Clay Family Loses Ashland, University of Kentucky Predecessor Moves In


, , , , , , , , ,

YOU ARE HERE -> 1860s

Although Ashland had survived its first transfer of ownership (from Henry Clay’s widow Lucretia to his son James), remaining in family hands, after the Civil War it would not.  Due to James’s death in 1864, the financial hardship after the war, and complex dealings with settling the Ashland estate, James’s widow Susan was forced to sell Ashland in February of 1866.  The buyer was John Bryan Bowman, founder and regent of Kentucky University.

Bowman possessed a lofty vision for higher education in Kentucky and the new Kentucky University grew quickly in the mid-1860s with the establishment of its (land grant) Agricultural and Mechanical College and a merger with Transylvania University.  Bowman had searched to find a farm in or near Lexington with appropriate buildings to establish a University campus and launch the A & M College.  In February of 1866 Bowman purchased for the Kentucky University/A & M campus both the Ashland estate for $90,000 and the adjoining Woodlands estate (which had belonged to Henry Clay’s daughter and son-in-law, Anne Brown Clay and James Erwin) for $40,000, a total of 433 acres for $130,000.   These two properties joined the existing downtown Transylvania campus.

The Lexington Observer & Reporter applauded the purchase, saying that the University “will do credit to our State, and serve as a monument to the memory of Mr. Clay.”  Beyond the historical significance of Ashland, the rich and handsome land of Henry Clay’s farm was praiseworthy; it was doubted at the time that any other newly-founded agricultural college in the country could boast such a desirable location.  Fourteen years after his death, Henry Clay’s homestead in 1866 continued to sustain the many improvements he had made.  The estate was ideally located a short distance from town on a main thoroughfare and virtually everyone knew how to find Ashland.  It would have been impossible to produce such a fine physical setting for the University campus elsewhere.

In Ashland’s history, the Kentucky University period is an anomaly.  The Clay family was no longer involved in the status and fate of Ashland.  It was now an institutional property, interpreted and preserved by non-family members.  In the absence of the living memorial that his family and artifacts represented, the connection to Henry Clay was now less tangible.

Yet Henry Clay was undeniably important to Kentucky University.  Bowman knew that the historical significance of Ashland lent dignity and gravity to his cause, as he described it in 1866:  “The associations which cluster around it as the homestead of the great Commoner and friend of Agriculture, the inspiration which will be caught by the student…, the advertisement which it will give the Institution…all give it a value above money, and make it eminently fitting that it should be held sacred and dedicated to a great and permanent work such as ours…”

Ashland after the Civil War continued to symbolize the greatness of Henry Clay and his home state, serving as something of a spiritual capital for Kentuckians.  In this period of healing and optimism, a time of rebuilding and investing in young people, Clay was a fitting beacon of conciliation and progress.  The Great Compromiser’s efforts had not prevented Civil War, but his major role in forestalling it cast him as an even larger hero in its aftermath.  His former home was tangible proof to Americans that there had been such a great man who had walked among them and manifested the highest ideals.

People from all around the country continued to journey to Ashland, which remained the public destination it had long been.  University students were known to have given visitors tours of the historic grounds; one visitor described how he was shown around by students who pointed out “as a relic of the hallowed past” the bath-house where “the statesman courted health, and philosophized, like Diogenes, in his tub” (c1870s unidentified newspaper).  Bowman commented on how the lasting memory of Henry Clay at Ashland drew “the thousands of his admirers who visit it from year to year.”  Lexington in 1874 was described as a “quiet town,” which also happened to be “the Mecca of thousands of pilgrims, because it contains the old residence and the grave of Henry Clay…” (Scribner’s Monthly, December 1874).

As much as Henry Clay was revered by the University, its students, and the community, he represented Ashland’s past, while the University pointed to the estate’s future.  Thus the preservation of Ashland was about keeping the essence—the cachet—of the historic estate while making it workable for the nascent University.  Bowman did not contemplate any particular form of historic preservation of the mansion or other Clay-era outbuildings because he believed that the University was to be permanently located at Ashland.  He freely razed, built, and altered buildings for University use.  Bowman and his wife lived in part of the Ashland mansion while part was given over to University administration and to the housing of the University’s Natural History Museum.

