Chapter 3: The Henry Clay Monument

The Henry Clay Monument   

John Lutz was allowed $495.50 for his work in laying out the grounds of the Lexington Cemetery, and he took his payment in lots. Four of these, forming a 44 x 44 foot block in Section 1, he offered to Henry Clay in the following letter:

Lexington May 23d 1851

Dear Sir

Some time ago in selecting my lots in the Lexington Cemetery, I added one set which I intended for you, as a token of that high esteem in which I am proud to participate with your countrymen. I have learned through Mr  A.T. Skillmen that you have lately spoken for a Cemetery lot and I take this opportunity to request your acceptance of lots N 37, 38, 54 and 55 of Section "1" on the books of the Company, and be assured that the honor which you will confer on me by your acceptance, will make me greater your debtor.

John Lutz

Honble Henry Clay

Clay replied:

Ashland 26h May 1851

Mr dear Mr. Lutz

I received your very obliging letter, kindly tendering to my acceptance some lots in the Lexington Cemetery, which you had reserved in the distribution of the ground. It is true, as Mr. Skillman told you, that I was thinking of purchasing a place in that Cemetery for the use of myself and family. My age, and other circumstances, admonished me that the day could not be very distant when I should have occasion for it. Your friendly offer is, therefore, very opportune, and I accept it with thankful and grateful feelings.

I have often been the favored recipient of presents, tendered by some of my good friends. Their object was to minister to my ease, comfort and pleasure, during my life. But your friendly forecast looks farther, to the period when that must terminate; and, by your generous gift, you have provided a beautiful spot for the repose of my mortal remains. I tender you an expression of my profound acknowledgments for your kindness.

I am truly & faithfully

Your friend

H. Clay

On October 27, 1851, Clay had the remains of his mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Watkins, removed from Woodford County to his new plot in the Lexington Cemetery and ordered a tombstone made for the grave. His mother, after the death of her husband in Virginia, had married Captain Henry Watkins, and the couple moved to Versailles, where they operated a tavern for several years. Later they lived on a small farm on the McCoun's Ferry Pike. When Mrs. Watkins died on December 4, 1829, at the age of eighty, she was buried in the farm graveyard.

Henry Clay, seventy-four years old and in failing health, returned to Washington once more to use his voice and influence in the effort to stop the trend toward civil war. In early 1852 he realized it was unlikely that he would survive to see his beloved wife and Ashland again. He was aware that many state officials and friends wanted to honor him by burial in the Frankfort Cemetery, where Kentucky heroes and distinguished men lay, but Clay had no desire for such homage. Lexington was his home. George Ranck, in his History of Lexington, states:

On one of the last days of his life, he said to Judge Underwood, his colleague in the Senate, "There may be some question where my remains shall be buried. Some persons may designate Frankfort. I wish to repose in the cemetery at Lexington, where many of my friends and connections are buried."

Henry Clay died on June 29 in Washington and his wish was carried out. However, ten days elapsed before the arrival of the body in Lexington. An outpouring of grief by admirers and even many former political foes and a desire to pay tribute to the Great Pacificator led to a series of observances in more than a dozen cities. After the services in a packed Senate chamber, the body, in an ornate metallic coffin and handsome wooden case, was taken by train to Baltimore and Philadelphia; by steamer and train to Trenton, New Jersey, and New York; up the Hudson to Albany, by train to Buffalo; and by boat to Cleveland, where a group of Lexingtonians joined the funeral party. Then came Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Frankfort; and on Friday, July 9, the special train reached Lexington. Henry Clay had finally returned to Ashland.

On Saturday the casket was placed on a bier in front of the residence, and the Rev. E.F. Berkley, rector of Christ Church, conducted the service. Then began the slow, solemn procession of national, state, and local dignitaries, military units and family west on Main Street to the cemetery. Buildings along the route were draped in black crepe, flags flew at half mast, bells tolled, and an estimated 30,000 people from Lexington and afar were assembled for the rites. So great was the crowd and so urgent the push to get into the cemetery that it was necessary to take down part of the fence along the Leestown Pike. Finally, the coffin and its wooden case were placed in a vault. A few days later Henry Clay was interred in the lot John Lutz had provided.

On June 30, the day after Clay's death a group of his friends had met at the Fayette County courthouse to adopt appropriate resolutions. One of them read:

Resolved, that a NATIONAL MONUMENT OF COLOSSAL PROPORTIONS befitting a name stereotyped on his Country's heart, should be erected in the Lexington Cemetery, to mark the spot where his body will repose, and commemorate the virtuous deeds of his long and glorious life.

A committee of forty-one was named to carry this proposal "into successful operation."

