Structures & Features

For more than forty years Henry Clay lived at Ashland, the place he loved best. An 1845 account describes some of the structures on the estate: “Then there is a stone cheese house and a stone butter-house. Ashland being celebrated for the quantity and quality of butter made there at. His chicken-house, dove-house, stables, barns and sheds are all in perfect repair, spacious, neat, and in order. There is also a large green house filled with choice plants and beautiful flowers.”

The estate has undergone several changes since it was first developed in the early nineteenth century, yet Clay’s imprint remains. Today the wooded estate includes original Henry Clay structures such as the Keepers Cottage, smokehouse, and icehouse/dairy cellar system. The Clay-era privy has been excavated and is represented by an interpretive marker. Likewise, the location of the slave quarters has been discovered and signage near the formal garden describes the ongoing archeological work.  The slave quarters do not survive today, but the indentation of the farm road remains in the landscape reminding us of their presence and contribution to Ashland.

Constructed c.1830, the two brick ice houses on the south side of the house are recessed sixteen feet into the ground and topped with conical roofs. These outbuildings provided the rare luxury of chilled food and drink all year round. In an 1842 letter to his wife, Henry Clay wrote “The winter has been so mild here, that they have no ice. I am afraid that you have not been able to fill our Houses. If there should fall a snow, I would advise the Houses to be filled with that, and have it well rammed in…”

During the winter, a layer of straw or sawdust insulated the base and sides of the icehouses. They were then filled with large cakes of ice and covered with another layer of straw or sawdust. As the ice melted it consolidated into one large mass, helping to preserve it. Melting ice water drained from the ice houses through a lead pipe to a trough in the adjacent dairy cellar where crocks of cream could be chilled. Ice placed in an icehouse in January and February could last until the following October and November.

Henry Clay’s local architect, Thomas Lewinski, finished designs for the Keeper’s (or Gardener’s) Cottage at Ashland in April of 1846. The cottage, intended for Clay’s grounds keeper, was a “small building composed of a main block containing a room on either side of a stair hall on each of two floors, and two rooms in a one-storied wing at the rear.” There is evidence that Clay’s son James may have used the cottage for a temporary residence during the reconstruction of the mansion. After The Henry Clay Memorial Foundation took over the management of Ashland in 1950, the cottage was used as a residence for maintenance and security personnel. This arrangement continued until 1991 when the entire estate was closed for a major restoration and the cottage was completely restored. During that time the one-story wing was converted into public restrooms.

Significantly, the two Federal style mantels and banister within the cottage are believed to have been salvaged from Henry Clay’s original mansion.

The Keeper’s Cottage currently houses the Ashland administrative offices.

Gas Works System

The Smokehouse, c.1817

The central section of the smokehouse was constructed c.1817. The interior rafters are where the prized country hams were hung while a slow fire provided the preserved and flavored them. The openings in the brick would draw the smoke up and out. The adjacent wings, one of which houses a coach given to Henry Clay by the citizens of Newark in 1833, were built later, but prior to 1882.

Henry Clay’s Coach and McDowell Era Carriage House

Attached to the smokehouse there are two wings which were added as storage space before 1882.  Henry Clay’s coach is located inside the eastern wing.  This coach was presented as a gift to Henry Clay from the citizens of Newark, New Jersey in 1833, the stately C-spring coach, weighing approximately 1,500 pounds, remains on exhibit at Ashland in the east wing of the smokehouse. The exterior is painted in a glistening black, and the interior is pine paneled with a rich wine-colored upholstery. The cab, slung on its still-flexible, leather-filled C-springs, can accommodate four passengers. The driver would sit in the front guiding as many as six horses and the footman would ride in the rear of the cab. A baggage compartment, the “boot,” is in the back where a deerskin covered trunk was usually carried. Folding steps extend from the high cab to within a foot of the ground and the covering for the windows could be rolled up or down. The coach has oversized, red-spoked wheels with the original brass hubs. Missing are the two ornate coach lamps which were mounted on the front of the cab.