Bowman had devised a program for beautification of the campus, and though his plans ultimately never progressed far, substantial changes occurred to the farm, the grounds, and the buildings.  There was at that point no inkling that Ashland would return to the private ownership of a Clay heir nor that it would eventually serve as a public memorial to Henry Clay…


An American History Museum …In Henry Clay’s House


, , , , , , , , , ,

YOU ARE HERE -> up to 1852

Ashland’s history is unique in the world of historic house museums in that there was a very early and unusual practice of displaying artifacts for a public audience …within Ashland, while it was still a private dwelling.  Henry Clay himself initiated a particular manner of presenting the past in his home.

Henry Clay. 1861 engraving of painting by Alonzo Chappel.

One of the primary features of Clay’s hospitality was his exhibition of historic artifacts.  Through several meaningful objects he invoked the memory of George Washington with the goal of inspiring national unity.  Clay had publicly appealed for remembering Washington as the nation’s original unifier—and brought his cause home to Ashland.  The collection he formed at Ashland was based on this foundation of the collective national memory.  For Clay, the objects he collected and displayed were not merely those involving personal and familial memories, but those reflecting American history and identity.

These historic objects on display at Ashland were intended for a national audience.  Because Ashland was a public destination, this collection was viewed by the thousands of Americans who visited Henry Clay over the years.  The flow of visitors gave him an opportunity to expound on his passionate purpose of unifying the country.  The evidence is fragmentary, but from the extant accounts of visits to Ashland it is clear that Clay had many awe-inspiring objects on display which he consistently shared with his guests.  These artifacts seem to have been concentrated in his receiving parlor and the adjoining second parlor.  Guests were treated to Clay’s interpretation –and evidence from his letters and public speeches indicate how movingly he would have spoken of these objects.

Historic artifacts were certainly important to Henry Clay and, increasingly, to nineteenth-century Americans.  Clay became an outspoken advocate for preserving national history in large part because it fit his passionate purpose: preserving the Union.  He recognized that history was an essential ingredient in defining national, group, and personal identity.  But reverencing America’s history was a relatively new concept in the United States.  François Furstenberg notes that “…once there was a time when the Declaration of Independence was not considered sacred and when the founding fathers were viewed simply as men, rather than as gods to be worshipped…” (“Spinning the Revolution.”  New York Times, 4 July 2006).

The United States of Clay’s lifetime was not as enthusiastically patriotic as might be expected.  Michael Kammen explains that while antebellum and Civil War America was seeking unity and increasingly appealing to the memory of the Founding Fathers, its orientation was predominantly one of present-mindedness and future orientation (e.g., Manifest Destiny) (Mystic Chords of Memory. The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).  Yet, he says, at this time “American history, sanctified as memory and moralized in the person of George Washington, appeared to some people to possess adhesive value.”

Henry Clay was foremost among this group.   In January of 1850 Henry Clay presented two petitions to the Senate that argued for the United States government’s purchase of both Mount Vernon and the manuscript copy of Washington’s Farewell Address in order to preserve both for the public and the future.  The original handwritten Address had been put up for sale by the newspaper that had published it and Mount Vernon was just beginning to be publicly recognized as worthy of preservation.  Clay was an early historic preservation advocate, recognizing the value of historic objects and places like Mount Vernon.

Yet most Americans believed that the government bore virtually no responsibility for the nation’s political memory or tradition. Clay’s petitions advocated that both Washington relics be in national, rather than private, possession so that they would be accessible to all Americans.  Clay asked:

Who is there that would not find refreshment and delight behind the Farewell Address of Washington?… Who is there that would not trace the paternal and patriotic advice which was written in his own hand—that hand which, after having grasped the sword that achieved the liberties of our country, traced with the instrument of peace the document which then gave us that advice, so necessary to preserve and transmit to posterity the treasure he had bestowed on us? (From Clay’s Comment to the Senate, 31 March 1848).

Henry Clay was convinced that anything related to Washington promised to unite Americans in a shared heritage, therefore mollifying the nation’s bitter divisions, as he himself had long endeavored to do.  Stephen Oates relates that, at one point in Clay’s pivotal Compromise of 1850 speech, he invoked Washington in his call for unity by mentioning a “‘precious relic’” he possessed, a fragment from Washington’s coffin.  Holding it up in the air, Clay tongue-in-cheek proclaimed that the “‘venerated’ father of the country was warning Congress from Mount Vernon not to destroy his handiwork.”

