Paying Tribute to Henry Clay at Ashland


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YOU ARE HERE -> 1857

After Henry Clay’s death, his national historic-themed display at Ashland evolved into son James’s Henry Clay tribute display.  James and Susan continued the practice of displaying artifacts within the mansion for public viewing, but now the collection centered on those related to Clay’s life.  They honored Henry Clay’s collection by repeating and embellishing it with more of his own possessions.

Henry Clay artifacts

When Clay died, his possessions had been distributed among family and friends, the majority among his sons, and much of his historical collection was dispersed.  While most of his belongings would be kept in the private homes of his descendants, James and Susan followed Clay’s lead and encouraged public viewing of the artifacts they had inherited.  Virtually every Henry Clay artifact that they owned was carefully and proudly exhibited in the public rooms at Ashland.

Like Clay, they provided a view of the past—which was now Henry Clay in the context of America’s history—to the public.  This exhibition, then, separated their collection from other Clay family members’ domestic displays, and caused Ashland to function as something of a public museum once again.

Yet the Ashland house itself—newly rebuilt—was the most precious Henry Clay artifact James and Susan possessed.  Even in its new incarnation, it more than anything else symbolized Henry Clay and it served to envelop all the other artifacts.  Susan defended the rebuilding of the mansion specifically because of its function as a worthy container of Clay artifacts, claiming that the association of Ashland and Henry Clay would be better made for pilgrims to this “shrine” through the creation of a fitting edifice to “enclose the interesting memorials of the Patriot.”  The new Ashland mansion now represented and paid tribute to the old Ashland and was itself a display item.  James and Susan’s house not only enclosed a museum, it was a crucial element of that museum.

Italian marble mantel in new Ashland

As Clay had believed in the power of objects to inspire patriotism, so James and Susan did when they reopened Ashland, filled with artifacts “with which the rooms…abound…”  James’s inherited artifacts included the large painting of The Washington Family, re-installed in its original parlor location.

But not only did they exhibit many of the items that Clay himself had displayed, now the objects that he had personally used came before the public and became just as highly revered.  James and Susan obviously agreed with Henry Clay’s sentiment that tangible objects—those actually touched by the person—were especially powerful.  Clay’s personal possessions, especially those related to the great accomplishment that was the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, were now well represented; his ceremonial Ghent jacket and other items from his European trip symbolized his work as a peace commissioner and the larger idea of world peace.

On display in James and Susan’s Ashland: Clay’s Treat of Ghent jacket.

Guided by Susan through the public rooms of the house, an impressed 1857 visitor described these and other items:

I entered the study—HENRY CLAY’S library, studded with memorials of him—with feelings almost of awe.  I sat on the old, well preserved, old-fashioned chair, sat in oft by him…examined his writing and dressing case, inscribed ‘H. Clay, American Minister, Ghent,’ lifted his ink-stand, so long the fountain into which his pen was dipped when conducting his correspondence and compositions…Here are old tables and sofas as they were used by the Ashland sage…A tortoise case containing his gold spectacles…A circular gold snuff box containing a lock of Henry Clay’s hair and a lock of Mrs. Clay’s…A diamond ring of great brilliance, on his finger when he died… (Cincinnati Daily Gazette, 4 Jul 1857)

In the new Ashland, Henry Clay’s biography was put in the context of the larger American story.  His relics placed alongside George Washington’s sent a clear message about Clay’s importance and place in the national drama.  In the anxiety-fraught final years before the war, James and Susan in essence, through Clay’s legacy, continued his efforts to save the Union.  Antebellum Americans considered Henry Clay the Great Compromiser, the one who for so long preserved the Union, thus it was probably with urgent and passionate purpose that James and Susan created a tribute to Henry Clay that served to make his name and cause immortal.

The elegant rebuilt house and luxurious interiors as backdrop for Clay relics underscored Clay’s eminence with particular dignity.  James and Susan’s home would not simply be a family home with personal memorabilia; this was a public museum, patriotic shrine, and site of apotheosis and inspiration.

