The Mansion

The mansion is the centerpiece of the Henry Clay estate as it was during Clay’s lifetime. The present structure was completed by Clay’s son James in 1857 and stands on the site of the original Ashland mansion. The interior was remodeled by Clay’s granddaughter Anne Clay McDowell in the 1880s.

Henry Clay’s House

This is the first page of a contract dated January 5, 1805 with John Fisher to build a structure at Ashland. Courtesy Transylvania University Library.

This is the first page of a contract with John Fisher dated January 22, 1805 to build a structure at Ashland. Courtesy Transylvania University Library.

Early in 1805 Clay contracted with local builder John Fisher for the construction of a mansion at Ashland. When the two-story Federal style house was complete, Clay and his family settled there for the remainder of his life. While the house was of a relatively simple Federal design, it was more spacious and substantial than most Kentucky homes of the period. Architectural historians Patrick Snadon and Michael Fazio state that as “a spreading, multi-part country house,” Ashland was “unusual for [its] time and place.” (Michael W. Fazio and Patrick A. Snadon, The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006, 665.) Most Kentucky homes of that time were plain, dark, and dirty; a house like Clay’s stood in striking contrast: refined, smooth, gracious, and comparatively fashionable. The Ashland mansion, like many large-scale American homes of the time, was designed to accommodate a large family and graciously receive numerous guests. (Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992, xii, 248. Wilhelmine Franke, “Henry Clay’s Interest Centered on Home and Farming.” Louisville Courier-Journal, 12 May 1935.)

This original structure, the central block, was home to Henry, Lucretia, and six of their children for about seven years until Clay began expanding the house to include a library, additional bedchambers, and a domestic service area. The addition of two wings presumably allowed for guest rooms and space for four more children to come. Clay began construction c. 1811-14 of the two single-story, “L”-shaped wings that projected to the front. The wings were designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820), the British-born American architect best known for his work with Thomas Jefferson and his design of the United States Capitol. The timing of Clay’s additions to Ashland, Snadon and Fazio state, “would have corresponded both with Clay’s increased status on the national political scene and with his and Latrobe’s collaboration at the Capitol.” Clay may have met Latrobe as early as 1806-07 during his first Senate term, but their acquaintance was first documented in 1811 when Clay (then Speaker of the House) worked directly with Latrobe to “refit the House of Representatives chamber and improve its acoustics,” and the Latrobes and Clays subsequently became close friends. (Fazio and Snadon, 656, 658.) In The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Fazio and Snadon theorize: “It has long been known that Latrobe designed the wings around 1813-1814, but a thorough review of the documentation suggests that he may have designed the central block also.” (Fazio and Snadon, 655.) The north “Chambers and Nursery” wing, as Fazio and Snadon explain, was built first (late summer into autumn 1813), while the south “Kitchen wing,” was built either before Clay’s trip to Ghent, Belgium or afterward (early 1814 or late 1815). (Fazio and Snadon, 664.)

The Mansion as Memorial

The only existing photogrpah of the mansion before James tore it down is this Daguerreotype now in the collection of the George Eastman House.

The only existing photograph of the mansion before James tore it down is this daguerreotype now in the collection of the George Eastman House.

In the final months before Henry Clay died in June of 1852, his son James B. Clay promised his father that he would assume the responsibility for Ashland, as Clay had desired. James and his family planned to occupy the historic estate, but there was a serious problem: Henry Clay’s nearly fifty-year-old house had been rapidly deteriorating for decades and the structure was by this time dangerously unstable. Clay had made a critical error in the construction of his house: the brick he had purchased were of inferior quality and its porosity resulted in severely cracked supporting walls. The New Madrid earthquakes and aftershocks of 1811 and 1812 also likely rendered the structure dangerously unstable. Even after repeated efforts at repair, the mansion was in a precarious state and it was thought there was little to be done to stabilize the house.

James asked architect Lewinski, to ascertain whether the structure was safe for his family to inhabit. The architect “pronounced it unsafe, and, moreover, that it would tumble down of itself, in a very few years.” James soon made his decision: “Under these circumstances, I determined to rebuild…” The symbolic significance of Henry Clay’s house had grown for his family and for the public after his death, but Clay had unfortunately left behind the seriously dilapidated mansion; his burgeoning legacy was ironically accompanied by a deteriorating house. James wanted to reconcile these opposing realities by building a fresh, improved Ashland in honor of his father while remaining largely faithful to the original. James intended to present Ashland as a lasting public memorial to his father.

