Column: Visiting Lexington’s historic houses

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Today, we begin a visit to Lexington, Ky., stopping by the homes of two important families.

In 1797, Henry Clay moved to Lexington, where he developed a thriving law practice, once successfully defending Aaron Burr against treason charges. He established Ashland, a 672-acre plantation outside town, where, among other agricultural innovations, he bred champion thoroughbred horses. In 1806, Clay built a Federal-style house on the property, which he enlarged as his wife Lucretia bore 11 children. While residing at Ashland, Clay, a slave owner, became known as the “Great Compromiser” for his actions as a United States senator and ran three times for president, losing each time. Among those voting for him was Abraham Lincoln, whose wife Mary Todd grew up in Lexington and knew the Clays. In 1847, Lincoln and his wife visited the Todd house on their way to Washington, D.C. When Henry Clay died in 1852, his son razed Ashland’s house, replacing it with an Italianate-style house using the same foundation and floorplan as the original. In 1866, the Ashland estate became the home of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky, the predecessor of the University of Kentucky.

The Ashland estate has been open to the public since 1950. The 18-room mansion is filled with Clay-family memorabilia. The tree-covered grounds include formal gardens and reconstructed icehouses that provided cooling water for Henry Clay’s dairy. An outbuilding features the carriage Clay used for his many trips to and from Washington. In downtown Lexington, about 2 miles from Ashland, is the 14-room Federal-style house where Mary Todd Lincoln was raised, along with her 15 siblings. The house opened to the public in 1977, the first house museum honoring a first lady. It includes period furnishings, a rare print picturing Lincoln’s assassination and information about how the Civil War divided the Todd family.

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