Ashland’s Glorious Ginkgo Trees


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YOU ARE HERE -> today 

Of the many hundreds of trees at Ashland today, the ginkgo biloba trees that stand so majestically in Ashland’s front lawn are treasured examples of the ancient and unusual species.  Ginkgos are unique in many respects and have no close relatives in the tree family.

Photo by Sally Horowitz

The ginkgo tree may be thought of as a living fossil, one of the oldest living species on earth, and unchanged for millions of years.  Originally native around the world, the North American ginkgos did not survive the last ice age.  After the species was brought from Europe to North America about two hundred years ago, Henry Clay was believed to be the first to re-introduce the species to central Kentucky.

The ginkgo is a long-lived, slow-growing tree.  The largest ginkgo in Ashland’s front yard was planted after Clay’s lifetime, sometime around the Civil War; it has taken nearly 150 years for it to reach its current size.  Ginkgos can reach a height of 115 feet and live for hundreds – and even thousands – of years.

Beyond the unique flat, fan-shaped leaves, one hallmark of the ginkgo is the method by which it prepares for winter: while most trees experience a gradual change of color and then drop leaves over a period of many weeks or even months, ginkgo leaves will change to a golden yellow in a much shorter time with leaf drop following quite rapidly, sometimes within a matter of days.

Ginkgos are also dioecious, meaning that some trees are male, some female.  While the male trees produce pollen cones, female trees produce a fruit-like seed that contain butanoic acid that notoriously smells like rancid butter or cheese when fallen.  The trees at Ashland (many would say, fortunately!) are male and do not produce the mess and stench that the female ginkgos in the surrounding neighborhood do.

Ashland’s popular seasonal cafe is named for its famous tree: The Ginkgo Tree Cafe.  (see Ashland website for more info:

Ashland’s 2012 calendar featured a lovely photo of ginkgo leaves by Ashland’s Director of Tour Operations at the time, Avery Malone.

Photo by Avery Malone

Many thanks to Joel Damron, groundskeeper at Ashland from 2007 to 2010, for his historical botanical research and expertise.

Come Along on A Tour of Ashland


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YOU ARE HERE -> 1950s-1980s

From 1950 through the 1980s Lorraine Seay welcomed guests to Ashland at her desk in the front hall where registration 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 only by the barriers erected in many of the rooms and closed doors that delineated off-limits rooms.   The second floor of the mansion was closed to the public until 1962 after descendant Henry Bullock had moved out.  SEE ALSO: New Life as a House Museum: Just Like a Real Home and Interpreting Henry Clay in a Charming Home Environment.

Mrs. Seay (far left) at front door of Ashland, 1975

From extant documents and first-person recollections, we know that one route of the 1960s-1980s guided tour went as follows:

After registering or getting tickets at Mrs. Seay’s desk…

Mrs. Seay at front desk, 1953

Proceed to the Dining Room…

View into Dining Room, late 1980s

Mrs. Seay in Dining Room, 1951

Drawing Room…

View into the Drawing Room

Drawing Room, 1978


Library, c1980s

View from Library into Lady’s Parlor (or Nannette McDowell Bullock Memorial Room), now known as the Billiard Room

The north wing of the house presented the next three rooms: the Lady’s Parlor…

Lady’s Parlor (or Nannette McDowell Bullock Memorial Room), 1978, now known as the Billiard Room

Day Nursery…

Day Nursery (more current view), now known as the Morning Room

Henry Clay Bedroom…

Henry Clay Bedroom, 1978, now known as the Ash Bedroom

Walking back toward the Entrance Hall, the tour went through the Museum Room…

Museum Room, now known as the Henry Clay Study

Up the main stairs to the Sitting Room…

Entrance Hall and main staircase (photo from early 1990s)

Sitting Room on second floor, c1960s

Sitting Room on second floor, 1960s

Master Bedroom…

Master Bedroom, 1978, now known as the Henry Clay Bedroom


Nursery, c1960s, now known as the Dressing Room

Ash Bedroom…

Ash Bedroom, 1978, now known as the Nursery

Children’s Bedroom…

Mrs. Seay in Bedroom or Children’s Room, c1960s, now known as the Daughters’ Room

Down the main stairs and outside – to view the kitchen and the outbuildings from the side porch.