Passage from The History of Newark, New Jersey, 1878:

“The renowned orator and statesman, Henry Clay, visited Newark on November 20, 1833, by invitation of leading citizens. Because of his powerful and effective championship of the Protective system, Mr. Clay was a great favorite here. A committee waited upon him in New York and escorted him hither. As in the case of Lafayette, the distinguished visitor was met on the Turnpike about two miles from Newark, by a “large cavalcade of citizens, mounted and in carriages.” Clay was addressed with warmest admiration for his character, talents and important public services and was begged to accept as a token of regard for his “highly respected lady,” the splendid Newark-made carriage in which he had ridden from Newark to New York. Mr. Clay was deeply moved at this fresh and most substantial proof of Newark appreciation. In broken accents, his voice tremulous with emotion, he replied:

‘Gentlemen, you overwhelm me. I know not how to refuse, and yet may I be permitted – (the company here interrupted him by dissent), I assure you, gentleman, I know not why it is that one so undeserving as myself should be so loaded with such marks of your esteem and generosity. I know nothing in my humble services deserving a return so splendid and so costly; it comes so unexpected. Gentlemen, my heart is too much overwhelmed, – the citizens of Newark have made upon it such an impression; IT can thank you, but tongue cannot. Be pleased, sir, to accept on behalf of yourself and your fellow townsmen, my warmest thanks for this elegant present to my wife.’”

Clay brought the carriage home to Ashland where his family used it in their travels for many years. The coach remained at Ashland until 1874 when it was displayed at an exposition in Louisville and later purchased by Jacob Edinger, a Louisville carriage maker. It remained in Louisville until 1951 when George Edinger, a descendant of Jacob Edinger, gave the carriage to the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation. The coach was in bad condition, having survived two fires between 1874 and 1951. It was restored by generous donors in 1951 and again in 1991.

Because the McDowell family at Ashland were too far away to take advantage of municipal gas service, they installed their own source of gas for the lighting of their home. In the front lawn of the mansion are the remains of a Springfield Gas Machine which was installed in the late 19th century. The Springfield system was fueled with gasoline emptied into an evaporating tank that was placed underground some distance away to protect the residence in case of explosion. A set of pipes were connected to an air pump, while another set supplied gas to the fixtures in the house. Finally, forced air from the air pump passed over the gasoline in the generator. As the gasoline vaporized in the chambers, the pressurized gas-air mixture was forced into the house through the connecting pipe and then to the fixtures in the house. The system made it possible for gas to be constantly present at the burners in the light fixtures. If the system worked properly, and the burners were closed when lights were not in use, gas would not escape, and a constant pressure of air was maintained in the air pipe, the gas generator, and in the burners in the mansion’s fixtures.

The privy, which was restored in 1991, was probably built by Henry Clay’s son James at the same time as the 1857 reconstructed mansion. Archeological analysis indicated that the oldest deposits dated from approximately 1860. Lead pipes from a cistern leading into the privy confirmed the probable use of one room of the privy as a laundry.

The 7-foot granite Civil War monument memorializes the “Action at Ashland” that took place on the grounds of Henry Clay’s historic estate on October 18, 1862, ten days after the Battle of Perryville.



Historic Walks

There are references to Henry Clay walking the tan-bark paths while meditating the problems of our country and composing his famous speeches. The walk was described as serpentine with many large canopy trees with their delicate foliage interlacing overhead. Smaller flowering trees such as the redbud and dogwood added to the color and beauty along the walk. The combination of Norway Spruce and Sugar Maple along this walk is the most intact group of trees on the grounds dating from Henry Clay’s lifetime.  

Henry Clay spent much time at Ashland contemplating the great problems of the nation which generally derived from slavery. It is important to remember that he did this while walking past and interacting with people he enslaved here at Ashland. While we can’t speculate exactly what he was thinking, we can say that there was a real conflict between the higher goals he wanted for the Union, and the economic advantages he gained from slavery on his farm. 