Henry Clay emphasized the importance of artifacts to the young nation because, he argued, while historic accounts are undeniably important, tangible objects that may be seen and touched speak directly to people’s hearts.  To prove this point, he cited an especially treasured artifact in his collection at Ashland:

…although we may derive great pleasure from tracing the narratives of the glory of our ancestors…yet some physical memorial of them, some tangible, palpable object, always addresses itself to our hearts and to our feelings…Sir, in my own humble parlor at Ashland, I have at this moment a broken goblet which was used by General Washington, during almost the whole of the revolutionary war…there is nothing in that parlor so much revered, or which is an object of greater admiration to the stranger who comes to see me.  This feeling of attachment to these objects, associated with the memory of those we venerate…is not merely a private feeling of attachment; it is a broader, more comprehensive, and national feeling…these are feelings which are worthy of being countenanced and cherished by public authority. (Comment to the Senate, 31 March 1848.)

Clay derived personal delight from his historic artifacts, but he stressed that such objects were intended to reach the nation, to touch the public.  Ashland’s display of artifacts became a means to document and preserve American history.

The Washington goblet. Once owned by George Washington and used by him during the Revolution; later owned by Henry Clay and displayed in the parlor at Ashland.

Memorializing George Washington was the special focus for Clay and his visitors at Ashland. While Clay proudly exhibited such objects as a miniature ‘Liberty Bell’ made from shavings of the original and presented to Clay by the city of Philadelphia, his most treasured artifacts honored and recalled George Washington who perfectly symbolized national union.

The Washington goblet was undoubtedly the most awe-inspiring artifact at Ashland.  This artifact, which Washington’s hand had touched, was a precious memorial of the Founding Father’s achievements.  Henry Clay was described as bringing out this “‘greatest treasure’” for an 1847 visitor.   From the above-mentioned speech it is known that he also owned a fragment of Washington’s coffin.

And another Washington-related highlight for visitors was the frequently mentioned painting of The Washington Family which dominated the parlor.  Nearly every visitor recalled the huge picture and gazed upon it “with renewed respect and well nigh reverence.” [The original painting, now hanging in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Edward Savage’s Washington’s Family, was painted between 1789 and 1796 and became a national icon. It depicts Martha’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington, Martha’s granddaughter Eleanor Parke Custis, Martha, and an enslaved servant, probably William Lee. (84 x 111”)  The Washington Family, Henry Inman’s copy of the original, was commissioned by James C. Johnston in 1844 and presented to Henry Clay for Mrs. Clay.  The portrait remained in the Clay family—but not at Ashland after the Civil War—until 1958 when it was donated to Ashland.]

Henry Inman’s The Washington Family (after Edward Savage, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.) which was featured in Henry Clay’s parlor at Ashland.

Over the years Henry Clay had amassed an impressive assortment of patriotic artifacts, portraits, and gifts of all kinds.  The varied visitors’ accounts taken together provide a fuller glimpse of what was on display.  Upon one thing all agreed: there was an extraordinary number of objects.  The day before Henry Clay’s funeral, visitors to the mansion marveled at the many gifts Clay had received: “countless tokens of affection and regard showered upon him by his loving countrymen.  There were…the antiques, the costly, the curious and the grotesque, enough for an entire community…”  This large collection on display caused some visitors to claim that Ashland seemed like “a veritable museum of gifts.”  And according to one visitor, all of these items were very carefully arranged:  “the thousand other presents that are daily poured into Ashland—each filling its appropriate place as indicated by Mr. Clay.  Nothing was out of place.”

Without detailed descriptions of where and how these items were displayed, it is still possible to conclude two things: many objects were exhibited in the public rooms of the house, and they appear to have been presented in an orderly way.  By Clay’s intentional ordering and exhibition of these objects for the visiting public, he had essentially created a museum-like display at Ashland.  Although many of these items were gifts that Clay had not personally selected, Clay used them to full advantage by assembling them meaningfully in his home.

By the creation of his national history collection, Clay created something of a museum at Ashland.  Henry Clay put the past on display for the public and provided a witness to American history.  Clay gave the public a view of the past, which was key to his work in the present.  His relics and his legacy would form the basis of the museological collection that would be displayed at Ashland to the present day.

