The legacy of Henry Clay
One of America’s most famous statesmen left behind an estate that subsequent generations changed into an opulent Victorian mansion
By Robyn Davis Sekula
Victorian Homes | December 2006
In 1806, Henry and Lucretia Clay were in search of a proper place for an estate for ample room to rear their four children and to raise crops and cattle. They found what they were looking for outside of Lexington, Ky., where they built Ashland. The house was surrounded by 672 acres of farmland, allowing the Clays generous room to grow hemp, tobacco and corn on the property, and also raised livestock.
Clay, who was an attorney by trade, became a well-known and respected statesman, and Kentucky’s first significant national figure. He served as a congressman, senator, Speaker of the House, Secretary of State and three-time presidential candidate. He earned a reputation as a mediator, and was called “The Great Compromiser,” whose most notable compromise was the Compromise of 1850. Because of his stature, the Clays entertained other notable national figures at Ashland, including James Monroe, Daniel Webster and the Marquis de Lafayette.
Yet, even with that rich legacy, the home that visitors see in Lexington is not one that Clay would recognize. After Clay’s death in 1852, Clay’s son, James, demolished his father’s federal-style home due to structural problems and built a new mansion on that same footprint, according to Ann Hagan-Michel, executive director of Ashland. James Clay’s mansion, measuring some 8,184 square feet, was completed in 1856. The house reflects the balance and scale of Clay’s original home, but has Italianate features throughout, including arched windows and Italian marble mantles that tell of the home’s extreme makeover.
The home got another, later infusion of Victoriana in 1882 when Anne Clay McDowell, Henry Clay’s granddaughter, remodeled it, adding some of its later Victorian features, including a more elaborate staircase, a servant’s stairway into the servant’s portion of the house and created a pantry area for storage of china and kitchen goods. She also installed new gas lighting, powered by a gas works created on the property. New wallpaper, both lincrusta and anaglypta in aesthetic and Eastlake styles, were added, which are still in use today.
The house passed down through the generations until 1950, when it became a historic house museum. It is a National Historic Landmark.
Tours of Ashland begin in the octagonal entrance hall. An Eastlake style staircase was among the most radical remodeling efforts inside the home in 1882, replacing James Clay’s elliptical staircase. Much as they were in earlier times, guests are then ushered into the small red parlor, which was used as a receiving room. An 1856 parlor set attributed to John Henry Belter is the major feature in the room. The set are not Clay pieces, but were donated to the mansion in the 1950s, an appropriate feature for the museum, since James Clay had a set of Belter furniture in the home, Hagan-Michel says.
Among the most visually stunning rooms in Ashland is the library, which is a domed room with an unusual, elaborate serpent chandelier hanging from the center of the dome. Paneling covers the walls and ceiling all the way to the top of the dome. Benjamin Latrobe, the architect of the U.S. Capitol, sketched wings for the house in a letter to Henry Clay in 1813.
Guests would have also been entertained in the first floor’s largest room, the drawing room, which features a large painting of George Washington, commissioned for Henry Clay in recognition of his wife, Lucretia Clay, in 1844. For modern visitors, this room shows one of the largest collections of furnishings that belonged to the Clay families that later occupied the home, including a large mirror installed by James Clay in 1856.
The dining room is home to an original McDowell piece, the Empire dining table, which the McDowells brought to the home in 1882. Portraits of Anne Clay McDowell, her husband Henry Clay McDowell, and her parents, Henry Clay Jr. and Julia Prather Clay are prominent in the room. Hagan-Michel explained that this room is interpreted to the home’s later Victorian renovation mainly because museum officials had photos from about 1900 showing what was in the room and how it was arranged, making it easy for museum officials to get it right.
A downstairs bedroom, known as the Ash bedroom, is also on the tour. “We believe the bed, the two armoires and the standing mirror were made for James when he had the house rebuilt,” Hagan-Michel says. “It is ash, and there are ash trees on the property, so we believe that they were made from ash on the property. That’s why we call it the Ash bedroom. We think James may have used that bedroom.”
The upstairs bedrooms are on tour today, but in previous generations, they would have been the home’s private rooms. As a tribute to Henry Clay, the master bedroom is set up as his room, displaying many of the objects that would have been in the original home on the property. The four-post, full-tester bed was in the family of an original descendant and was given back to Ashland in the 1960s. Two cribs in an adjacent nursery were used by Clay’s children and grandchildren. Other bedrooms upstairs are interpreted as Victorian bedrooms.
Even with all of the various incarnations of the Clay property, Hagan-Michel says visitors can still see Henry Clay in every part of the estate, and that’s the way it should be. “It’s like an onion,” Hagan-Michel says. “You peel away the layers of all of the history and Henry Clay is still at the heart. Henry Clay was an international figure. This house isn’t just a tribute to a local family.”
Surprising Christmas touches
To keep visitors coming back every holiday season, the staff of Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, have to get creative about their Christmas decorations. Visitors eagerly return each year to see the home’s newest holiday theme and to take a nighttime, candlelight tour and imagine life at the house in the evening hours.
But visitors don’t want to see the same thing every year, says Ann Hagan-Michel, executive director of Ashland. So the staff, led by Judy Ogger, who was a floral designer before she joined Ashland, put their imaginations to work to keep the décor fresh, and interesting.
Here’s a look at the Christmas decorating touches at Ashland that surprise and delight visitors that you can use in your home, too.
--- Presents under a high-style Victorian Christmas tree are wrapped in fabric, adding a luxurious touch.
--- A varying color scheme throughout the home brings in rose, ivory, burgundy and other colors not commonly associated with Christmas.
--- Wreaths hang from suction cups on windows and mirrors to add a festive touch to bedrooms.
--- Think outside of the poinsettia and use white silk tulips, which Ashland did as part of the decorations on a mantle with faux greenery.
--- A graduated stack of presents, all festively wrapped, sit on the bench at the end of a bed as another way to bring Christmas into every room.
--- In the most masculine room in the house, the billiard room, twigs and pinecones are used as part of the décor for a rough-hewn look that suits the feel of the space.
--- Robyn Davis Sekula