Magdalen Harvey McDowell | Bluegrass Architects to Know

“In a day woman’s sphere was thought to be confined to the drawing room, the kitchen and the nursery, [she] sought an outlet for her genius in painting, architecture, kindred activities.” Obituary, The Lexington Herald

As a young woman in Louisville

Born in Fincastle, Virginia in 1829, Magdalen Harvey McDowell was a sister to Henry Clay McDowell, who married a granddaughter of Henry Clay, Anne Smith Clay. The McDowells acquired “Ashland” in 1883. The never-married Magdalen resided there with her brother, his wife, and their children, including niece Madeline McDowell Breckenridge. Affectionately referred to as “Aunt Mag” by many, she was an artist, inventor, & architect.

at Ashland
From the Speed Art Museum Collection

Magdalen Harvey McDowell
1829 – 1918
Portrait of a Woman
Oil on canvas

Magdalen was not formally trained in the arts or architecture but had been well-educated in Louisville as the daughter of a prominent physician, William Adair McDowell. Dr. McDowell had entered medicine with his uncle, the famed Ephraim McDowell of Danville.

From The Filson Historical Society Collection

Magdalen Harvey McDowell
1829 – 1918
Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston

As an artist, Magdalen painted still lifes, landscapes, and portraits with human & sometimes equine subjects. As an inventor, she received at least one patent, for a device to heat multiple rooms with a single fireplace.

438 East Maxwell Street today

When niece Madeline McDowell Breckenridge’s husband Desha began to help develop Lexington’s Aylesford neighborhood, Magdalen designed at least five new residences, including: 325 Linden Walk, 337 Linden Walk (demolished), 342 Linden Walk, 418 East Maxwell Street, and 428 East Maxwell Street.

Magdalen also raised many thousand dollars funds for and designed a Children’s Building at the Blue Grass Sanitorium. Her father had been a pioneer in the care of tuberculosis patients and she continued his legacy.

While only a handful of residences are credited to her, it is likely she had a hand in designing others. The homes she designed in Aylesford date were conceived after she turned 75. After her death at 90 at Ashland, she was cremated per her request, and buried at Cave Hill in Louisville alongside her parents. Her entire estate was left to her beloved & equally pioneering niece, Madeline McDowell Breckenridge.

Love Kentucky architecture? We do too. Don’t miss the rest in our series, including Martin Geertz, Herman Rowe, Thomas Lewinski, Robert McMeekin, Vertner Woodson Tandy, Frankel & Curtis, Richard Isenhour,& Hugh Meriwether.

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