Reclaiming The Grandeur of Clay’s Estate


, , , , , , , , , , ,

YOU ARE HERE -> 1880s-1940s

Thirty years after Henry Clay’s death, after the ravages of time, war, and use by the state college had taken their toll on the 324-acre Ashland estate, granddaughter Anne Clay McDowell returned to the family’s hallowed grounds.  She and Major McDowell transformed Ashland, providing Clay’s old estate its new public face.  They believed that Ashland belonged to the public as a living memorial to Henry Clay.

Ashland’s front lawn, 1905

As with the house, the McDowells chose not to fix the grounds and farm in a former moment in time, as a replica of Clay’s.  They instead intended to capture the best of the spirit of the past and customize it for themselves and their times.  They also intended to evoke Clay’s memory at every turn.

They planted and replaced trees, hedges, vines, and flowers – beautifying the entire place.  The lawn was said to have looked like “emerald velvet.”  They made countless improvements to the Ashland grounds, so much that Elbert Hubbard, when visiting in 1898, observed, “…Ashland is probably in better condition today than when Henry Clay worked and planned, and superintended its fair acres.  The place has seen vicissitudes since the body of the man who gave it immortality lay in state here…”

Henry Clay Walk

Yet the McDowells never failed to emphasize to the press and public the connections between Ashland’s physical surroundings and Henry Clay.  Despite the myriad of McDowell improvements, alterations, and differences, the perceived resemblance between the McDowells’ and Henry Clay’s farms invariably became the focus of every published description.  The grounds and the farming operations were consistently described as a continuation of Henry Clay’s Ashland, in effect erasing from public memory the intervening decades.

Only months after the McDowells’ arrival, the estate was said to have been in impressive shape and dramatically evoking Clay’s memory.  A journalist described his 1883 visit to Ashland in the Philadelphia Times:

The capacious grounds are a forest of shade, variegated in type and threaded with walks and drives, and beautiful with shrubs and flowers.  It is a home worthy of Henry Clay, and that exhausts eulogy.  Colonel [sic] McDowell inherited Clay’s love for horses, and his stable would have delighted Clay…All that is about Ashland has the appearance of grandeur.  Its gently undulating fields…the high bred cattle grazing on the bluegrass coated lawns, and the primeval forests which freshen the fascinating landscape and stand as sentinels over the bountiful fields, all tell why the home of Henry Clay was to him the dearest spot of earth.

Dogwood and myrtle. From Country Homes, 1905

Another visitor believed that he was seeing the original Ashland:

…the general appearance of Ashland is unchanged…the walk of Mr. Clay, where he ‘thought up’ some of his most celebrated speeches; the dairy, where Mrs. Clay continued through half a hundred years to keep her milk and butter; the old pigeon house, the cottage, cabins, walks and trees, are still as they were in the days of the orator’s lifetime, and it is hoped will remain unchanged and undisturbed for many generations to come. (Lexington Daily Transcript, 15 May 1887.)

More than James and Susan, the McDowells viewed Ashland’s grounds—especially “Clay’s Walk”—as a precious and perpetual memorial to Henry Clay.  The Henry Clay Walk was a winding path, circumscribing the back lawn, that Clay was said to have frequently strolled while busy contemplating the issues of his time and planning his speeches.  The McDowells restored and publicized it, now the primary highlight of the Ashland grounds.  A 1934 visitor described this hallowed feature: “The whole place is delightfully redolent of the great man who was its founder.  His favorite promenade, a serpentine walk wandering beneath an avenue of pines and cedars, with here and there a redbud or dogwood, has been preserved intact.”

The walking path most of all provided a tangible link to Henry Clay because his feet had actually trod there.  It evoked a vision of lofty inspiration.  A writer for House and Garden magazine described what she saw in 1907: “The pathway of tan-bark, where Mr. Clay’s biographers love to picture him walking with bowed head deeply engrossed in affairs of state, is left intact.”

Unidentified person on Henry Clay Walk

The Walk was also highlighted when a writer for the Atlanta Constitution visited in June 1887.  She was treated to a tour of the house by “…[great-granddaughter] Miss Nannette McDowell, whom we found at home to do the honors of the mansion…‘I’m sorry to say,’ she said, as she showed us through the rooms, ‘that we haven’t many relics of Henry Clay to show you, as my aunt has most of them, but you can see how the house was arranged and,’ pointing out to the side, ‘that was his favorite walk.’”