Side porch, 1975

Kitchen, c1970s, now the Exhibit Room

One highlight of visiting Ashland was Gypsy the cat who lived for fourteen years in the mansion (until 1976).  She became quite well-known and “people…are disappointed if Gypsy does not meet them at the door…,” Mrs. Seay told the Louisville Courier-Journalin 1973.  Mrs. Seay considered her a person and a relative (“She must be related to Henry Clay, because he was such a charmer”) and dubbed her “Assistant Curator.”

Gypsy the Cat at Ashland

Gypsy had her own special chair by Mrs. Seay’s desk and she followed tours through the house and would “tug at the draperies” for attention, distracting visitors: “I’d lose them,” Mrs. Seay said of her tour groups, “they would want to know about the cat.”  Gypsy’s picture postcard was the largest selling after tours.  But this living novelty— as Mrs. Seay called her: “‘Henry Clay’s cat ‘in her ninth life’”—was good for attendance.  Mrs. Seay told Southern Living in 1968 that Gypsy served as surprise entertainment for “people who may have thought they were just going to tour the 157-year-old home of the distinguished Kentucky statesman.”  Gypsy died in 1976 and mourning fans raised money for a small tombstone, erected where the popular cat was buried under the larch tree on the front lawn, as if she had been a member of the Clay family.

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


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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.

Henry Clay’s Paradise


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YOU ARE HERE -> up to 1852

Named for the towering ash trees growing there, Henry Clay’s Ashland was no ordinary home.  Because of Clay’s prominence and the fact that he cherished and spoke often of his estate in Kentucky, Ashland became nationally known and an inseparable part of Clay’s public identity.  Clay had lent his celebrity to Ashland and the estate was as familiar to Americans of his time as Washington’s Mount Vernon or Jefferson’s Monticello.  Music, hats, books, ash wood canes, and other presidential campaign memorabilia paid tribute to Clay’s beloved estate and were much in vogue.

A popular engraving widely circulated during Clay’s lifetime depicted “The Sage of Ashland” seated in a chair on his front lawn, the mansion’s façade behind him.  After his death the picture was amended, showing only an empty chair in front of the house.

As towns, cities, and counties were formed all over the expanding United States, many took the name ‘Ashland,’ including Clay’s hometown in Hanover County, Virginia; at least thirty localities in the United States are named for Henry Clay’s estate.  Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Ashland was a household word.

And to this day, Ashland is known as “The Henry Clay Estate” as this tract of beautiful Kentucky land remains a vibrant reminder of the Statesman’s great passion for his bluegrass home. Not only did Ashland symbolize his status and aspirations, his love for his estate was one of the strongest affections of his life.  He viewed Ashland as his personal paradise, exclaiming, “I love old Ashland, and all these acres with their trees and flowers and growing grain allure me in a way that ambition never can.”

Clay took great pride in the fact that he had worked for and purchased everything on his estate, having received none of it as a gift or inheritance.  Historian Samuel M. Wilson said, “While Henry Clay loved Lexington and his adopted state of Kentucky, and was passionately devoted to his country, Ashland was…always and everywhere the haven of his heart, the central pivot of his personal interest and his professional activities.  To him it meant home, happiness, and the inexpressible sweets of domestic peace.”

Descriptions of impressed visitors provide an evocative look.  Charles W. Coleman Jr. wrote that after Clay’s 1815 trip to Europe,

he bestowed much attention to beautifying the grounds about Ashland, putting into practical use observations made while abroad. His model seems to have been an English country seat … A park of superb forest trees, sloping lawns sheeted with the luxuriant bluegrass… and a wide-reaching view of the surrounding country were supplied by nature … From the mountains were transplanted dogwoods, redbuds, pines, hollies, and other flowering and ornamental trees; and handsome shrubs, not indigenous to the country, were dotted about the lawns. Tan-bark walks were laid, heavily shaded by avenues of hemlocks, ashes, and walnuts.