Enlisting architect Lewinski, James opted to create an idealized Ashland that the public seemed to want, a mansion that would retain key architectural features of his father’s mansion while adding tasteful embellishments and improvements. James took liberties with the physical and literal realities of his father’s house. With James’s rebuilding, the truth of Ashland’s former condition—the dilapidated structure in perpetual need of repair—would quickly fade from the collective consciousness.

James gave public notice in July of 1854 of his plan to raze the old mansion that summer. By early 1857 the new Ashland was complete. James replicated the original house by building upon the original foundation with the original floor plan and utilizing original materials. It retained the original Federal-style arrangement of space. The original proportions of the house were maintained with the thirteen-and-a half foot ceilings, the extra tall doorways and the graceful elliptical staircase in a central stairwell, crowned by an oval-shaped skylight. The magnificent Latrobe-designed library with the vaulted ceiling and skylights was rebuilt. Robert Spiotta says that James, “working a little like a modern preservationist” salvaged as much of the old house as he could “both in style and materials” for reuse in the new structure.

Yet James adapted the new Ashland’s design to his time and its aesthetic. Lewinski managed a complex architectural feat by integrating the Federal style with the newer Italianate and Greek Revival characteristics, combining the basic design of the old house with the fresh characteristics of an Italian villa. The entire effect of the combination Federal-Italianate architecture was said to have been “odd, but not unpleasant.” While Ashland’s symmetrical Federal floor plan remained at the heart of the structure, and the rooms assigned for uses corresponded to those in Clay’s original house, now the interiors were much more lavishly adorned. James left the literal Ashland behind for one that he envisioned as noble and world-class, a home that paid tribute in the most distinguished way possible. Ashland was effectively transformed as a public monument through its style. James spared no expense to create a modern, luxuriously furnished mansion. While Henry Clay, too, had furnished his Ashland with items from France and England as well as fine American-made goods, James’s taste for the most opulent foreign furnishings reveals that the new Ashland was a very different place. Henry Clay’s straightforward Federal sensibility gave way to his son’s rich Victorian aesthetic, the proof of impeccable taste in the 1850s. The house now served as a Henry Clay memorial museum and the beautiful interiors were specifically meant as a backdrop for the display and interpretation of Clay artifacts.

Remodeling to Invoke the Spirit of Henry Clay

This photo of the McDowells' drawing room shows the Victorian tendnecy to clutter and eclectic furnishings.

This photo of the McDowells’ late-Victorian drawing room shows the tendency toward eclectic furnishings.

The granddaughter, Anne Clay McDowell and her family resided at Ashland by the beginning of 1883 and they provided Ashland its new public face. They, like the press and the public at this time, in many ways believed the 1880s Ashland was still Henry Clay’s home. Yet there was no question that it also served as the McDowell family home as they modernized and remodeled to suit themselves. Like James before them, the McDowells considered it crucial to bring the mansion up-to-date in order to make it suitable for entertaining, comfortable for their family—and worthy of Clay’s memory and image in the world. The McDowells without question sought to memorialize Clay at Ashland, and this, to them, meant modernization. They boldly made decisions that affected the permanent structure of the mansion and their sweeping 1880s remodeling was greeted with nothing but praise. As historic interior design specialist Gail Caskey Winkler observed, the “son built,” but the “granddaughter modernized.” The McDowells would leave a profound and permanent mark on Ashland as they were the ultimate definers of the mansion’s overall structure and appearance. They had numerous motivations for the changes they made.

The well-connected McDowells, now as stewards of Ashland, were preparing for frequent and often large-scale hospitality. The house had to do what it had done for Henry Clay and James and Susan before them: provide a gracious destination for their many guests—but now on a grander scale. They were also preparing for the presence of their children and grandchildren and all of the accompanying needs and desires of young people. Additionally, they were preparing for life at Ashland with paid servants as opposed to slaves. It is very possible that the McDowells were the ones to raze the extant domestic slaves’ quarters, not only to modernize their property, but to erase from view the uncomfortable reality of slavery at Clay’s Ashland. This would be the first time in Ashland’s history that free and paid staff would provide the cleaning, cooking, childcare, and other domestic service—and this would require changes in household arrangement.

