An Early Christmas at Ashland


, , , , , ,


While Henry Clay had not been home for many Christmases at Ashland due to Congress being in session, once James and Susan Clay come to Ashland in the 1850s, we begin to get details of how Christmas was celebrated at the estate.

James had rebuilt the Ashland mansion between 1855 and 1856 and letters reveal that the family was indeed moved in by Christmas of 1856.  Susan and her siblings corresponded about that Christmas Day.

In their letters, they relayed that the parlor contained the family piano and upon it Christmas presents were arranged.  Down the stairs came “six or seven little urchins,” wild with excitement.  Those ‘urchins’ were twelve-year-old Lucy, ten-year-old Jimmy, eight-year old John, seven-year-old Harry, five-year-old TeeTee, three-year-old Tommy, and one-year-old Sukie.  Susan was pregnant with their eighth child.

James, Susan, and family on Ashland’s front porch

The children tried to figure out which presents belonged to them, but they had to have breakfast before digging into the gifts.  Father James added to the excitement by handing out gold coins to the children for proficiency in their studies: two gold dollars to Lucy, John, and Harry, and one to Jimmy.

As Susan wrote to her sister describing this first Christmas at Ashland, Santa Claus appeared,

…under a beautiful Christmas tree covered with light, candies, oranges, apples, grapes, misseltoe [sic], and holly.  All of us went forward and all bowed with much politeness to old Santa Clause [sic], who returned our salutation and handed me a folded sheet of paper.  We then bowed ourselves out of the room and shut the door so as to give the old fellow and opportunity to make his exit up the chimney and then all crowded round me to see what it was that he had given to me.  I found that it was  a letter which Santa Clause had written to the children and I read it aloud to them…

James and Susan’s parlor doors, closed (almost always open at Ashland today)

After I got through with the letter the parlor door was again opened and there was a general rush to the tree and then such a scene, such noise, and such confusion and none would rest until the presents were distributed and then after they had time to admire their own and every body else’s they returned to the dining room and passed the evening dancing and playing and every now and then rushing into the parlor to admire the tree and presents and where the boys took the liberty of kissing the girls under the miseltoe [sic].

I love to see children happy particularly at Christmas and I enter very cordially into their happiness.  I wish particularly that my own children when they are grown and perhaps scattered over the face of the earth, may look back with pleasure to the days when they were all united under their Father’s roof and felt that they had much happiness there.

– Susan Clay to her sister Lucy Jacob, 17 January 1857.  From The Family Legacy of Henry Clay: In the Shadow of a Kentucky Patriarch, by Dr. Lindsey Apple

James, Susan and their family enjoyed too short a time at Ashland – and a tenure that increased in sorrow.  Last baby, Nathaniel, had died in May of 1862.  And Christmas 1862 was the last that daughters Lucy and Sukie would celebrate; they both would die of diphtheria in 1863.   Christmas 1862 was also the last that Susan and the remaining children would ever spend at Ashland because Susan began her journey late in 1863 to reunite with her husband in Canada.  James was dying of tuberculosis and she would be with him at his death bed in January of 1864.

Christmas at Ashland drawing by 7-year-old Sukie, 1862

Many thanks to Ashland docent Charlie Muntz for his excellent research.  See:  The Filson Magazine (Fall 2005). “Browsing In Our Archives, Christmas at Ashland,” by James J. Holmberg.

Henry Clay Baptized at Ashland


, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Henry Clay had never been a practicing religious man, but, as the Heidlers put it in Henry Clay, The Essential American, he “had never been irreligious.” Even though his father had been a preacher and his wife Lucretia a devout lifelong Episcopalian, Clay had never joined a church.  But with all the political disappointments and so many personal tragedies (especially the deaths of many of his children) Clay, at the age of 70, decided to embrace his wife’s faith as his own.

Entrance into the church required baptism and, normally, Lexington’s Christ Church downtown—that Clay had helped establish years before—would have been the site of the sacrament.  But the church was undergoing renovation, so it was decided to celebrate the solemnity in Ashland’s parlor.  Clay was to be baptized on June 22, 1847, along with his daughter-in-law Marie Mentelle Clay and her children, his grandchildren.

Intriguingly, Clay just happened to possess the perfect substitute for the church’s baptismal font: a huge cut glass bowl, or vase.   According to American glass expert Ian Simmonds, this was a gift to Henry Clay in 1844 from M. & R. H. Sweeney, glass manufacturers of Wheeling, Virginia, and great Whig party supporters.  It was a highly public presentation, intended to benefit both the Sweeneys’ business and Clay’s political standing.  Letters were exchanged between the parties that were reprinted in newspapers around the country.

One of the three “float bowls” Sweeney Glass created.

The Sweeneys made three of these showy creations, called “float bowls,” for exhibition purposes in the 1840s.  The one given to Clay was intended to garner attention, but its placement at Ashland led Clay to lament to the Sweeneys his “regret that the Vase has not some more conspicuous place than in my humble dwelling, where it might be expected and would command the admiration of a greater number than can view it here. But we shall exhibit it to our visitors as a precious testimony of your friendly regard…”  (December 14, 1844).

