Ashland – The Henry Clay Estate

This trip to Lexington truly began with cherry blossoms. There is a page I follow that focuses on Kentucky’s landscapes. Recently, many photographs were posted to that page of the most beautiful cherry blossoms in bloom at The Lexington Cemetery. Then and there, I decided we would make the trip to take our own photographs… and we did! (You will hear about that part of our trip in my next post.)

When I looked at the cemetery’s website for location and times, I learned that Henry Clay, Sr. was buried there. I thought to myself, “If we’re going to see where Henry Clay was buried, we should also see where Henry Clay lived.” So, I added Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, to the itinerary for the day.

Come along with me as I tell you more about our day and the history of Henry Clay. (Yep, I wrote that rhyme on purpose. 🤣)

First a Virginian

Henry Clay / Credit: Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Henry Clay was born on April 12, 1777, in Hanover County, Virginia. Henry was the 7th of 9 children born to Reverend John Clay and Elizabeth Hudson Clay. (Only 5 would survive to adulthood.) Being born amid the Revolutionary War did not take long to negatively impact Clay. His family’s home was ransacked by British Troops when he was just 3 years old. Then, when Henry was just 4 years old, his father, Reverend John Clay died.

His mother later remarried, and Henry lived quite comfortably and was provided adequate education. Later, due to family connections, Henry was given a clerkship under the prestigious Virginia judge, George Wythe.

Wythe, who had also taught law to Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall, introduced Henry to law and arranged for his legal instruction. Clay proved to be a great student and was admitted to the bar in 1797, at the young age of 20.

Then a Kentuckian

Clay’s family had previously moved to Kentucky in 1791. So, once admitted to the bar, Clay followed his family to Kentucky and began a law practice in Lexington. His law practice quickly flourished as he took on the many land-title lawsuits happening in Kentucky at this time. He soon became the leading real estate and business lawyer in Frankfort, and his political career began.

Clay’s Impressive Political Career

  • 1803-1806: Elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives

  • 1806-1807: Served as a Senator from Kentucky

  • 1807-1809: Returned to the House of Representatives

  • 1810-1811: Returned to the Senate

  • 1811 – 1814: U.S. Representative and Speaker of the House

  • 1815-1821 & 1823-1825: U.S. Representative

    1815-1820 & 1823-1825: Speaker of the House

  • 1825-1829: Served as Secretary of State under President John Quincy Adams

  • 1831 & 1849: Returned to the Senate

Clay accomplished so much during his political career, but could never put his hands on the presidency, although he tried three times. Even though he was never President of the United States, his influence on our country is undeniable. He claimed the titles of “The Great Compromiser” and “The Great Pacificator” as he guided our country through some difficult times. To learn more about his influence and accomplishments, click here.

Clay’s Personal Life

In 1799, before being elected to the House of Representatives, Clay married Lucretia Hart, the daughter of a wealthy Lexington businessman. They were married at Lucretia’s parent’s home and afterward, moved into the house next door.

Lucretia and Henry / Credit: History of American Women

Quickly their little family grew, and in 1804, Henry purchased land for a farm and home on the outskirts of town where he could find a refuge from the political world. He named his new farm Ashland, for the abundance of ash trees found on the property.

A Farmer

Not only was Clay a successful politician, he was also a successful farmer. Under his progressive agricultural style, and on the backs of numerous laboring slaves, Clay’s farm grew thousands of pounds of hemp. Making it the estate’s number one cash crop. In addition to hemp, Clay had fields of grain and vegetables. He was also well educated on animal husbandry. He had jacks and cattle brought to his farm from various countries, wishing to breed them to create the finest of animals for his farm, his state of Kentucky, and his country.

And His Home

The center block of his new home was complete by 1809. Lucretia was busy by this time raising an even bigger family. Henrietta, Theodore, Thomas, Susan, Anne, Lucretia, Henry Jr., and Eliza were the first eight of eleven children born to Henry and Lucretia. (As was the case with so many families at this time, only seven of their eleven children reached adulthood.) By 1811, Clay was ready to expand his home by adding wings to the center block. These wings were complete within a year, creating a 5 part Federal style home. The home consisted of the center block, including the main entrance, two connecting “hallways” (one on each end of the center), and two end blocks. Clay’s home continued to serve him and his family until his death in 1852.

A Second Home

The house that you see standing today at Ashland is actually NOT the house that Clay had built in 1809. Why, you might ask? Well, the truth is that Clay had let his home decay around him. Apparently the materials used to build his 1809 home & 1811 expansion were not the highest of quality. According to our tour guide at Ashland, the bricks were largely made of sand and were crumbling down around Clay. Why Clay did not put money into the upkeep of his home, I am not sure. So, by the time of his death in 1852, Clay’s home was dilapidated and in the worst condition possible.

Clay’s Last Will and Testiment was written, so that the estate would become Lucretia’s until she either died or left the property, at which time Ashland would then be sold to settle the estate. Shortly after Clay’s death, Lucretia left Ashland and moved into her son John’s home.