By the McDowells’ time, Henry and Lucretia Clay’s kitchen and flower gardens had suffered neglect for decades and, in some cases, had been nearly obliterated during the nineteenth century.  But around the turn of the twentieth century, the McDowells sought to restore them.  Nannette told Alice Trabue in 1923 that her mother, Anne, had twenty years earlier revived Henry and Lucretia’s formal garden.  A 1939 visitor reported that “the interest of Mrs. Clay in her flower garden is not forgotten.”  But, although Nannette tried to keep up the garden after her mother, that original garden seems largely to have disappeared by the 1940s.

Major McDowell’s horse farm was frequently compared to Henry Clay’s.  But again, the McDowells had updated and focused the Ashland farm to fit their needs.  Instead of the great variety of blooded livestock of Clay’s original farm, the Major developed a first-class standardbred breeding establishment, concentrating his efforts on the trotting horse.  They renovated the large A & M mechanical building for use as “one of the most complete stables in the nation” with stalls and an indoor track for exercising their horses.  One visitor observed that this was where “100 splendid horses are housed, and tended like 100 royal people…”

Horse stable

The Major’s distinguished standardbred operation was seen as maintaining the legacy of Henry Clay’s estate:

Indeed it is believed that Mr. Clay intended that Ashland, though a great retreat for the man who preferred being right to president, should be a breeding establishment.  In any event from the time it was laid out up to the present, with the exception of the few years when owned by the Kentucky University, it has been used as such…It was here that until his death a year ago, Major H. C. McDowell, grandson-in-law of Mr. Clay, maintained the place’s reputation with a collection of stallions and brood mares that will make live for many years the glory of the nation’s greatest legislator…(R.E. Hughes and C.C. Ousley in  Kentucky the Beautiful, c1900).

Famous standardbred, Dictator, purchased by Major McDowell in 1883

The McDowells adapted the grounds in grand style to create the ‘good life’ at Ashland.  When tennis became the rage, they demonstrated their fashionable taste by installing two of the first tennis courts in Kentucky upon Henry Clay’s “pleasure lawn.” Major McDowell authorized the development of a golf course at Ashland, “on the grounds made sacred to Kentuckians as the home of Henry Clay,” to accommodate the Lexington Golf Club, of which he was a member.  Lorraine Seay later claimed that the open space had once been a bowling green.

While the McDowells played tennis, golfed, bred and raced horses, the public continued to come desiring only to breathe the hallowed air and walk the historic paths of Henry Clay’s estate.

Tennis on Ashland’s back lawn

Messy Generational ‘Layers’ Complicate Museum’s Task


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

YOU ARE HERE -> 1950s

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorraine Seay conducts a tour, Ashland drawing room, 1957

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

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

Ashland facade, featured in a local business Christmas greeting

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

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

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

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

Nannette Bullock room, c1960s

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

The Origins of Kentucky University and The Kentucky A&M …and How They Came to Ashland


, , , , , , , , ,

Founder and Regent of Kentucky University, John Bryan Bowman (1824-1891) held a lofty vision for higher education in Kentucky and was devoted to the ideal of egalitarian education, proclaiming, “I want to build up a People’s Institution, a great university eventually accessible to the poorest boy in all the land…”[1]

John Bryan Bowman

Bowman was a man of energetic determination and a finely-honed gift of persuasion, repeatedly raising enormous sums of money and convincing many of the need for a great Kentucky university.  Bowman’s plans for his university were big and bold, even though Kentucky had so far lagged behind other states in education.  Bowman fully expected his new university to attain a first-class national reputation: “…we would not be deemed arrogant in proposing to build, upon a more modern basis, an Institution equal to any in America…with a high grade of scholarship…”[2]

Kentucky University, a private, sectarian institution situated in Harrodsburg, was officially formed in 1858 and opened in the fall of 1859 (emerging from the defunct Bacon College, 1836-1850).  It survived the war years, but didn’t survive in its location in Harrodsburg when its main building was destroyed by fire in 1864 and Bowman couldn’t procure enough land to expand and develop the University there.

The University’s Board decided that the permanent location of the University would be moved to a community that would subscribe at least $100,000 for it.  Louisville and Covington made proposals.  And Transylvania University in Lexington (established 1798) – which had proposed a merger with Kentucky University four years earlier – renewed its offer.[3]

Transylvania’s original main building, downtown Lexington

Three years prior to this, President Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act, which allotted states public land or equivalent “land scrip” to generate endowment funds for schools, particularly Agricultural and Mechanical colleges, to teach practical skills instead of the customary curricula based on the classics. Kentucky’s participation in the Morrill grant program was tardy due to the war and heavy debt, inducing the State Legislature to consider refusing it altogether.