On July 14, the memorial committee met and appointed Henry T. Duncan, Dr. John R. Desha, R. A. Buckner, and T.A. Marshal, all of Lexington, to "report a plan of organization and operation." This committee, with Duncan as chairman, made a report at 6:30 that evening, its twelve articles creating a Clay Monument Association to be composed of all who made donations or pledgesand providing for an executive committee of which Duncan would be permanent chairman. The committee also included Thomas B. Baxter, secretary; H.B. Hill, James O. Harrison, Henry Bell, and Benjamin Gratz; and its principal objective was to raise money. The design and building of the monument would come later.

Agents were assigned to solicit funds throughout Kentucky and subscription papers were sent to all counties and to other states. After three and a half years the committee felt t had enough money in cash and pledges, and in the spring of 1857 it advertised for designs for the monument. More than a hundred plans were submitted. The one favored was an ornate Gothic structure, a thirteen-sided, two-story, templelike edifice that would house a statue of Clay on the first level and a museum on the second.

This plan proved to be too costly, and a design submitted by Julius W. Adams, a Lexington civil engineer and architect, was accepted. John Haly of Frankfort was the successful bidder, agreeing "to build the Clay monument, furnish all materials and hoisting apparatus for same" at a cost of $43,920. Major Thomas Lewinski, a prominent Lexington architect, was engaged as superintendent of construction.

The cornerstone was laid on the Fourth of July, 1857, the ceremonies at the cemetery being followed by exercises at the Agricultural & Mechanical Association grounds (the present University of Kentucky main campus). The program there included a military review, a lengthy speech by the Rev. Dr. Breckinridge, picnic and barbecue parties, and, finally, "numerous pyrotechnic displays" and a thirteen-gun salute.

It is probable that many of the crowd that gathered at the cemetery were unaware that Major Hector P. Lewis was run over by a horse and buggy at the ceremony. He died on September 29. According to the Observer & Reporter of September 30, he was "one of our oldest and most respectable citizens."

Work on the monument began immediately, and it was hoped the  memorial would be completed by 1858. Huge blocks of native magnesium limestone quarried near Grimes' Mill n Boone's creek in Fayette County were used. The statue of Clay was cast in plaster and carved in stone by three Cincinnati artisans-A. Bullet, Garabin Giannini, and Giacorno (or Giacomo) Bossi-who are said to have modeled the head from a bust by Kentucky's sculptor Joel T. hart. Delays in construction and in the collection of funds plagued the committee, and not until July 4, 1961, was the monument completed. It cost approximately $58,000, of which $10,000 was contributed by state legislature.

The handsome marble sarcophagus which would contain the coffin had arrived in Lexington on April 12, 1861. It had been carved by William Struthers of Philadelphia, a leading marble artisan of the day who had carved the tomb of George Washington. Struthers, a friend and admirer of the Kentucky statesman, donated the sarcophagus.

Clay's body, however, remained buried in the family lot. The Civil War had begun, and that tragedy is said to have caused postponement of the removal to the mausoleum. In fact, not until the death of Lucretia Hart Clay, Henry Clay's elderly widow, were steps taken to make use of the great monument. Printed notes were distributed on April 7, 1964, announcing that services would be held the next day. On April 8, the bodies of both Mr. and Mrs. Clay were placed in the vault of the Henry Clay monument. The Observer & Reporter of April 13 simply stated:

Mr. Clay's remains.-The remains of Henry Clay, after an interment of twelve years, were removed last week, upon the death of his wife, and placed side by side with her beneath the beautiful monument erected in the Lexington Cemetery. Connected with his event we may be permitted to allude to a single fact. The wreath of immortelles placed upon his coffin by his friend, the gifted poetess, Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, prior to the removal of the body from Washington, was found to be in an almost perfect state of preservation, being but little faded, whilst a gold ring, bearing their initials "J.W.", which rested near the wreath, was as bright as though just from a jeweller's store.

Mrs. Clay had spent her last years at the home of her son, John M. Clay, on the portion of the Ashland estate on the Tates Creek Pike. John Clay's diary, preserved at Ashland, states that on the day after the funeral he "Went to the Cemetery & saw my father's & mother's remains both in the crypt on the Monument." On April 6, 1865, he recorded: "The anniversary of my mother's death. And the sarcophagus having arrived at the Cemetery & Depot, I had it removed to the Cemetery & commenced placing it to receive her remains."

The monument stands on an eminence, the only structure in section m of the cemetery, with the statue facing the statesman's home. Early drawings show a paved surface around the crypt, with a walk and steps going down the slope to the driveway below, but these were never built. Almost opposite the place where the steps would be is the large lot dominated by the monument of John M. Clay and occupied also by other members of the Clay family.