Clay developed his estate after the English model.  He fancied himself a country gentleman and the grounds were laid out much like a rural English estate.  A prominent visitor from England, Lord Morpeth, Earl of Carlisle, concurred, claiming that Ashland was “the nearest approach to an English park of any in this country.”

A contemporary described Ashland in 1845:

Clay has … paid great attention to ornamenting his lands with beautiful shade trees, shrubs, flowers, and fruit orchards. From the road which passes his place on the northwest side, a carriage course leads up to the house, lined with locust, cypress, cedar, and other rare trees, and the rose jasmine and ivy were clustered about them… Mr. Clay’s mansion is nearly hidden from the road by the trees surrounding it, and is as quiet and secluded, save to the throng of pilgrims continually pouring up there to greet its more than royal possessor, as though it were in the wilderness.

Ashland: A Must-See Tourist Destination


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YOU ARE HERE -> c1900s-1950s

During the first half of the 20th century, Ashland was most definitely on the tourist map.  Even as it was a private home with Henry Clay descendants still in residence, Ashland was on the “list of noted attractions and shrines advertised so widely to visitors,” as C. Frank Dunn, founder of Blue Grass Tours and manager of the Lexington Automobile Club, put it in 1926.

One of the reasons Ashland was so popular with tourists was that it was located on the “transcontinental highway” – U.S. 25 – that, prior to the national interstate system, was a popular north-south route that ran from Michigan to Georgia.  Ashland in Lexington was a “must see” for those making this automobile trip.

Tourist guides always included Ashland as a highlighted destination in Kentucky, and shops throughout the region made a bit of profit on the colorful postcards they sold of the famous statesman’s home.  Here, some examples:

1903 postcard


Twentieth-century postcard (Lexington History Museum)

Twentieth-century postcard

Twentieth-century postcard

Twentieth-century postcard

Twentieth-century postcard

1952 tourist guide – mention of Ashland

1952 tourist book featuring Ashland

The Curious Case of The Golden Draperies


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YOU ARE HERE -> 1950s – today

Among Ashland’s most prized artifacts for decades were two pair of fancy draperies, which were on display for Ashland’s 1950 Opening Day.  In 1953 Mrs. Seay told the Herald-Leader, “Probably the items on display in the house that most capture the fancy of visitors are the gold brocaded draperies that hang in the drawing room…You can usually expect some ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ when visitors first see the draperies…”  Mrs. Seay loved these draperies and mentioned them in most every interview she gave.

1952 – University of Kentucky student at the Drawing Room windows

As a featured artifact in a featured room of the house, these draperies naturally became a focal point.  But the fact that they were considered having belonged to Henry Clay lent them a mythic quality.  After all, he was said to have had purchased them on his acclaimed diplomatic trip to Europe in 1814.  As the story evolved, Clay bought them in Lyon, France, and with them he brought home a “rare gold-dust mirror” and a “French sofa.”  1950s Ashland, then, with all these fine Clay artifacts seemed all the more like his ‘real’ home!

But there was something even more remarkable about these draperies: said to have been well over a century and a quarter old, they looked fresh, bright, almost new.  How could that be?  A 1950 article provided Ashland’s explanation: “Wrapped in tobacco leaves and quilts, the draperies apparently suffered no damage in their 86 years of storage in the attic of the historic house.”

Ashland’s story was that the draperies were believed to have been hanging in Henry Clay’s Drawing Room from 1814 and then throughout James and Susan’s time, until the family vacated Ashland toward the end of the Civil War.  At that point, the draperies were said to have been put in storage in Ashland’s attic and ultimately “discovered” there in April 1950.

No wonder guests were impressed.

Golden draperies hanging in the Drawing Room, c1978

But there were a few problems with the story of the golden draperies.

For one, after James and his family left Ashland, the estate left family possession.  Kentucky University moved in.  It is highly doubtful that Clay family belongings remained stored away in Ashland’s attic.

