What We Lost when Ashland was Saved


By Cameron Sumner Walpole

After a monumental career as a senator, Secretary of State, and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser,” died in 1852 at the age of 75 in Washington, D.C. His family quickly got to work ensuring the survival of Clay’s beloved Ashland estate. Clay’s son James Brown Clay purchased the home, razed the structure and rebuilt the home on its original foundation. As the original mansion was in such poor structural condition, this drastic step was rather forward-thinking.

In 1948, Nannette McDowell Bullock, the great-granddaughter of Henry Clay, died at the age of 88 and secured her place among so many American women who helped preserve the homes of our nation’s first leaders. With help from Ashland preservation proponent Judge Samuel M. Wilson, Nannette’s will funded the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, established in 1926 to ensure that the public would have access to Clay’s home and his legacy indefinitely — “I make this gift to said Memorial Foundation in the hope that…said foundation may be enabled to acquire, preserve and maintain Ashland and the grounds immediately surrounding it as a public park and perpetual memorial; and the gift is made in trust for that purpose…”

Nannette McDowell Bullock reading
Nannette McDowell Bullock

Nearly 100 years earlier in 1853, Ann Pamela Cunningham’s efforts to save George Washington’s Mount Vernon would serve as a framework for the early historic preservation movement. Cunningham’s mother had seen the mansion in a state of bad decline and asked her daughter that if the men of this country were not going to save these places, shouldn’t the women? This galvanized Cunningham. She enlisted the help of southern women and formed the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which raised $200,000 – enough to purchase the mansion and 200 acres. The association’s subsequent fundraising allowed for the conservation work the estate so desperately needed.

Finding their Calling

Inspired by the work of the MVLA, other women’s associations like the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Colonial Dames of America, and the Ladies Hermitage Association, formed around the country, establishing historic house museums at an incredible rate. Members of these associations had a few things in common – they were white; they were wealthy; they were women. Nineteenth century American men and women operated in separate spheres. Bound by what Barbara Welter called the “Cult of True Womanhood” or the cult of domesticity, women were seen as morally superior to men. They were to reflect the virtues of piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. And while they were unable to participate in the public sphere, women found agency in social reform that affected the family – causes like temperance and poverty. The work of historic preservation provided an outlet for women to contribute outside of the home while maintaining the established social order.

Nannette McDowell Bullock exemplified the qualities of early 20th century women of her class. Their contributions might have been limited to matters of the family, but they were beginning to push the boundaries of their influence. While Nannette established HCMF as a shrine honoring her great-grandfather and her sister, suffragist Madeline (Madge) McDowell Breckinridge, she did it during a time when women’s stories were rarely preserved in this way. Perhaps she hoped, though it is unlikely that she assumed, that Madge’s efforts would be celebrated at Ashland. Today, visitors engage with both Nannette and Madge’s inspiring stories, and celebrate their accomplishments on the “Signature Henry Clay” tour and think critically about the politics of the suffrage movement on the “Women’s Voices” tour. While she was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Madge left Black women out of her call for women’s suffrage. In the same way the women’s suffrage movement left little or no room for Black women, early historic preservation prioritized white spaces and narratives – resulting in national a preservation landscape where organizations like Ashland are challenged to interpret the totality of a historic site despite the erasure of spaces like slave quarters.

Saving Ashland, Losing History

About 17 of the original 600 acres remain at Ashland today, nestled within the residential neighborhood of Ashland Park which was created when the remaining great-grandchildren of Henry Clay enlisted the help of the Olmsted Brothers firm to sub-divide the farm to meet the housing demands of a growing city. Fortunately, they had the foresight to retain the acreage immediately around the mansion. Today, visitors can explore the rebuilt mansion, keeper’s cottage, privy, ice house, dairy cellar, and smokehouse. They can stroll along Clay’s famed walks and enjoy a picnic on the “pleasure grounds,” an area behind the mansion where parties and tennis matches were once held. But tourists would have to look hard for any impression on the physical landscape left by those enslaved here. Though enslaved people likely built and certainly labored in the remaining structures, the vernacular buildings like barns, stables, and fowl coops no longer stand. New research by Ashland curator Eric Brooks indicates that the multi-family structures where people enslaved at Ashland lived were removed sometime between 1938 and 1951 and have been largely forgotten.

The old farm road indentation which runs parallel to a formal garden hedge
Grove by Garden and Old Farm Road by Bob Wilcutt

It is likely that two sets of brick structures once housed people enslaved on the property – one set for those enslaved to work on the farm and another, close to the mansion near the kitchen garden, for those enslaved to perform domestic labor in the mansion and domestic area of the estate. The earliest reference to the slave quarters is found in a letter to John Mason from Henry Clay dated March 9th, 1826 in which he discusses rental of the Ashland property. He says, “I reserve the negro houses near the dwelling house and also the house in the garden, or such of them as are wanted for my own negroes.” Archaeological excavation along the old farm road revealed pit cellars and evidence of whitewashed brick. Beyond that, however, the archaeological evidence is so fragmentary it reveals nothing about size of the quarters, their arrangement, or even the exact number of slave quarters present during Henry Clay’s time.

The Clay great-grandchildren likely razed buildings like the slave quarters because they had fallen out of use, were in need of repair, and were standing on land that could be sold. These structures were torn down, the land was developed, and beautiful homes were built over top. Trees were planted. Roads were paved. Those structures and the people who inhabited them have largely been forgotten. While the intentions of the great-grandchildren were likely not malicious, their actions proved insidious. Their disregard of slave quarters and vernacular buildings for preservation was not uncommon. This process of historical erasure is systematic – affecting not only the historical landscape, but also the sanitizing of the written historical record.

With so much erasure and obfuscation of the built environment and written record of slavery, how do we rebuild, reconstruct, and remember? In 2020, “Traces: Slavery at Ashland,” a guided tour experience, was launched. Docents encourage visitors to walk in the footsteps of those enslaved at Ashland. Along the “farm road,” a well-tread path behind which a row of slave quarters once stood can still be seen. On the tour, visitors mentally reconstruct the built environment and do the work of remembering. This step is the first of many to more accurately and honestly interpret this history.

From Veneration to Education

Today, women in historic preservation ensure more inclusive and accurate preservation practices. During Nannette McDowell Bullock’s era, homes like Ashland were preserved as “shrines,” places to venerate individuals. Historic houses today, however, aim to educate and help the public find relevance in the past. Ashland staff continue to research the lives of all who lived and worked on the estate – to reinterpret the spaces saved by Nannette, but also to reconstruct the narratives that were erased.


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