Return to Glory: Clay’s Family Back at Ashland

YOU ARE HERE -> 1880s

Kentucky University’s Regent, John Bryan Bowman, had planned for the school’s perpetual stay at Ashland and envisioned elaborate changes to the estate, but Kentucky University’s internal and external woes resulted in its splitting and moving away.  When the University put Ashland up for sale in 1882, Henry Clay descendants were ready to bring the estate back into the family.

In the spring of 1882, Henry Clay’s granddaughter Anne (Henry Jr’s daughter) and her husband, Major Henry Clay McDowell, paid $69,000 for the 324-acre Ashland estate.  The Lexington Daily Transcript celebrated their arrival in Lexington saying that it gave “universal satisfaction in this community where Maj. McDowell and his accomplished wife will be warmly welcomed by all.”   Anne was an especially direct link to Henry Clay: born in 1837, she had known her grandfather, spent many of her formative years at Ashland after both her parents had died, and was fifteen years old when Henry Clay died. Further, she was the daughter of Henry Clay, Jr., the Mexican-American War hero who had been born at Ashland.  She would have remembered what life at Ashland was like when Henry Clay was alive and again when her uncle James occupied it.  In 1917, her obituary aptly summed up her unique relationship to Ashland: “Anne Clay McDowell died at her home, famous because it was the residence of her grandfather, the birthplace of her father, the home of her husband and her home” (Lexington Herald).

With the McDowells’ purchase of Ashland, Henry Clay’s descendants would again be intimately involved with every aspect of the historic estate.  The Henry Clay memories, artifacts, farm, and hospitality would all return to Ashland.  The McDowells firmly believed that Ashland was a memorial to Henry Clay, thus their decisions about the estate were intended to honor his memory with dignity and beauty.  They, like the press and the public at this time, in many ways believed the 1880s Ashland was still Henry Clay’s home.  Yet there was no doubt that it also served as the McDowell family home; they modernized and remodeled it to suit themselves.  Like James and Susan two decades before, the McDowells considered it crucial to bring the mansion up-to-date in order to make it suitable for entertaining, comfortable for their family—and worthy of Clay’s memory and image in the world.  They boldly made decisions that affected the permanent structure of the mansion.  The McDowells would leave their profound mark on Ashland as they were the ultimate definers of the mansion’s overall structure and appearance.  Among the changes the McDowells made to the Ashland mansion was the addition of a spacious glass conservatory off the back of the house.  Gas lighting and indoor plumbing were installed.  The central staircase and much of the flooring in the public rooms were replaced, with stylish wainscoting and large light fixtures added throughout.

The McDowells brought six children between the ages of ten and twenty-two when they moved into Ashland in 1883.  Consequently, Ashland became the center of these young people’s and their friends’ lives.  Ashland’s hospitality would accommodate and reflect this youthful spirit.  But references to Henry Clay were ever-present.  A magnificent ball was held at Ashland in July 1889—attended by the “largest crowd of the season.” The Lexington Leader article entitled “At Henry Clay’s House…” described the event as if the ghost of Henry Clay had been looking on: “He would have seen the broad, ancestral halls illumined by the brilliance of many lights, in the glare of which scores of beautiful girls and manly young fellows walked and talked.  He would have heard…the many instruments that…filled every nook and corner of the reverberant halls with music…”

The McDowells continued their changes outside of the mansion, as well.  Henry Clay’s former “pleasure lawn” was utilized for the most current of recreation rages: tennis.  Two grass tennis courts on the back lawn provided opportunities for tennis parties and tournaments.  Great-granddaughter, Madeline (Madge) McDowell, was often mentioned as hostess for these events in the local papers, as in this June 1891 mention by the Lexington Leader: “Ashland was the scene last evening of an ideally pretty social scene. Miss Madge McDowell had first issued invitations to a progressive tennis party, but the sodden condition of the lawn led her to alter the invitation to one for a tea drinking party.”

The McDowells’ Ashland was “kept hospitably open to visitors from all parts of the world…”  They knew that they would own a home that Americans cherished and in which they felt a vested interest.  Major McDowell told the Chicago Tribune in the 1880s that because Henry Clay had made it “easy for the humblest citizen to approach him,” he, too, would make Ashland accessible to all.  But toward the end of Major McDowell’s life, due to his ill health, entertainment at Ashland was curtailed.  When he died in 1899, an era of dazzling Ashland hospitality would come to an end.  His eldest daughter (Clay’s great-granddaughter) Nannette, her husband, and son moved into the house in 1903 to help her widowed mother, Anne, maintain Ashland.  When Anne Clay McDowell died in 1917, Nannette was the next descendant to assume the charge of hospitality at Ashland.

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