Secondly, documentation shows that a descendant lent the draperies to Ashland in 1950.  They were not actually discovered in the attic.  Elizabeth Clay Blanford initially intended for the loan to be short-term, but somehow, the draperies became a permanent fixture at Ashland.

Third, it was another pair of drapes – in all likelihood belonging to the McDowells (last family residents of Ashland) – that were discovered in Ashland’s attic wrapped in those tobacco leaves.  Not the golden draperies.

Finally, there is substantial evidence that says the draperies were not Henry Clay’s at all, but his son James B. Clay’s, purchased in 1856 when Ashland was newly rebuilt and lavishly redecorated.  Textile experts have indicated that they were more likely mid-nineteenth century (James) and not of the sort in use in 1814.  And donor Elizabeth Clay Blanford was, in fact, a James B. Clay descendant.

The once prized and touted golden draperies lost their mythic status and, after suffering damage from so many years on continuous display, were put away in Ashland storage, with no plans in the immediate future for their restoration.

Kentucky University Leaves Ashland


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YOU ARE HERE -> 1870s

From such grand and glorious beginnings, John Bryan Bowman’s vision for Kentucky University began to unravel in the 1870s.  The details of the troubles he and the university encountered could—and has—filled volumes.  Ashland plays a central part in the sad story.

Ashland during Kentucky University/A & M years

All of the tumult made the period of 1865-1878, which should have been one of great growth and success, one of fracture and failure.  A contemporary of Bowman’s later assessed what had gone wrong with Kentucky University: “The rock of offense–the thing that brought grief to [Bowman’s] soul and disappointment to his plans–was his endeavor to unite under one control a college historically and traditionally denominational with an institution under state control.”

Finally after years of bitter conflict, private Kentucky University split from the public A & M College.  What was left of the University relocated to the old Transylvania campus downtown and later took back that name.  In 1878 after 19 years of service, John Bryan Bowman would no longer serve as Regent of Kentucky University.  He was ordered to vacate Ashland.

John Bryan Bowman

A poignant scene occurred at Ashland during these dark days for Bowman and the Lexington Daily Press recounted the details.  The faculty and class of the Law College came to the house for dinner and presented Bowman with a “beautiful, gold-headed cane” as testimony of their respect for him and the work he was doing, congratulating him for the latest vindication in the struggle.  One of the faculty rose before dinner and thanked Bowman, stating that everyone gathered possessed “unshaken confidence in your fidelity to that grand and noble object to which you have already given the manhood of your life.  Believing, as we do, that your every act has been prompted by motives the purest…”   Bowman was moved, calling it “one of the most cherished remembrances” of his life.  Dinner was “heartily enjoyed” and followed by speeches, anecdotes and songs.  When Bowman’s guests left late in the evening they wished the Regent long life and prosperity (June 17, 1877).

While the A & M had been situated at Ashland since 1865, Bowman proposed in 1877 that both the Ashland and adjoining Woodlands estates be sold to the state for use by the A & M College, but the Kentucky A & M College Commission rejected his proposal, claiming that the state did not need so much property.  A final agreement was reached which allowed the A & M College to rent the Ashland property for two more years, continuing to utilize all buildings and equipment for that time, while Kentucky University retained ownership and oversight.   Once the agreement was reached, Kentucky A & M managed to thrive for a time.  The future appeared more hopeful, although the search for a new site was on.

Citizens of Lexington grew especially worried about the A & M leaving Ashland and leaving the city.  It seemed out of the question for the school to be located anywhere but Ashland:  “Where else in our State can a more suitable tract of land be offered for its location?” the Lexington Daily Press asked in April 1878, “Where is agriculture carried on with greater success?”  Lexingtonians also saw the move as morally reprehensible: after all, their contributions had specifically brought the Agricultural and Mechanical College to the city for the benefit of the entire citizenry.  They refused to accept that sectarian Kentucky University now held ownership of the Ashland and Woodlands estates.

