Gardens to Gables

The Perfect Bet: A Visit to Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate

There are certain things all Kentucky schoolchildren learn (at least those of us who went through the public school system). All 120 counties, and the county seats. Daniel Boone, blazing a trail through the wilderness. That Derby Day is a sacred holiday, and that while basketball may be the Bluegrass religion, we revere a 19th-century Virginian-born politician by the name of Henry Clay. Senator, and two-time Presidential candidate, Clay remains one of our holy figures, some 163 years after his death.

Clay's original Federal-style house (purportedly designed by America's first professional architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe), was razed by his son James Clay in 1857. Building on the original foundation, James rebuilt the house in the fashionable Italianate style.

Clay’s original Federal-style house (purportedly designed by America’s first professional architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe), was razed by his son James Clay in 1857. Building on the original foundation, James rebuilt the house in the fashionable Italianate style.

Residents of Lexington, Kentucky, where Clay lived, farmed, and practiced law, have an even more intimate relationship with the Great Compromiser. His estate, known as Ashland, sits serenely along one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, and is an oasis in an early 20th century suburb developed by his heirs. Though today a little less than 20 acres, Henry Clay’s farm at one time encompassed 600 acres.

Looking northwest across the grounds at the rear elevation of the house.

Looking northwest across the grounds at the rear elevation of the house.

Open to the public as a house museum since 1950, the story of Ashland has benefited greatly from years of archaeological investigations by the Kentucky Archaeological Survey. Thousands of Kentucky schoolchildren have tried their hand at excavating and learning about artifacts – public archaeology has given Kentucky another way to interact with Henry Clay.

Interpretive signs like this one dot the grounds at Ashland. They help convey a richer sense of life on the estate in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Interpretive signs like this one dot the grounds at Ashland. They help convey a richer sense of life on the estate in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Through the archaeology work at Ashland, outbuildings (including horse barns – a renowned Thoroughfare operation, known as Ashland Stud, operated at the estate from 1830-1920), the Springfield Gasworks, privies, and slave quarters have all been discovered and have added to what we know about Clay, his family, and the many unnamed enslaved workers on the estate. Only four outbuildings survive: the ice houses, the carriage/smoke house, the Gardener’s Cottage (designed by Thomas Lewinski), and the wash house/privy.

The smokehouse (center) likely dates from the 1830-1850 time period. It is a substantial structure, with the utilitarian vents expertly set to also be decorative. The side wings were added by garage bays in the 20th century.

The hipped-roof brick smokehouse (center) likely dates from the 1830-1850 time period. It is a substantial structure, with the utilitarian vents expertly set to also be decorative. Most Kentucky smokehouses don’t look like this!   The side wings were added as garage bays in the 20th century.

Ashland was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961, five years before the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act. Its grounds have provided solace to  me many times, as this farm girl chafes at living in town – I can pretend for a little while, surrounded by the spring beauties in the lawn, and the graceful canopy of mature trees. The true beauty of Ashland, however, is the effort made to keep the house and grounds relevant to the community and visitors, and avoid stasis. If you are planning a staycation – it should be on your list. And if you just need to clear your head – it is the perfect escape for a stroll.

On Sunday, May 3, 2015, there will be a plant sale at Ashland - peonies and other plants, with the proceeds helping support the work of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, which runs the estate.

On Sunday, May 3, 2015, there will be a plant sale at Ashland – peonies and other plants, with the proceeds helping support the work of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, which runs the estate.

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