Section M had been "sold" to the Clay Monument Association on March 16, 1857, "for and in consideration of the sum of one dollar...for the purpose of being used for the site or location of the monument to be erected to the memory of Henry Clay deceased." The deed specified that there should be no burials in the section outside the monument.

Trouble plagued the flat roof of the mausoleum, which had a tendency to leak. The original stone roof was in time replaced by lead at a cost to the state of $1,000. After several years a sheet-iron roof was installed, but by 1910 it had corroded and was letting water into the lower chamber. Stone again was used and eventually proved unsatisfactory.

In the early  years of the twentieth century nature took its toll on the monument. A terrific storm during the night of Tuesday, July 21, 1903, knocked the head off the statue and sent it hurtling 130 feet to the ground. So violent was the storm that the exact cause of the damage was not immediately determined, and the Morning Herald on Thursday began its story:

Had some malignant demon held Lexington and Fayette county in its sway Tuesday night, that not even the sacred effigy of Henry Clay could escape its malignant fury? When the morning light broke yesterday after the turmoil of the night, the headless statue of Henry Clay surmounted the pedestal, where, during the past forty-two years it had stood....

The strong wind or the concussion of thunder seemed the most likely cause, rather than a lightening stroke, the Lexington Leader stated. The sculptured head weighed 350 pounds and was approximately two and a half feet high by eighteen inches wide. In falling, it broke off a small piece of the great column's capital and then hit the edge of the mausoleum roof. The head was found at the rear of the monument, imbedded about six inches in the ground, with a few pieces, including the nose, chipped off.

There is a popular belief that on this same night and during the same storm the statesman's colorful and aged cousin, Cassius Marcllus Clay, died at his home, White hall, in Madison County. It was, however, the next night, Wednesday, that the "Old General" passed away. The first page of the Herald on July 23 had the two stories in adjoining columns.

The mutilated statue remained atop the lofty column in the Lexington Cemetery for several years. In 1908 the General Assembly appropriated $10,000 for a new statue. It was carved by Charles J. Mulligan of Chicago and was erected by the William Adams & Son monument works of Lexington in May of 1910.

Only a few months later, on the mourning of September 19, 1910, lightning struck the new statue, breaking off the right hand, shattering the right leg, and causing some damage to the body. Once again, the legislature paid $10,000 for repairs.

For half a century thereafter the monument gradually deteriorated, the weather and corrosive elements in the air causing pieces of stone to drop off, mortar to dissolve between the blocks, the surface to discolor, and the roof to leak once more. Only occasionally did anyone call attention to the situation, and the answer was always the same: no one had responsibility for maintenance of the monument.

The Clay Monument Association had ceased to exist, and its members had long since died. The Lexington Cemetery Company had deeded the land to the association and had no obligation to keep the monument repaired. There was no endowment or other fund set aside for maintenance. The cemetery company routinely mowed the grass, cared for the trees, and tried to keep the crypt clean.

Complaints were voiced from time to time. On June 18, 1939, for instance, the Sunday Herald-Leader reported that john G. Cramer, prominent civic leader and then manager of the Phoenix Hotel, was trying to enlist support to obtain money for maintenance. He had been chairman of a Masonic committee which, in 1908, had helped get state funds for the first repair of the statue.

Cramer's letter to Governor Albert B. Chandler, Mayor E. Reed Wilson, and County Judge W.E. Nichols did nothing more than call attention to the situation. J. Winston Coleman, Jr., for many years chairman of the cemetery board, and others called repeatedly in the 1930s and succeeding decades for preservation of the monument, especially by the state government, but in vain.

Not until the early 1970s, when there was increased danger that the towering shaft might come crashing down and visitors were cautioned not to get near the memorial, was a plan worked out. The Fayette Circuit Court vested ownership of the "orphan" monument in the Urban County Government which, under the leadership of mayor Foster Pettit, appropriated $35,000 for restoration work. The State Parks Commission contributed $50,00, and the cemetery company added a $2,000 donation. On November 6, 1975, the Urban County Council, by a vote of 11-1, accepted a bid of the M and A Building and Maintenance Company of Cleveland for a complete restoration, and work began in early December.

The renovation included scrubbing the entire structure, replacing the lightening arrester, replacing the crumbling old mortar to a depth of an inch and a half, replacing missing and damaged parts, installing new iron gates, and painting the entire monument with a preservative chemical.

Rededication exercises were held at the base of the memorial on July 29, 1976, and tribute was paid to those who had worked so long to restore the monument to a condition worthy of the master and mistress of Ashland whose bodies lay within it.