On April 15, 1849, Henry Clay wrote, “I am in one respect better off than Moses. He died in sight of, without reaching, the Promised Land. I occupy as good a farm as any that he would have found, if he had reached it; & it has been acquired not by hereditary descent, but by my own labor.” Henry Clay deeply loved Ashland, the farm and home he had built upon it. Ashland provided a place of refuge for him, and sanctuary from a difficult and often disappointing world. It was one of the few places where Clay regularly found happiness. For Henry Clay’s descendants, Ashland was a place of great reverence, inspiration, and attachment. To the regent and students of Kentucky University and the Agricultural and Mechanical College, Ashland was a place of learning, development, and growth. To today’s visitors, Ashland is a place of significant history, pride, and awe.
In 1804, Henry Clay purchased land for a farm for his young family. He had lived in Lexington since 1799, but by 1804 Clay was ready to move from his townhome on Mill Street to a more substantial residence on the outskirts of town. By 1809, the center block of his new home was complete and Clay was living on the farm he named Ashland for the ash trees abundant on the property. By 1811, Clay desired still more room and received plans to add wings to Ashland from Benjamin Latrobe, architect of the U.S. Capitol. Within a year, the home was a full five-part Federal structure including a center block, two hyphens (connecting pieces), and two end blocks. Clay and his wife, Lucretia Hart, lived at the home until his death in 1852.
When Clay died, his will established that Lucretia would have a life estate in the property, but when she left or died, they would sell the property to settle the estate. A short time after Clay’s death, Lucretia moved to her son John’s home (called Ashland on Tates Creek) and another of her sons, James, purchased Ashland.
Upon purchase of Ashland, James Clay found the mansion in a state of serious disrepair. He arrived at the hard conclusion that there was only one thing to be done: raze the house and rebuild. James had the house torn down, taking care to salvage all the materials he could. He then rebuilt the house on the existing foundation, following his father’s original floor plan. James Clay carefully and thoughtfully rebuilt Ashland as a memorial to his father, Henry Clay. He incorporated certain Italianate, Greek Revival, and Victorian details in the rebuilding to bring the house into the more current style, but intentionally recreated his father’s home.
James Clay lived at Ashland until 1862. He fled Lexington because of fear of retribution, because of his strong Confederate leanings. He first traveled to Cuba then on to Montreal, where he remained until his death in 1864, never to return to the memorial he built for his father. In 1866, John Bryan Bowman bought Ashland to become part of the new Kentucky University.
Bowman moved to Ashland in 1866 and initially used the home as a residence. After a time, he determined it had more room than he needed. As a result, he designated selected rooms on the first floor for the university’s use as a museum. Unfortunately, by the late 1870s, Bowman’s relationship with the University’s Board of Directors had deteriorated, and they fired him. The Board of Directors forced Bowman to leave Ashland in 1878. While still owned by Kentucky University, they rented Ashland out until 1882 when Anne Clay McDowell, Henry Clay’s great-granddaughter, and her husband Henry Clay McDowell purchased the property. The McDowells returned Ashland to family ownership for the first time in 16 years.
The McDowells immediately engaged in major renovation and restoration. They kept the house largely the same but made several significant interior alterations to modernize it and bring it into a more popular style. Anne and Henry Clay McDowell lived at Ashland until their deaths. Their oldest child, Nannette, took possession of the home. Nannette McDowell Bullock, her husband Thomas, and her son Henry were the last residents of Ashland. It is Nannette who created the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, preserving Henry Clay’s legacy, the house, and 17 remaining acres for future generations.
On April 12, 1950, an enormous crowd gathered to hear Vice President Alben Barkley dedicate Ashland as a historic house museum dedicated to preserving the legacy of Henry Clay.
Since 1950, Ashland has been open to the public as a historic house museum. Because of its long and varied history, visitors can think of Ashland as an “onion,” peeling layers away to reveal the history of the home and its occupants and, remaining at its core, Henry Clay’s five-part Federal structure and floor plan. To this core, James Clay added Greek Revival, Italianate, and Victorian flourishes, along with Eastlake and Aesthetic details added by Anne Clay McDowell.
The National Parks System made Ashland a National Historic Landmark in 1961, and Ashland remains a site of profound history and importance. It serves as a place of retreat and comfort for many of its neighbors, the people of Lexington, and thousands of visitors who visit the site each year. Most of all, it is a reminder of the “Promised Land” that Henry Clay and his descendants found here.