Mission Statement of The Henry Clay Memorial Foundation: The Henry Clay Memorial Foundations exists to promote the legacy of Henry Clay, to share his continued relevance locally and nationally as a great statesman and to preserve his beloved “Ashland” as a testament to his life and his love of Kentucky and country.
The Henry Clay Memorial Foundation owns and operates the Ashland Estate today and is dedicated to preserving Henry Clay’s historic estate and important legacy for future generations. Governed by a diverse volunteer board of directors, the Foundation is working to insure Ashland remains a vibrant and progressive National Historic Landmark and community resource.
Establishment of the Foundation
In the years leading up to the formation of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation in 1926, Henry Clay’s great-grandchildren (through his son Henry Clay, Jr.), the McDowell siblings, were seriously dealing with the question of the occupation and maintenance of Ashland—and now considering its inevitable sale. Only weeks before she died in 1920, youngest sister and national suffrage leader, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, wrote a letter to her brother, Judge Henry C. McDowell, Jr. She and her husband, Desha, had been seriously considering moving to and managing Ashland, but after much deliberation, decided against it. Madge expressed their rationale: “We have finally decided that we cannot take Ashland on the terms proposed….We have gone over the place. We should not be willing to live there without the spending of considerable money.” The improvements needed on the estate were cost-prohibitive for them. (Madeline McDowell Breckinridge letter to Henry C. McDowell, Jr. 5 October 1920. Copy of letter in Ashland archives.)
The family had by this time recognized that passing the estate into the private hands of a family member was impossible. Great-granddaughter Nannette McDowell Bullock determined that what remained of Ashland should be protected from encroaching development. A figure who would play a crucial role in Ashland’s fate, noted historian Judge Samuel M. Wilson, accepted the appointment as “chairman of the Lexington region in the coming campaign.” He announced: “‘Every Lexingtonian and every Kentuckian is interested in this movement…and the time is ripe to act.’” (Lexington, KY: unidentified newspaper, 27 February 1926. Henry Clay Family Papers, Special Collections, University of Kentucky.) With Wilson’s help, Nannette conceived of the establishment of Ashland as a historic house museum. They both believed that saving Ashland as a Clay memorial would “be of continuing service to those who revere the memory of the sage of Ashland…” and, Nannette believed, would be the best way to preserve the family legacy. (“Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of Henry Clay’s Birth.” Henry Clay Family Papers, Special Collections, University of Kentucky.)
The idea and motivation to preserve the estate for posterity had for decades germinated in the McDowell family, but now Nannette and Judge Wilson would take concrete steps to make it a reality. In April of 1926, a resolution introduced by Judge Wilson and adopted by the State Bar Association endorsed the movement to acquire Ashland, as a national patriotic shrine and sacred memorial. Many Lexington civic groups stepped forward in the campaign. Judge Wilson argued that the city itself could—and should—purchase Ashland. He urged expedient action. Wilson further recommended that an endowment be established in order to ensure Ashland’s preservation. Nannette agreed and, together in April 1926, they founded the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation. In August 1926, the first recorded meeting of the Board of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation was held in Judge Wilson’s office. At that meeting, the Board discussed raising funds to purchase Ashland by means of a city bond issue. Judge Wilson explained that the Foundation had “proceeded to a point where municipal aid would be necessary to their efforts to preserve the historic house at Ashland.” The Board voted unanimously to present to the Lexington Mayor and Board of Commissioners an ordinance asking that a $200,000 bond issue be submitted to the voters in the November election. (“Henry Clay Memorial Foundation Highlights From History.” c. 1995, Ashland archives.)
Ashland was held in high regard throughout the nation. On par with Mount Vernon, Monticello, The Hermitage, and Montpelier in the eyes of Americans, it was esteemed enough for some to claim: “It is only to Washington and Mt. Vernon that we can look for a parallel to Clay and Ashland.” The Sons of the Revolution, a civic group instrumental in saving Ashland, was inspired by the movements to preserve these homes of great Americans: “It was the sense of the members of the Sons of the Revolution…that in view of the fact that Mt. Vernon, the home of George Washington, and The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s old home; Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, and other homes of great Americans had been preserved as historic shrines, ‘Ashland’ should be preserved in similar fashion to keep alive the memory of one of Kentucky’s greatest sons.” (Unidentified newspaper article, 20 February 1926. Henry Clay Family Papers, Special Collections, University of Kentucky.)
The Foundation’s goal was to “acquire the home and the grounds for the purpose of making it a public park and an historical shrine,” to purchase Ashland by raising $500,000 in public and private subscriptions, and “…to endow, equip and maintain a national memorial at ‘Ashland,’ to perpetuate and honor the character, attainments and services of Henry Clay.” The city council promptly approved the plan of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation to purchase Ashland. (Lexington (Ky.) Herald, 31 July 1926.)