But Bowman stepped in.  He made his proposal: that Transylvania and Kentucky Universities would merge and take on the A & M College as a part of the new enlarged University, that it would be located in Lexington, and that the University Board would faithfully execute the intent of the Morrill Act.[4]

The bill was passed to create the Kentucky Agricultural and Mechanical College as a part of Kentucky University. [5]  Although organized under the private, sectarian Kentucky University, Kentucky A & M was Kentucky’s land grant college.[6]

The Ashland mansion depicted during Kentucky University’s tenure

Now that Transylvania’s campus was part of the new vision, Bowman searched to find a farm in or near Lexington with appropriate buildings to launch the A & M College.  He considered many “desirable locations which were offered,” but “in harmony with the wishes” of many of the Fayette County donors, he purchased Ashland.[7]  This was a decision widely applauded by citizens who saw it as a noble use of Henry Clay’s historic homestead and a source for continued pride within the community.

A letter written by an unidentified person, prior to Susan Clay’s 1866 sale of Ashland, was sent to Susan’s brother and trustee of her estate, Thomas Jacob.  The writer provides an argument for Kentucky A & M’s establishment at Ashland.  It is quite possible the letter was written by John B. Bowman in an effort to convince Jacob to sell the estate: “…it would place Ashland where it may be supposed the friends of Henry Clay would prefer to see it, in the hands of the state rather than in the possession of some unknown individual.” [8]

The “hands of the state” refers to the Kentucky Agricultural & Mechanical College’s funding specifically as the land-grant college of the Commonwealth, because its umbrella institution, Kentucky University, was a privately funded, denominationally-affiliated establishment.

A Lexington paper fully approved, saying that the University “will do credit to our State, and serve as a monument to the memory of Mr. Clay.”[9]  Beyond the historical significance of Ashland, the rich and handsome land of Henry Clay’s farm was praiseworthy: it was doubted at the time that any other newly-founded agricultural college in the country could boast such a desirable location.

Fourteen years after his death, Henry Clay’s homestead in 1866 continued to sustain the many improvements he made over the course of 47 years.  The maturing landscape with its exceptional variety of fine trees, shrubs, lawns, flowers and gardens was a tremendous gift to the new College.  The estate was ideally located a short distance from town on a main thoroughfare and everyone knew where Ashland was located.  It would have been impossible to reproduce such a fine physical setting.

In February of 1866 Bowman purchased both the Ashland estate for $90,000 and the adjoining Woodlands estate for $40,000[10], for the Kentucky University A & M campus, a total of 433 acres for $130,000.[11]

The Ashland and Woodlands estates that Kentucky University purchased in 1866

[1] John D. Wright Jr.  Transylvania: Tutor to the West.  Lexington, KY: Transylvania University, 1975, 198.

[2] Henry Milton Pyles.  “The Life and Work of John Bryan Bowman.”  (Diss., University of Kentucky, 1944), 25.

[3]Transylvania University endeavored to bring the University to Lexington in 1860, but Bowman was opposed to it at the time because he expected to secure the Harrodsburg Springs property. – Pyles 36-37.

[4] Pyles 52.

[5] Pyles 52.

[6] Carl B. Cone. The University of Kentucky: A Pictorial History.  (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1989), 3.

[7] Pyles 65.

[8] Undated and unsigned letter known to have been sent to Thomas Jacob. From Library of Congress, Collections of the Manuscript Division; a reproduction in the Ashland archives.  It is in currently unrecognizable handwriting, but the point of view of the letter implies someone whose interest lies with the College, if not Bowman, perhaps a member of the University Board of Curators.

[9] Lexington Observer & Reporter, January 17, 1866.

[10] The Woodlands had belonged to Henry Clay’s daughter and son-in-law, Anne Brown Clay and James Erwin.

[11] James F. Hopkins,  The University of Kentucky: Origins and Early Years. Lexington,KY:University of Kentucky Press, 1951 67.  Kiesel puts the amount at $147,000, 106.  Linda Raney Kiesel. “Kentucky’s Land-Grant Legacy: An Analysis of the Administrations of John Bryan Bowman and James Kennedy Patterson, 1865-1890.”  Diss., University of Kentucky, 2003.

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.