Messy Generational ‘Layers’ Complicate Museum’s Task

YOU ARE HERE -> 1950s

Historic house museums often face difficult decisions regarding which period of the house’s history to interpret.  This interpretive decision has proven to be a most complicated issue at Ashland.  Not only is Henry Clay’s original house gone, but five generations of his family occupied the estate and much of the remaining evidence of those generations remains at Ashland.

Great-great grandson Henry McDowell Bullock, with McDowell-era clock, c1950s

Historic house museums “are not always frozen as their last occupants left them,” as William Seale says.   “Their long histories have shown that to be impossible.” (Of Houses & Time: Personal Histories of America’s National Trust Properties, 1992).  Ashland reflects no particular era fully, not even the McDowell era that it visually most closely matches.  Rosanna Pavoni observes that historic house museums are “family homes reflecting the passage of time and the sedimentation of the history of generations…”

While Henry Clay has been the focus at Ashland, restoring the house completely to his time has never been feasible because of the generational ‘layers’ of James’s rebuilding and the McDowells’ remodeling.  Despite the descendants’ many changes, Ashland was nevertheless interpreted strictly as Henry Clay’s house from 1950’s Opening Day.

Because of the messy generational reality, the temptation for the institutional museum has long been to over-simplify Ashland’s story and to interpret it very narrowly.

In the 1950s when the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation wanted to emphasize that Ashland was the ‘real’ Henry Clay house, the solution was to gloss over (the many) non-Henry Clay realities.  Ashland director Mrs. Seay and her colleagues must have recognized the impossibility of manifesting Clay’s early nineteenth-century environment, but the ideal of the “Great Man” memorial clung fiercely.  “Great Man” house museums, as Charlotte Smith labeled them, were the once ubiquitous patriotic shrines memorializing prominent white males, such as Mount Vernon and Monticello.

Lorraine Seay conducts a tour, Ashland drawing room, 1957

Probably with these ideals in mind, the Foundation hired Richard S. Hagen, a historical consultant recommended by the National Trust, to conduct a survey of Ashland.  Hagen was to provide recommendations for a period-proper restoration in preparation for great-great grandson Henry Bullock’s departure from his second-floor residence in 1959.

Hagen’s 1958 recommendations were adamantly in favor of returning the house to its pre-1850s, Henry Clay-era, state.  He could not countenance including any of Clay’s descendants in Ashland’s interpretation.  Hagen unmitigatedly rejected what he understood of James’s structural changes to the mansion.  For instance, Hagen found the façade cast iron balconies, which he erroneously described as late nineteenth-century additions, “poorly integrated with the façade.”  Hagen obviously did not realize that Thomas Lewinski had designed the balconies as an integral part of the second Ashland with its Italianate and other mid-nineteenth-century details.

Ashland facade, featured in a local business Christmas greeting

And faced with a house full of post-1850s furnishings, Hagen made some radical suggestions, such as the removal of most of the McDowell-era furniture, fixtures and wall-coverings and replacement with purchased, non-family antiques.

Addressing the second floor of the mansion in particular, he said, “The present atmosphere of Ashland is that of a ‘reconciliation’ restoration…the home is presented as one in which the Clay family continued to live after the statesman’s death…An attempt should be made to return the second floor to its possible Henry Clay period appearance and the impression of later occupants minimized…certainly he and not his descendants are being memorialized there.”

Hagen felt very strongly that all things post-Clay were a major flaw in interpretation that must be corrected.   While Clay’s descendants would have agreed with Hagen that Henry Clay was the one to memorialize, they had long been happy to do so in a multi-generational environment.

Most of Hagen’s recommendations were not adopted by the Foundation; lack of funding was the probable reason since restoring as he prescribed would have been wildly expensive.   Another possible reason for the Foundation’s hesitation:  Hagen had carelessly decried the efforts and priorities of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation.  For example, the Foundation had set up one room in the house as the “Nannette McDowell Bullock Room” in honor of the woman who succeeded in preserving Ashland.  The room was atrocious to Hagen because of its overly-fancy Victorian furniture.  “This room is very much an intrusion upon the restoration of the house.  The furniture is too late to be very suitable…As a memorial room it has no function.”  He suggested retaining its name, installing a token portrait of her, and restoring it as an “authentic” bedroom.

Nannette Bullock room, c1960s

While funding likely drove ideology in this case, perhaps the Foundation in some way wanted to maintain the multi-era interpretation.  By 1961 and the execution of the second-floor restoration, Hagen had resigned himself to the “compromised” interpretation, as he wrote to Mrs. Seay: “…presentation of the house as representing many generations of the Clay family will continue…”

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