In the summer of 1879 the donors and citizens of Lexington presented a petition to the University Board demanding that a portion of the Ashland and Woodlands tract be offered to the state.  The Board ultimately rejected it.  The people of Lexington were bitterly disappointed to have lost the historic Ashland and Woodlands tracts as the state college campus.

The A & M Mechanical Building

State-wide bidding began for the A & M College site.  Lexington was especially anxious to retain the state’s only public college and the city won by offering its fairgrounds. The A & M moved to its new campus on South Limestone Street in 1882.  It became commonly known as the “State College,” until in 1908 it adopted its legal name, “State University of Kentucky,” and in 1916 took on its current name, “The University of Kentucky.”

In 1879 the University Board had settled all financial dealings between the University and Bowman.  The Secretary of the Board was to “transmit a copy of this resolution to John B. Bowman, accompanied with a polite request that he surrender possession of the Mansion and appurtenances at Ashland to the Executive Committee.”

In a letter to the Board of Curators, Bowman said, “In regard to the Surrender of Ashland and its appurtenances, I will say that I have advertised to see my Household furniture, stock, [etc.] on the 29th of July and I will give possession of the place and other property of the University on the day following.”  The sale of the Bowmans’ belongings took place at Ashland with about 2,000 people in attendance.

John and Mary Bowman—and, soon, the Kentucky A & M—left Ashland for good.

See also: Historic Homestead as College Campus and Clay Family Loses Ashland, University of Kentucky Predecessor Moves In.

Ashland’s Opening Day


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YOU ARE HERE -> 1950

Ashland, the Henry Clay estate, has since the early nineteenth century been an important American historic site.  During Clay’s lifetime (1777-1852), the estate was often equated with the man and ‘Ashland’ became a household word.  After Clay’s death and while four generations of Clay’s descendants occupied the estate, Ashland served as a memorial to Henry Clay, symbolizing his life’s work and the period in which he lived.  In 1950 after his family relinquished ownership of the estate, Ashland became a historic house museum under the auspices of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation.  For more than half a century, this National Historic Landmark in Lexington, Kentucky has been open for public tours and has accommodated hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Even though this opening blog entry places us somewhere in the middle of Ashland’s story, it was a transformative moment in its history: the day it officially became a public place.

It was April 12th, 1950, auspiciously chosen because it was Henry Clay’s birthday.  After nearly 150 years as a private home, Ashland was officially opening its doors to the public.  Clay’s great-granddaughter Nannette McDowell Bullock, who had died in 1948, had been largely responsible for the formation of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation and for the preservation of Clay’s beloved estate.

Henry Clay’s original farm was more than 600 acres in size, but over the century after his death in 1852, the estate had shrunk to 17 acres in the middle of a burgeoning Lexington residential neighborhood.  Fortunately, the large mansion, a great number of mature trees, and a smattering of outbuildings remained.

For Opening Day, the Foundation set out its vision for Ashland: “The Henry Clay Memorial Foundation now has the pleasurable task of opening Ashland to the nation as a public memorial.  The Foundation hopes, in the next several years, to restore the stables, ice houses, the smoke house and other outbuildings, and to develop the gardens and grounds to the point where they will not only represent the finest Clay tradition, but where Ashland will be recognized as the loveliest spot in the bluegrass of Kentucky.  The Foundation hopes, further, constantly to increase the number of Henry Clay memorabilia to the point where Ashland will be a mecca for the research scholar as well as for the patriotic American who wishes to see the home of one of America’s favorite sons.”

Prior to Opening Day, the local papers built anticipation for the event.  A year in advance, plans for the museum were coalescing.  The Lexington Leader explained that no remodeling of the mansion was planned, only “reconditioning.” Landscaping of the grounds was a priority, as well as the collection of artifacts.  Maintenance of the museum was to be financed by visitor “fees” and Foundation membership. In the days before Opening Day, the papers ran photos of Henry Clay artifacts and the progress inside the mansion.  The April 10th Lexington Leader wrote that “50 groups” of Henry Clay items had been collected by the Foundation and placed in Ashland “to furnish authentic atmosphere of the time of Henry Clay.”