The McDowells were among the wealthier families in Kentucky and desired to live in a gracious and cultivated style. They envisioned Ashland as a modern place of beauty, both of form and function. Their sophisticated ideas of beauty, function, and appropriateness would dictate their choices. Many of those ideas manifested in such impermanent things as furnishings and wall treatments, but also in dramatic and more permanent structural changes such as the removal of walls, replacement and addition of staircases, and the construction of a conservatory onto the back of the mansion. The McDowells were clearly unafraid to modify Ashland, even to the point of slightly altering Clay’s Federal floor plan that James had been so careful to preserve. They were interested in modernizing through the creation of a sense of spaciousness. ‘Open planning’ was a significant architectural innovation during the 1870s and 1880s and the McDowells utilized this concept to enhance Ashland’s interior spaces. They had not wanted to drastically change Ashland’s floor plan, but they maximized the existing spaces for a modern effect. The entrance hall, drawing room, and dining room were united—all doors open wide—as one expansive public space for entertaining. Previously less-public rooms, such as those in the library wing, were now open wide to visitors. Replacing the central staircase dramatically opened up the entrance area of the house as well. Smaller, less invasive changes were made, too, such as the addition of a full-length mirror in the entrance hall that reflected light and gave the illusion of a larger space.

The McDowells made Ashland as elegant as possible, transforming the mansion into a fin de siècle showcase of sophistication as they embraced a mix of decorative styles: the late-Victorian and Eastlake styles, but particularly the Aesthetic Style that was popular at the end of the nineteenth century. Oriental carpets, “Japanesque” patterned anaglypta, potted palms, art pottery, portières, richly colored wall finishes and thinly slatted hardwood floors comprised this look—and found their places at Ashland.

A further catalyst for change in the 1880s was the availability of new technology. While James had added such upgrades as coal-burning fireplaces and probably an updated indoor kitchen, the McDowells would dramatically usher Ashland into the twentieth century. Many modern upgrades were regarded as necessary in late nineteenth-century upper-class homes. Privies, outdoor kitchens, and oil lamp lighting may have been perfectly respectable in Henry Clay’s period, but would be looked upon as woefully primitive by the end of the century. The McDowells possessed the means to modernize the house and to do it with style. Modern innovations allowed them to make Ashland a much more habitable place than it had ever been with the addition of indoor plumbing, central heating, gas (and later, electric) lighting, and telephone service. Because the estate was too distantly located for municipal gas service, the McDowells introduced gas lighting to Ashland with the innovative Springfield “gas works” Machine system buried in the front yard which supplied vaporized gas to all the light fixtures in the home. They replaced virtually all of the light fixtures in the house with elegant gas lamps and chandeliers of European stained and beveled glass, brass and silver plate, and elaborate globes. From the dramatic vaulted ceiling in the library, they installed an exotic serpent-shaped gasolier fixture.

The conservatory was installed by the McDowells in 1883. The sleeping porch above was added much later and deemed too hazardous for use by Madeline McDowell Breckinridge.

The conservatory was installed by the McDowells in 1883. The sleeping porch above was added much later and deemed too hazardous for use by Madeline McDowell Breckinridge.

The new McDowell Ashland, while not as sumptuously Victorian as James and Susan’s, was, all the same, much more dazzling than Henry Clay’s original. An 1883 guest described the net effect of their changes: “Ashland is a beautifully planned house for entertaining—five rooms ‘en suite.’ Friday night it presented a most magnificent appearance. The whole house thrown open, brilliantly lighted, elegantly furnished, and filled with rare and beautiful gems, and decorated with the greatest profusion of exquisite flowers and blooming plants. The drawing room opens into a conservatory filled with palms and rare plants of every variety, and lighted with gas lights…” (Lexington (Ky.) Weekly Press, 16 May 1883.)

The Mansion as Museum

One of the features of the museum in its early years was the Museum Room where small artifacts and objects difficult to display int eh rest house could be exhibited.

One of the features of the museum in its early years was the Museum Room where small artifacts and objects, which were difficult to display in the rest of the house, could be exhibited.

When Ashland officially opened to the public in 1950 as a house museum, interpreting Ashland’s creator and his intentions was complicated by the fact that five generations of his family and much of the remaining evidence of those generations remained at Ashland. Ashland reflects no particular era fully, not even the McDowell era that it visually most closely matches. While Henry Clay is the focus at Ashland, restoring the house completely to his time has never been feasible because of the generational ‘layers’ of James’s rebuilding and the McDowells’ remodeling. Despite the descendants’ many changes, Ashland was nevertheless interpreted strictly as Henry Clay’s house from 1950’s opening day. Because of the messy generational reality, the temptation for the institutional museum has long been to simplify Ashland’s story and to interpret it very narrowly.

