable style for such a historically significant mansion.  Since Clay’s time, tastes had changed and status was now demonstrated by way of ornamentation.  If James had wanted to perfectly reproduce his father’s home, he would have had to remain unfashionably plain in his plans.

But he did not seem to consider returning to his father’s ‘antique’ style.  This is where he left the literal Ashland behind for the spiritual Ashland, one that he envisioned as noble and world-class, a home that honored his father’s memory in the most distinguished way possible.

James spared no expense to create a modern, luxuriously furnished house.  While Henry Clay’s house itself had not been what impressed his visitors, James’s Ashland mansion would indeed impress by its magnificent Victorian opulence.  It was as if, with Henry Clay gone, his spirit would be manifested in a tangible manner with the same capability to awe.

Most significantly, James decided to build upon the original foundation utilizing the original floor plan.  While it was an entirely new building, it retained the original Federal-style arrangement of space.  The original proportions of the house were maintained with the thirteen-and-a half foot ceilings, the extra tall doorways and the graceful elliptical staircase in a central stairwell, crowned by an oval-shaped skylight.

But now the interiors were much more lavishly adorned.  The magnificent Latrobe-designed library with the vaulted ceiling and skylights was reinterpreted, with handsome ribbed woodwork.  Some of the original ash woodwork was polished and refashioned into innovative pocket window shutters throughout the house.  Also added were deeply carved plaster medallions around the bases of the chandeliers and elaborate plaster cornices decorating the edges of the ceilings.  Fashionable Greek Revival wood trim with Sheffield silver hardware and particularly fine Italian marble and stone mantelpieces brought the house new elegance.  James then furnished the interiors with the best that money could buy.

Criticism of James’s rebuilding seems to have largely abated once the new home was unveiled.  Robert Spiotta says that the public had “dismissed Prentice’s charges as spurious and exonerated James” by 1857.  The new Ashland was well received.  Certainly the fact that the house was built quickly proved that James was serious about honoring his father at Ashland.  Perhaps a look at the new house reassured that it resembled the original in important ways.

A journalist who visited the completed mansion in July 1857 gave a positive review of James’s rebuilding, proclaiming the new Ashland even “more elegant” than the original:

The identical house occupied by HENRY CLAY has been torn down since his death, and a new and more elegant edifice erected upon the same spot, and with but slight modification of the same plan…The result is, that while the form and character of the old building, planned by Latrobe, has been preserved, all that taste and improvement in architecture, without being gaudy, could suggest, has secured to the resident within the walls, and to the visitor, one of the most bijou retreats, independent of its hallowed associations, which I have ever entered. (Cincinnati Daily Gazette, 4 July 1857.)

The new opulent, sophisticated Ashland, memorial to Henry Clay, studded with his artifacts and largely open to the public, was now home to James, Susan, ten children, domestic slaves, and pets.  They lived there for roughly a six-year period, when events surrounding the Civil War put an end to their life at Ashland.

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