Some suggested that because Clay was a “national figure of great prominence,” that the entire nation should be invited to take part in the preservation of Ashland. National attention resulted through the New York Times which became a sponsor and supporter of Ashland’s preservation. The Louisville Herald-Post discussed the idea of preservation through public ownership:
“The New York Times is sponsor for the movement to turn Henry Clay’s estate of ‘Ashland’ into a museum. The movement deserves national publicity and the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation should be successful in its attempt to perpetuate the memory of ‘the Commoner’ and preserve the estate which he loved. Despite the fact that ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ is familiar to every American, it was not until the Rowan mansion at Bardstown had actually been turned into State property that it began to have a real identity which the Kentuckian could visualize…And in the same way it will only be when the home of Henry Clay is actually made a part of us, by being preserved—and by being thrown open to the public that Henry Clay will again be what he was at an earlier period—very much more than a name. Mount Vernon has done more to produce a real Washington tradition than most of the histories that have been written about the immortal George. Seeing is the beginning not only of believing, but of remembering and understanding. When Ashland is opened to a public which has given something from its pockets to make it part of Kentucky—then we shall have a beginning of appreciation for Henry Clay.”
(“Preserving Ashland.” Editorial. Louisville Herald-Post, c. 1920s. Henry Clay Family Papers, Special Collections, University of Kentucky.)
The idea was that the private sector should not act alone, that the public should have a real stake in Ashland’s survival. Thus in 1926 they founded the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, with its goal to “acquire the home and the grounds for the purpose of making it a public park and an historical shrine.” A $200,000 city bond issue was proposed and was to be submitted to voters in the November election.
Public debate regarding how best to save Ashland heated up in the months before the election. While there was general consensus that Ashland was worth preserving, many felt that the asking price was too expensive for the city. For many months citizens wrote impassioned letters to the local papers advocating both sides of the issue. The decision came down to the public vote, as a headline summarized it, “Voters to Decide Fate of Historic Clay Estate.” The choice before Fayette County citizens: “whether Ashland…shall be sacrificed to the expansion of the city or be preserved as a beautiful city park.” But the citizens of Lexington had not proven adequately enthusiastic about the bond issue because the widespread concern persisted about the high cost in relationship to perceived value. Thus the bond issue was soundly defeated. The local community believed that Ashland was worth saving, but not with their money. (Lexington (Ky.) Herald, 31 July 1926; Louisville Courier Journal Magazine, 9 April 1950; “Henry Clay Memorial Foundation Highlights From History” c. 1995, Ashland archives; Lexington (Ky.) Herald, 4 September 1926; Lexington (Ky.) Herald, 3 November 1926; Lexington (Ky.) Daily Leader, 3 November 1926.)
For many years after the bond issue failure, Ashland’s fate remained uncertain. The Foundation was still at work, but without the city’s help the fund raising process was a much slower one. After all the time that had transpired, it was astonishing to many that the nationally-renowned estate had not already been preserved with public monies. It was only when Nannette McDowell Bullock died in 1948 that the stipulations of her will provided the Foundation the funds to purchase the estate. (Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, c. July 1948.)
Nannette McDowell Bullock died on July 5, 1948 at 88 years of age. A Lexington Herald-Leader article described the stipulations of her will: “Ashland, tree-lined estate where Henry Clay once lived, will become a perpetual memorial to the great statesman of early Kentucky if provisions of the will of Mrs. Nannette McDowell Bullock are carried out.” Nannette’s will expressed her fervent wishes for the estate:
I make this gift to said Memorial Foundation in the hope that…said foundation may be enabled to acquire, preserve and maintain Ashland and the grounds immediately surrounding it as a public park and perpetual memorial; and the gift is made in trust for that purpose. I do this not only because of my own deep interest in saving and preserving Ashland, an object I have long cherished, but as a testimonial of affection and gratitude to my deceased sister, Madge [Madeline]…and as a proof of our mutual and abiding interest in the preservation of this historic home as a public park and memorial, and likewise from a firm conviction, that, if this can be accomplished, it will prove a worthy public benefaction and also in some degree subserve, directly or indirectly, the interests of all my next of kin.” Her gift, she said, was: “…given to the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation in trust for the purpose of and as a means toward purchasing, acquiring, preserving and maintaining Ashland, once the home of my great-grandfather, Honorable Henry Clay, including the residence and about 20 acres of ground surrounding the residence, with the other buildings and structures thereof, as a park, museum and historic shrine, and a perpetual memorial in honor of Mr. Clay.
In December 1949, the Foundation was finally able to purchase Ashland. In July, the Louisville Courier-Journal applauded the impending acquisition: “It is therefore most fitting that The Henry Clay Memorial Foundation has arranged to purchase the house with its beautiful grounds, and open it to the public. What better memorial to a man who so loved his home that, all through the 40 or more years of his service to the government in Washington, he traveled by stage season after season along the National Turnpike between the capital and Ashland rather than leave it entirely?… All Kentucky—Lexington, perhaps, particularly—will take pride in the fact that this rich heritage has come to the Commonwealth.” (9 July 1949.)
So the effort to preserve Ashland had come to fruition. President of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, Raymond McLain, wrote in 1950: “Without the sustained interest and generosity of both Mrs. Bullock and Judge Wilson, it would not have been possible to present this gracious home to the people of the nation as a reminder of the way of life of one of its most interesting, resourceful and valiant citizens.”