Magdalen Harvey McDowell (Anne Clay McDowell’s sister-in-law), also called Aunt Mag, lived at Ashland from 1883-1918. Unlike many women of her time, she was completely independent by choice. She never married or had children, nor was she ever employed in domestic service. Her sheer determination and the privilege of her family insured she succeeded in ways very few women of her time did. Aunt Mag’s obituary noted that “in a day woman’s sphere was thought to be confined to the drawing room, the kitchen and the nursery, sought an outlet for her genius in painting, architecture, kindred activities.”
Aunt Mag was educated but not trained in any of the fields in which she worked. She was an artist, painting with incredible skill. Several of her works are in Ashland’s collection and in other museums. Aunt Mag was an architect and designed several buildings, including homes for many family members and a children’s facility for the Lexington tuberculosis hospital. A few of the houses she designed still stand. She was also an inventor, designing a device to heat multiple rooms with a single fireplace. She even received a patent for it.
The most important legacy of Aunt Mag was not her art, architecture, or invention; it was encouraging her three nieces Nannette, Madeline, and Julia McDowell to find their voices. Aunt Mag showed them that they could be their own people and accomplish great things.