Opening Day festivities opened with a parade that began at the Cheapside square downtown. Students and faculty of Henry Clay High were to be dismissed as the procession passed the school on East Main Street to join it on its final leg to Ashland.  The dedication featured concerts by the Henry Clay High School and University of Kentucky’s bands.  Mayor Tom Mooney proclaimed it “Henry Clay Day” in Lexington and urged all citizens to attend the opening.

And, on that chilly April day, thousands (estimates from 3,000-6,000) gathered on Ashland’s sprawling back lawn.  Children climbed trees to get a better view. Photographers maneuvered to get the best shots.  Keynote speaker and fellow Kentuckian, U.S. vice president Alben Barkley declared: “This fine mansion now will rank alongside Mount Vernon, Monticello, the Hermitage, and other public memorials to great men of this nation….generations to come will thank you for preserving this shrine” (Louisville Courier-Journal).

While Barkley was a draw, his glamorous wife, Jane Hadley Barkley, was a sensation: “Mrs. Barkley was on hand for the event, too, to the great delight of some 3,000 Central Kentuckians who didn’t bother to disguise that they had come to see the charming ‘Veepess’ as much as to witness the dedication….[during Mr. Barkley’s speech] the crowd gave its attention largely to her…” (Lexington Leader).

Even with the “50 groups” of Henry Clay artifacts, the mansion could not to be interpreted strictly to Clay’s era.  Not only were there not enough of Clay’s belongings extant to do so, but so many of his descendants’ objects then filled the house.  The Foundation was careful to describe Ashland’s interior as “in the spirit of Clay’s time.”  The first rooms to be opened to the public in 1950 were all on the first floor: the entrance hall, dining room, drawing room, office, library, a room dedicated to Nannette, as well as the Henry Clay bedroom.

Two Clay descendants dressed up in historic clothing from Ashland’s collection – something that current museum practice would never consider – and acted as host and hostess for the reception held in the mansion.  Mrs. Stuart Platt, a great-great-great granddaughter of Clay, wore a ruby red gown which was mistakenly thought to have belonged to Mrs. Clay, while Goodloe McDowell, a great-great grandson, wore the dashing blue and gold ceremonial jacket donned by Clay when he signed the Treaty of Ghent.  The thin and wiry Henry Clay’s jacket proved to be even too narrow for the slight Mr. McDowell; a sleeve seam was torn that day.

Ashland: Unsurpassed for Party-Giving


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YOU ARE HERE -> 1880s-1890s

Henry Clay’s granddaughter Anne Clay McDowell and her husband Major Henry Clay McDowell became famous for the “bounteous hospitality of Ashland,” as the Lexington Leader put it in 1899.  When they moved to Ashland in 1883, the McDowells brought six children between the ages of ten and twenty-two:  Nannette, 22; Henry Clay Jr., 21; William Adair, 19; Thomas Clay, 16; Julia Prather, 14; and Madeline, 10.

Julia, Nannette, Madeline

Consequently, Ashland from the 1880s became the center of these young people’s lives, along with all of their friends.  Ashland’s hospitality would accommodate and reflect this youthful spirit.  But the spirit and the 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,” and the house was described as unsurpassed for its “facilities for party-giving.”  A local paper 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 filled every nook and corner of the reverberant halls with music…The [catered] supper has been called super-excellent…nearly everybody in town who moves in youthful circles and some older ones were at the party…Last night triple parlors, the carpets of which were hidden from view by immaculate canvas, were thrown together as one large apartment.  Here most of the dancing took place… Everything about this party was modeled on a large scale…   “At Henry Clay’s Home.  The Large Party Given Last Night at Ashland.”  Lexington Leader, 17 July 1889.

When tennis became the rage, the McDowells installed two of the first tennis courts in Kentucky upon Henry Clay’s “pleasure lawn.” The Lexington Press noted: “There has been much talk of organizing a lawn tennis club in Lexington.  Why not?  It is becoming quite fashionable in several of the neighboring towns.” (26 July 1882.)   Ashland’s courts were said to be “…level as a billiard table, covered with closely cut white clover…” The young McDowells held many tennis parties and tournaments.