Clay was likely exaggerating because Ashland was no modest house and he received a heavy flow of guests whenever he was home.  The amazing piece of glass would have been seen and admired by many.  [The vase left Ashland at some point and was said to have been destroyed by fire in the early 20th century.]

But on that blessed June day in 1847, the glass float bowl was employed to perform the sacrament, the Reverend Berkeley’s application of the holy water onto Henry Clay’s forehead, welcoming him into the church.

For more about Henry Clay’s life, see the definitive biography by David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler: Henry Clay: The Essential American  (Random House, 2010).

For more about the gifts of glass Clay received, including the float bowl and the decanters on display at Ashland, see Ian Simmonds’ “Henry Clay’s Sherry Decanters”

Straddling the Victorian and the Avant-garde


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

YOU ARE HERE -> 1880s-1890s

The McDowells performed a dramatic “inside job” at Ashland when they arrived in the early 1880s.  Keeping the exterior and floorplan of the mansion largely intact, they set about updating Ashland’s interior design.

The McDowells were the first occupants to photograph the interiors of the mansion.  The modern idea of the “open plan” flow of interior space was enhanced by the light-increasing addition of a large mirror in the Entrance Hall.  Here, Major McDowell is seated before the mirror, while the fellow to the right is actually a reflected image.  This mirror was even mentioned in the local press: visitors to Ashland were warned to watch out for this faux doorway, which proved a tricky optical illusion (!).

Entrance Hall: Major McDowell

The McDowells straddled the Victorian era and the avant garde, which included the Aesthetic Movement.  And the Entrance Hall – which would have been the room seen by all visitors and the room which created the strongest first impression – appears to have received the greatest ‘modern’ makeover.

The anaglypta wallcovering in this photograph is a good example of this transition.  The concept of materials made to look like other materials – here, pressed paper board made to look like fine carving – was a very Victorian idea.  But the Japanese-inspired design is straight from the Aesthetic Movement’s emphasis on the exotic.  The deep, rich “Pompeian Red” paint finish was in vogue throughout both decorative periods.

Entrance Hall: anaglypta in Japanesque design

The McDowells kept some facets of James and Susan’s interiors and replaced others.  Here we see the 1850s plasterwork ceiling that they retained, surrounding their brand new Eastlake staircase and open hall.  At the landing, the doorway leading to the back ‘service’ staircase, topped with a portière – characteristic of the Aesthetic style.  The Movement’s penchant for potted plants and art pottery are in evidence here, too.

Entrance Hall

The McDowells replaced the 1850s flooring in the Entrance Hall with thinly-slatted hardwood flooring, another trademark of the Aesthetic Movement.  The colors of the floor are not due to different stains, but to carefully chosen and cut oak.  (Ashland’s Entrance Hall receives a lot of traffic, as is obvious in this photograph.)

Entrance Hall: oak parquet flooring

The McDowells again retained the plasterwork at the ceiling in the Drawing Room, as well as the marble mantlepiece and woodwork.  In this photograph, too, we can detect that their taste still ran toward a more cluttered, richly-decorated look (wall finish beneath plaster cornices, number of chairs, objects, and plants), yet the room is lighter and airier than James and Susan’s would have been.  Natural light floods in the windows and the furniture design is light and portable.

Drawing Room

For Victorians, the Dining Room sideboard was often a focal point, often a dramatic and ‘busy’ one.  For the McDowells, it was no different.  Yet, their wallpaper spoke to their new aestethic by evoking the designs of William Morris.

Dining Room: sideboard

The McDowell Dining Room saw one significant adaptation after the original remodeling of 1882-83 (above photograph): they replaced the original wainscoting with lincrusta: a canvas-backed, linseed oil and wood particle material meant to resemble hand carved wood.  Again, the Victorian penchant for faux finishes still found a home at Ashland, but the lincrusta design itself is fresh and modern.

Dining Room: lincrusta

The McDowell Study contained more of the faux-finish wainscoting.

The Study: Major McDowell

Anaglypta (same pressed paper material as Entrance Hall) in the Study is finished to look like leather on the walls.

The Study: anaglypta

The McDowell Library retained James and Susan’s Victorian-style wood paneling and mantlepiece and continued to exhibit the Victorian style in the more crowded arrangement of furniture, proliferation of textiles, patterns and textures, and the number of objects on display.   While this room was also used for entertaining and would be seen much like the (more obviously modern) Entrance Hall, it appears that the Library’s multipurpose needs were best met for the McDowells in a more Victorian manner.


Paying Tribute to Henry Clay at Ashland


, , , , , , , , , , ,

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


, , , , , ,

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


, , , , , , , , , ,

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…”


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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


, , , , ,

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


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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


, , , , , ,

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.