Legend has it that Henry Clay’s supporters were so confident that he would win the presidency in 1844, they pushed past political strategizing to design his bedroom suite for the White House.
Maybe they should have stuck to strategizing a little longer, because Clay lost the presidential bid to James Polk. Then again, Clay’s loss became Louisiana’s gain, when Daniel and Martha Barrow Turnbull purchased the suite in 1845 for their residence at Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville.
“We don’t have proof that the suite was actually intended for Henry Clay, but the Turnbull family tradition says that,” says Katie Burlison, curator of Decorative of Arts. “But the room that housed the suite at Rosedown was called the Henry Clay Bedroom, and it was definitely owned by Turnbull.”
The suite also had two washstands, a bed, a dressing bureau, a cheval mirror, an octogonal table and six chairs, which furnished the bedroom until 2000, when the State of Louisiana purchased Rosedown Plantation.
Former owner Gene Slivka auctioned off a few of the suite’s pieces separately before the sale. The armoire was purchased by M.S. Rau Antiques, of New Orleans, which sold it to a client. The armoire recently made its way back to the business.
“We are thrilled to have reacquired this magnificent armoire and have the opportunity to donate a piece with such historical value to a local museum,” owner Bill Rau says.
The armoire is considered among the finest examples of American Gothic Revival furniture in the United States.
“It was made by Crawford Ridell of Philadelphia, who were journeymen cabinetmakers,” Burlison says. “Journeymen means it’s made by a group of people, so … it could have been three or four. And if you look up American Gothic, you’ll find that this suite is one of the top suites in American Gothic Revival ever made.”
And the Clay legend only adds to its intrigue.
“The election was in 1844, and it was made in 1844,” Burlison says. “It’s interesting.”
The armoire is built of Brazilian rosewood with brass hinges and a blue painted interior. According to Riddell’s bill of lading, the armoire cost $300. The total cost of the suite was $2,180.
The armoire’s elaborate design partly accounts for its massive size. The left and right sides feature telescoping cabinets encased in clustered rectangular columns, crowned by carved Gothic arches. Carvings ornament the column shafts, capitals and bases.
The central section has two inset panel doors topped by an oversized carved leaf finial. The central cabinet has two top shelves and six drawers — three on the first row above three graduated drawers that stretch the width of the central cabinet.
The suite was so big that Daniel Turnbull added a wing onto his house to accommodate it. He then added a corresponding wing for a library for the sake of symmetry.
The armoire’s new home is on the Cabildo’s third floor, which focuses on the antebellum period and plantation life in Louisiana.
Other pieces from the suite can be found in different collections. The bed is in the Dallas Museum of Art, and the dressing bureau is in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
“Gene Slivska kept some of the pieces for himself,” Burlison says.
And if the legend is true, the suite would never have furnished the president’s bedroom — Clay lost not one, but three presidential bids. Still, this doesn’t relegate him to insignificance in the history books.
Clay was born in Virginia in 1877 and represented Kentucky in the U.S. House of Representatves and Senate, earning the title “The Great Compromiser” for his contributions to the Missouri Compromises of 1820 and 1850. He also served as secretary of state and speaker of the house and helped negotiate the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. “From nearly the moment the armoire was crafted in the 1840s, it has only known Louisiana as its home,” said Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne. “We’re pleased that it will remain with us at the Louisiana State Museum, allowing us to tell one of the many facets of our history for generations to come.”