Lawn tennis party on back lawn, 1884

When a large party of men from Central and South America–the International American Congress–visited as guests of the United States, they planned to “tread in the footsteps of Henry Clay,” and were received in Lexington as “distinguished visitors.” The local papers emphasized the McDowells’ hospitality always in the light of Henry Clay: “International Excursionists Arrive in Lexington…Entertained in Royal Style By Major H. C. McDowell at the Home of Henry Clay.

Having been through the North visiting utilitarian factories and mills, the men were delighted with the “radical change of programme” that the genteel South provided.  Major McDowell greeted them with “an old time Kentucky welcome” in the “grand old mansion” that had never “presented a cheerier appearance.”

After conversation in the drawing rooms, they were “charmed” by a horse show on the east lawn, and refreshments served in the “presence of beautiful women, sparkling wines, and toothsome dainties,” all of which convinced them they were “at home in Paradise.”  The article reported that Ashland’s female guests “were at their best, and the swarthy-hued Spaniards fell easy victims to their charms.”  Of all the pleasure they enjoyed in Kentucky, their visit to Ashland, the home of Henry Clay, they said, was the highlight.

Overnight houseguests were also treated with gracious hospitality. One impressed visitor, Elbert Hubbard, a well-known author visiting famous people’s homes across America, provided an evocative account of his 1898 arrival at Ashland:

A lane…leads you to the hospitable, wide-open door, where a colored man, whose black face is set in a frame of wool, smiles a welcome.  He relieves you of your baggage and leads the way to your room.  The summer breeze blows lazily in through the open window…On the dresser is a pitcher of freshly clipped roses, the morning dew still upon them, and you only cease to admire as you espy your mail that lies there awaiting your hand.  News from home and loved ones greets you before these new-found friends do!…The hospitality is not gushing or effusive – the place is yours, that’s all, and you lean out of the window and look down at the flowerbeds, and wonder at the silence and the quiet and peace, and feel sorry for the folks who live in Cincinnati and Chicago…Your dreams are broken by a gentle tap at the door and your host has come to call on you…He only wishes to say that your coming is a pleasure to all the family at Ashland, the library is yours as well as the whole place… Hubbard, Elbert.  Little Journeys to the Homes of American Statesmen. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1898.

Tennis party on back lawn, c1890

While most of the McDowells’ entertaining was planned and private, they purposely encouraged public visitation to Ashland.  A notable example is one of the most spectacular events the McDowells hosted: the first of their daughters’ weddings when the eldest, Nannette, married Dr. Thomas S. Bullock in April 1892.  This sumptuous wedding would not be an exclusively private occasion.

The ceremony took place in the mansion drawing room and the reception was set in a temporary banquet hall erected on the back of the house.  Three-hundred guests were personally invited, but the public soon streamed to the Ashland grounds because of a newspaper notice (perhaps initiated by the McDowells):

“Street cars will run all night to Ashland,” the paper announced, because “electric lights have been introduced into the mansion.  The extemporized banqueting hall running the width of the house at the back will be thus illuminated…one uninterrupted length of brilliancy…Electric lights will blossom from pink rosettes draping the ceiling…” (“Witnesses the Beautiful Nuptials at Old Ashland…” Kentucky News Leader, 19 April 1892.)  Late into the night, scores of locals likely stood around the perimeter of the back lawn agape at the spectacular sight.

Toward the end of Major McDowell’s life, a shift in Ashland hospitality occurred.  His ill health caused a curtailment of lavish entertainment.  For daughter Madeline’s wedding to Desha Breckinridge in November 1898—a wedding that ordinarily would have attracted intense regional attention and could have been an even larger event than Nannette’s celebration six years earlier—a small and strictly private celebration was planned with only immediate family members invited.  A year later Major McDowell died and some of the most glittering hospitality that Ashland had ever witnessed would come to an end.

Gathering at front door, c1910s