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 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. 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 Cottage 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.” 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 preserved and flavored them. The tall, conical shape of the ceiling helped the smoke linger, drawing it up.  The smoke escaped through the openings in the brick. The adjacent wings–one of which houses a coach given to Henry Clay by the citizens of Newark in 1833–were added as storage prior to 1882.

Henry Clay’s Coach and McDowell Era Carriage House

Attached to the smokehouse are two wings 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 weighs approximately 1,500 pounds and can accommodate four passengers. The driver sat in the front guiding as many as six horses. Clay and his family used the coach in their travels for many years. It remained at Ashland until 1874 when it was displayed at an exposition in Louisville and purchased by a Louisville carriage maker. It remained in Louisville until 1951 when a descendant of the carriage maker gave it 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 was built by Henry Clay’s son James at the same time as the 1855-56 reconstructed mansion. Archeological analysis indicated that the oldest deposits dated from approximately 1860. Lead pipes from a cistern leading into the privy suggested the probable use of one room of the privy as a laundry.  The entire building was restored in 1991.

No event in its 200-plus-year history was more traumatic for Ashland than the Civil War. The 7-foot granite monument memorializes the largest Civil War engagement to take place in Lexington, which was fought on the grounds of the estate. On October 8, 1862 Confederate forces were routed at the Battle of Perryville and started moving out of Kentucky. Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan began conducting attacks in an effort to distract Union forces to the rear of the Confederate line.  Morgan chose to attack the Union encampment in the woods to the rear of Ashland. At dawn on October 18, 1862, Morgan attacked the 294 members of the 3rd and 4th Ohio Cavalry at Ashland with some 1800 of his 2nd, 3rd, and 9th Kentucky Cavalrymen and artillery section. The engagement lasted only about 15 minutes due to the overwhelming Confederate force. Four Union troops were killed, 290 (including 24 wounded) were taken prisoner. The number of Confederate casualties is unknown but included John Hunt Morgan’s cousin George Washington “Wash” Morgan who was mortally wounded. Morgan paroled the Union prisoners on the steps of the Ashland mansion later that day.

Historic Walks

Henry Clay was known to have walked the tan-bark paths at Ashland while meditating the issues facing the United States and composing his famous speeches. The walk was described as serpentine lined by 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.  

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 an early well, dug for Henry Clay c1809.  It was in use until the mid-20th century.

When Henry Clay rented out his home in the 1820s while he was Secretary of State and living in Washington, DC, he stipulated that animals were not to graze upon these “pleasure grounds.”  During Clay’s time the lawn was sometimes used for political rallies and barbeques.  During his granddaughter Anne’s generation in the late 19th century, it was used for lawn tennis and parties.  At one time there was said to have been a water feature here.  Great-granddaughter Nannette’s 1892 wedding reception was celebrated in a large, temporary banquet hall in this area, strung with the first electric lights ever used at Ashland.

One highlight of visiting Ashland in the 1960s and 1970s 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 dubbed her the “Assistant Curator.”  Gypsy would go home with her every night. Gypsy followed tours through the house and her 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. Gypsy 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.

A black maple stump that long stood on the corner of Richmond and Sycamore Roads inspired Kiptoo Tarus to carve Maji Mazuri (Swahili for Good Waters), an iconic and welcoming entry to the estate. In 2013, the diseased black maple tree was taken down in an ice storm. The stump remained untouched until Tarus approached Ashland with his idea.  It took Tarus about one month to transform the old stump into a portrait of a horse.  Tarus is known for large-scale wood sculptures, often carved with a chainsaw. 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 106, John Henry, a Lexington native who studied at UK, 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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