The estate was then purchased by James, another one of Henry and Lucretia’s sons. Upon purchase, he saved as much of the original home’s woodwork as possible, and had the home demolished. It was his intent to create a new home, as close to the original as possible, to memorialize his father and his accomplishments. But, the new home would be built as it should have been, with materials that would stand the test of time. Although James was using the original foundational footprint and floor plan, as well as the materials he had salvaged, James also architecturally updated to the time period.

By the mid-1800s, Henry Clay’s Ashland was of an outmoded architectural style. The original, unembellished, Federal design with whitewashed facade was by mid-century no longer a suitable style for such a historically significant mansion.  Since Clay’s time, tastes had changed and status was now demonstrated by way of ornamentation.  If James had wanted to perfectly reproduce his father’s home, he would have had to remain unfashionably plain in his plans.

But he did not seem to consider returning to his father’s ‘antique’ style.  This is where he left the literal Ashland behind for the spiritual Ashland, one that he envisioned as noble and world-class, a home that honored his father’s memory in the most distinguished way possible.

James spared no expense to create a modern, luxuriously furnished house. While Henry Clay’s house itself had not been what impressed his visitors, James’s Ashland mansion would indeed impress by its magnificent Victorian opulence.

By July of 1857, the new Ashland was complete and is, what you and I see, still standing today.

James, his wife Susan, and their ten children continued to live at Ashland until 1862. In 1866, the home and its property were sold to John Bryan Bowman to become part of the new Kentucky University. You and I know it today as the University of Kentucky.

The Next Chapter

Just as with other homes we have visited, Ashland too ended up being rented out. This occurred while still being under Kentucky University’s ownership.

Luckily in 1882, Anne Clay McDowell, Henry Clay’s great-granddaughter, bought the property. Right away, she and her husband began major renovation and restoration of the home. They lived in the home until their deaths.

The Next Generation

Nanette McDowell Bullock, daughter of Henry and Anne Clay McDowell, took over the property after her parents’ deaths. She, her husband, and her son Henry were the last generation of the Clay family to live in the home.

Nannette created the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation in order to preserve the home, its remaining 17 acres, and her great-great-grandfather’s legacy for generations to come. On April 12, 1950, the home opened to the public as a historic home museum.

Our Visit

My mother, my daughter, and I knew that the day was going to be a rainy one, but it was the only day that worked for our schedules, and I really wanted to put us back on the road for Spring Break. Also, my daughter was excited to do a photo shoot under the cherry blossoms at the cemetery, and I knew the blooms wouldn’t last long. So, being the natural born planner that I am, I checked my weather app for the predicted window of time that would to be less rainy. From there, the other pieces fell into place. We would visit the cemetery before lunch and take the afternoon tour at Ashland.

Just as the weather app predicted, we arrived at Ashland with a light drizzle falling. We had a few minutes before our tour, so we walked the outbuildings on the property; the carriage, smoke, ice, and dairy houses, along with the privy and gardener’s cottage (now the gift shop and admissions office). All are in really good condition.

There is also a garden on the property, but we did not take the time to visit it. The rain was a deturent, as well as knowing not much would be in bloom. Also, I had seen the gardens about 13 years ago. You see, Ashland was the very first historic home I had taken my daughter to when she was just 2 years old beginning our “history road trip tradition.” My daughter, of course, did not remember the visit at all.

Finally, we made our way to the front steps of the home for our tour. We were greeted by our tour guide and started our tour. The home is beautiful and well cared for. Truthfully, of all the homes we’ve seen, I think Ashland is in the best condition of them all. Almost all of the rooms in the home can be seen, including the billards room, the library/study, nursery, bedrooms, dining room, and parlor. The rooms are furnished with family pieces from furniture and paintings to Henry’s law books in his office. Our tour guide was wonderful. He was very personable, informative, and knowledgable.

My Reflection

The tour is wonderful. The house is gorgeous. The admission fee is…. well, a bit much.

Honestly, I had put this tour off on a couple of occasions because it is pricey at $25 a person / $15 for students. Being the history preservation advocate that I am, I get it. I know it cost a ton of money to keep up with these homes and their properties. Being the historic home in best condition is likely a reflection of the admission fee. So, it makes sense.

However, I can also argue that the price probably keeps a significant number of people from visiting, which then lessens the opportunity to educate and inform others of Henry Clay’s significance and legacy.

The tour is wonderful. The house is gorgeous. The admission fee is…. well, I don’t know that it warrants $25 a person. The house is no more grand or elaborate than others we’ve seen for a lesser fee, however, it is in better condition. Ultimately, it is worth a visit. Even if the fee keeps you from visiting Ashland, I do hope that you will get out and visit one of the many, wonderful, historic spots found in our state.

Join me next week for our morning adventures to The Lexington Cemetery! There is history to be found everywhere!

Until then, Happy Travels!

3 thoughts on “Ashland – The Henry Clay Estate

  1. Some of my John Fitch NSDAR and I visited Ashland a few years ago. So impressed by the house and the contents there as well as the grounds. Love ❤️ the history.

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