Hand operated water pump at early 19th century well.  Operated until the mid-20th century.

The sign on the well (provided and maintained by the Lexington Kiwanis) says that the well was dug by John Davis of Philadelphia for Henry Clay in 1812.   The information we have about the well came from a Mrs. Walter F. Davis. She indicated that her Great-great-grandfather John Robert Shaw, originally of England and to Kentucky by way of Pennsylvania, dug a well in 1811 for Henry Clay.  In the Henry Clay Papers is a receipt for account held by Cuthbert Banks for Henry Clay dated Jan. 15, 1810 (Vol. 1 Page 434) that showed Henry Clay was charged for payment to Shaw for stone on June 10, 1809. Thus, it appears certain that Shaw did work for Henry Clay and as his autobiography clearly states in its title that he was a well digger, it is reasonable to conclude that he in fact dug the well behind the house, perhaps in 1809 resulting in the charge to the Banks account. The error on our sign can be explained as a transcription error on the part of the staff who wrote the original text in 1968. They apparently confused the last name of the descendant with that of the well digger (Mrs. Davis’s name was attached to Shaw’s first name).

The rear lawn was known as the social or “pleasure grounds.”  In fact, when Henry Clay rented his home in the 1820s while he was the Secretary of State, he stipulated that animals were not to graze in the “pleasure grounds.”  During Clay’s time it was sometimes used for political rallies and barbeques.  During his granddaughter Anne’s generation, it was used for lawn tennis and parties.  At one time there was even a water feature here.  Great-granddaughter Nannette’s wedding and reception in 1892 was celebrated in a large, temporary banquet hall in this area.  This was also the occasion of electric lights being introduced at Ashland.

One highlight of visiting Ashland in the 1960s and ’70s was Gypsy the calico cat. She came to Ashland as a stray in 1962 when Director Lorraine Seay took her in.  Gypsy lived for fourteen years in the mansion and became quite well-known.  Seay in 1973 told the Louisville Courier-Journal that “people…are disappointed if Gypsy does not meet them at the door…”

Mrs. Seay thought of Gypsy as a person and a Clay relative (“She must be related to Henry Clay because he was such a charmer”).  Seay dubbed her the “Assistant Curator”  and gave her her own special chair by Mrs. Seay’s desk.  Gypsy would go home with her every night.

Every day at Ashland, Gypsy 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.”  After the tour, Gypsy’s picture postcard was the largest selling item in the gift shop.  Gypsy was also the subject of the 1964 book, “The Cat Who Lives at Ashland” by Louisiana Wood Simpson — also a popular item.

But this living novelty — as Mrs. Seay called her, “‘Henry Clay’s cat ‘in her ninth life’”—was undeniably 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 lived a long ninth life and sadly died in 1976.  Her distraught 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 all along.

A black maple stump that long stood on the corner of Richmond and Sycamore Roads inspired Kiptoo Tarus to carve Maji Mazuri, an iconic and welcoming entry to the estate. Tarus is known for large-scale wood sculptures, often carved with a chainsaw, and this contribution to the estate evokes the history of Henry Clay as an entrepreneurial farmer. Clay was the first to form a Thoroughbred syndication in America and his innovation and influence led to Kentucky’s current global standing in the equine industry.

With a career spanning over 45 years on five continents, John Henry, a Lexington native and UK graduate, is one of America’s most influential sculptors. Henry’s work transcends its foundations and speaks to issues like structure, scale, and the dialogue between the artist and the contemporary landscape.  The monumental scale of his work also ties in with our educational outreach. The fine balance Henry achieves in the physical realm of metal is what Clay did in the political realm with people. In many respects, these contemporary expressions evoke the spirit of Clay, who towered over the political landscape of the country for half a century.

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