Ashland as Fin de Siècle Showcase of Sophistication

YOU ARE HERE -> 1880s-1890s

In the early 1880s, Henry Clay granddaughter Anne and her husband Major McDowell transformed the Ashland mansion into a fin de siècle showcase of sophistication as they utilized a mix of decorative styles at Ashland.  Before moving in in 1883, the McDowells remodeled and restored the mansion.  After moving in, they remodeled the main rooms at least once.  Not completely forsaking Victorian sensibilities, they embraced some cutting-edge ideas in interior design, particular the Aesthetic Movement and the Eastlake style.

James and Susan a generation before had also created the most up-to-date interiors in their newly rebuilt Ashland.  Once the McDowells purchased Ashland from Kentucky University, they decided to keep some elements of the 1850s interiors while replacing others.

The fine mantelpieces were kept in every room but one: the original family dining room was converted to a Butler’s Pantry and the McDowells moved that colorful stone mantel to an upstairs bedroom.  The Butler’s Pantry gained floor to ceiling storage instead.

The McDowells kept all of the ceiling plasterwork – James and Susan’s Victorian cornices and medallions – most likely repainting them in colors of their choosing, but they replaced the 1850s light fixtures with gas—soon to be electrified—fixtures, which remain at Ashland today (including the infamous serpent head fixture in the Library).

The McDowells kept the 1850s flooring in much of the house intact but replaced the floors in two rooms: the Entrance Hall with thinly-slatted oak parquet and the Drawing Room with cherry.

The most dramatic changes the McDowells made came at the center of the house: James and Susan’s elliptical staircase and the walls surrounding it were replaced by a more open space with straight flights of oak in the Eastlake style.  A second “service” staircase was added toward the back wing, and a hallway beneath was converted into a “Bath Room” for the family and “Lavatory” for guests, complete with walnut wainscoting and the latest plumbing fixtures.

The McDowells endeavored to open the house “en suite” by keeping doors between the public rooms open while entertaining, by the addition of a door-sized mirror in the Entrance Hall, and by the addition of a new “room” on the back of the house: the conservatory.  All of the central rooms of the mansion, then, formed one large space for entertainment, as a number of contemporary accounts attested.

Interior design at Ashland had evolved from the lightness, straightness, and relative simplicity of Henry Clay’s era to the heavier, ornate, more colorful aesthetic of James and Susan’s Ashland.  But the McDowells leaned toward lightness again as they moved away from Victorian ideas.  Simplicity and less ornament became tasteful and prized, while artistry and hand-crafted quality became more important.

The McDowells were the first known occupants at Ashland to photograph the interiors of the house.  From these images, we can determine many things about the spaces they lived in.

Entrance Hall: Major McDowell
Entrance Hall: anaglypta in Japanesque design
Entrance Hall
Entrance Hall: Eastlake Stair
Entrance Hall: oak parquet flooring
Drawing Room
Dining Room
Dining Room: sideboard
Dining Room: lincrusta
The Study: Major McDowell
The Study: anaglypta
Billiard Room

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