In the 1991-92 restoration of Ashland, the decision was made to fully and purely interpret—not Henry Clay’s era—but the McDowell era. The Foundation had for decades opted to emphasize Henry Clay even though the house and much of what filled it were not his. It was the consensus that restoring to the first half of the nineteenth century would be impractical, too expensive, with too little extant visual evidence to facilitate the process. The rebuilt house and remodeled interior were simply too far removed from Clay’s era. The Foundation looked to professionals to guide them in this decision. The architects for Ashland’s restoration made their recommendation: because of the substantial changes that the McDowells had made in the 1880s, they said, “it would be most appropriate to interpret both the interior and the exterior…to the mid-1880s period.” The rediscovery of the McDowells’ photo albums, as director Colleen Holwerk explained, also led to the new approach. The restoration and new interpretation were artifact-driven when the Foundation realized they “owned nearly everything in those pictures” and the objects and pictures became the visual basis for how the house was reinterpreted. As Holwerk claimed, it was just as “Mrs. McDowell” had it. “It’s very charming in a way,” she said, “It’s four generations of Clays’ life at Ashland…” A great deal of study and consultation with experts resulted in a close imitation of the McDowell-era Ashland. The Foundation was serious about painstakingly copying the McDowells’ 1880s interiors as seen in photographs.

The 1991 restoration was the first complete restoration of the house since the McDowell era.

The 1991 restoration was the first full restoration of the house since the McDowell era.

The early-1990s restoration was a major turning point in Ashland’s history. Not only was the house repaired and renovated, but its interpretation was thoroughly examined, questioned, and redone. The restoration project became an opportunity to consider the interpretation “from scratch,” Ashland Curator Eric Brooks explains. For the first time people asked how the structure and furnishings could work for the interpretation of the house, instead of treating all Ashland’s artifacts as permanently located and bending the interpretation around them. Interpretive choices could be made tabula rasa. Now it became possible to actively plan the interpretation, room by room, era by era, and to place artifacts and furnishings in the most appropriate places. Suddenly there was something of a master plan to interpret Ashland along with solid research to back it up.

The McDowell family emphasis was considered fresh and exciting. A 1992 Lexington Herald-Leader feature declared: “Ashland isn’t just Henry Clay’s home place anymore. Warmer, more inviting…It’s a place where families laughed and cried, lived and died…” (Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, 28 October 1992) Historian and Board member Thomas D. Clark said of the restoration, “‘I think they’ve done a lot to enliven it…The place has been enlivened so much that Henry Clay would not recognize it, but his granddaughter would feel right at home…’” (Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, 5 September 1992.)

The post-restoration tours concentrated largely on the decorative arts and unique features of the house. A few designated spots on the tour were dedicated to Clay’s life and career, but the McDowells were emphasized because the rooms reflected their time. The interpretation was driven by what was in front of everyone’s eyes: rooms furnished to the 1880s. Henry Clay’s full significance was obscured in the enthusiasm for the McDowell family interiors and furnishings. When the National Trust conducted a facilities survey at Ashland in 2000, their strongest recommendation was to return to Henry Clay: “Henry Clay is Ashland’s raison d’être” they insisted, “both historically and at present. He is the site’s founder and primary draw.” But they acknowledged that Ashland’s interpretation presented a distinct challenge and pinpointed the central challenge of Ashland’s interpretation: Henry Clay “out of context.” Indeed Clay was, since his death and the razing of his original house, and always will be, “out of context.” But the Trust advised that Ashland nevertheless concentrate on Clay because he could “still be appreciated and understood out of context, but to do so requires more attention on the man and his work and less on the trappings of the given context: the main house, the McDowells, and the decorative arts…The McDowells will get their due, but not until Clay gets his and the visitor is clear on the distinction between the two eras.” (“National Trust for Historic Preservation Recommendations to the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation for a Space Allocation and Use Study for Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, July 2000.” Ashland Archives.)

The vision for Ashland’s interpretation has expanded. McDowell interiors remain, but the attention to them has lessened. The acquisition of a substantial number of Henry Clay artifacts since the early 1990s has also measurably enabled a Clay-centered interpretation. McDowell interiors provide a rich background for the many Henry Clay artifacts now on display in most rooms at Ashland. The museum now attempts to contextualize the various generations in relationship to Ashland’s creator.

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