RICHMOND, Ky. -- History is a treasure-trove of stories about fascinating individuals who, at best, are just footnotes in textbooks. With their roles in a country's past overshadowed by the accomplishments of presidents, generals, politicians, and by later events, the lesser known individuals' stories are often lost to time as sites important to their lives disappear through ignorance, neglect, or development.
That fate almost befell White Hall, a 19th-century mansion that was abandoned and vandalized before it was donated to the state in 1967. The state oversaw its restoration and opened it for public tours in 1971. The 44-room Italianate-style home is as complex as its former owner, Cassius Marcellus Clay. He's not the Louisville-born boxer who became Muhammad Ali, so who is he? A tour of the White Hall State Historic Site answers the question.
One of many non-equine attractions in Bluegrass country, White Hall is about 25 miles south of Lexington; the road off the I-75 exit dead-ends at the entrance and parking lot. Tickets are sold in the log corn-crib-turned gift shop; it's a short walk up the hill to the home's portico. At the appointed time, the guide in a hoop skirt and simple white blouse opened the massive door and ushered in a small group of visitors for an hourlong tour. In opening remarks in the tour's first room, a carpeted Victorian-era salon with 16-foot ceilings and Clay's original 1859 Steinway piano, among other furnishings, the guide set the record straight about the son of a Revolutionary War general and a cousin of the pre-Civil War congressman Henry Clay.
Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810-1903) was an emancipationist, an unpopular and dangerous concept in pre-Civil War Kentucky.
The original estate was carved out by General Green Clay, a native Virginian and general who moved West after the Revolution and worked as a surveyor. In those days, surveyors were paid in land -- they were given half of what they surveyed, the guide said. Green Clay amassed more than 40,000 acres in various territories and became a wealthy businessman. In Kentucky in 1798-99, he built Clermont, an eight-room Georgian house to go with the 4,400-acre plantation and its slaves. When Clay inherited Clermont after his father's death in 1828, the son freed the slaves willed to him. The exact number is unknown, though many remained at White Hall as workers.
As the tour unfolded over three floors with the guide interweaving Clay's political and personal story with descriptions of the rooms, memorabilia, and period furnishings, one realized that with his life and enemies, Clay would be a media star today.
A man with a temper, legend says Clay fought 200 duels, though only a handful are documented. He clashed with his future mother-in-law, Lexington socialite Marie Warfield, who didn't want her daughter, Mary Jane, to marry the rogue. In Lexington, he published an antislavery newspaper, The True American, in 1845 until a court injunction shut it down and he moved the operation to Cincinnati. He was a friend of Abraham Lincoln, who appointed him US ambassador to Russia in 1861. A staunch supporter of Lincoln, the Southerner returned and became a major-general in the Union Army. After lobbying Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation that freed all slaves in 1863, Clay returned to Russia as a minister. His wife and children stayed home in Kentucky.
While he was away, he allotted $8,000 for Mary Jane to enlarge the house to match his position. It became a house-within-a-house when her architects turned Clermont into the 44-room White Hall. He was shocked when he returned to the extravagant scene and a bill of $30,000. He couldn't have been completely angry, however, because it was one of the first houses with central heating (of sorts) and indoor plumbing. On the second floor, the guide showed off a trio of doors that open to the toilet, washbasin, and bathroom. The latter houses a poplar-and-copper bathtub made to accommodate Clay's 6-foot-plus frame. The cistern that collects and holds rainwater for the plumbing is visible on the third floor.
Clay also had a surprise for his wife upon his return; he introduced her to his 4-year-old adopted son, Launey. The gossip of the day said he was Clay's son from an affair with a Russian ballerina; Mary Jane soon divorced him after 45 years of marriage and 10 children.
Clay didn't live a quiet senior life. At age 84, he married 15-year-old Dora Richardson, who divorced him only to return later as his housekeeper. At age 93, he killed two of three burglars who broke into his house. He died a few months later in the first-floor libary. The guide said that one of the discoveries during the restoration was the library's shelving and original glass doors hidden beneath layers of wallpaper.
Among other Clay orginals are a handsome American chestnut bureau, beds, a folding desk that functioned as a compact office with all kinds of cubbyholes for files, mementos, artwork from his friendship with Russia's Czar Nicholas II, and pistols and swords. The third floor has wonderful old photos of Clay, family members, and the estate in its vandalized condition.
The grounds are not part of the guided tour but visitors can view the restored kitchen building, ice house, and smokehouse.