A casual visitor to the Henry Clay Estate this week might have no inkling, but behind the serene, historic façade, it's crunch time for the people who work there.
Saturday is the Lawn Party, the biggest day in the Ashland Foundation's fund-raising calendar. Banners at the four corners of the grounds declare it "Summer's Best Party," doubling down on the pressure — as if raising a quarter of the annual operating budget in a single night isn't enough.
"There's a ton of things to do," says Christina Bell, director of development and chief party planner, who's pretty much camped out this week at work, keeping her finger on the elevated pulse of the preparations.
Besides the catering and the tent and the musicians, there are weeds to banish, bricks to clean, mosquitoes to discourage and 17 acres of grass to cut. The estate hires outside services for the spraying and mowing. But for the other sprucing-up tasks, and for generally keeping a cool head amid the frenzy, Bell and curator Eric Brooks know they can rely on one man: Shawn Goheen.
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What, me worry?
"I just wait for my list," says Goheen, looking surprisingly serene for a go-to guy days before the big bash.
Or maybe he hasn't fully woken up. It's just after 8 a.m. and he normally doesn't clock in until 10.
Goheen, 46, grew up across the road on Sherman Avenue, and as a boy climbed Ashland's trees and played Frisbee on its lawn. His memories of the place include seeing the long-departed cat Gypsy, one of Ashland's favorite residents, sitting in a window, surveying her domain. But he'd never been inside the building until five years ago, when he was hired as the estate's maintenance technician. It's a job title that is elastic enough to include almost anything.
"Shawn does an incredible number of things in a few hours and does them well and cheerfully," says Brooks. "He often finds problems that we don't know about."
In a normal week, Goheen opens the buildings and spends his hours generally keeping up appearances — Ashland wants to show its age, but always in the best possible light. He keeps all the bulbs burning inside and tidies up around the grounds, often assisted by volunteers.
But this is not a normal week.
"It can get pretty crazy before the party," says Goheen.
Getting in on the auction
In her office, Bell is surrounded by auction items. There are 40 for the silent auction and 10 bigger-ticket items — a year's lease on a BMW, a Greek coin necklace, dinner for eight at Botherum, another historic home in town — that the foundation hopes will get bid up in frenzied competition.
"It all goes for preservation," says Bell. "A lot of people assume this is a public park and don't realize that it depends entirely on donations."
One major upcoming expense will be new cedar-shake roofs for the caretaker's cottage and other outbuildings. It's a $50,000 project. Just keeping the grass mowed year-round costs $18,000.
By Thursday, preparations for the party will be in the final stretch. The tent will be set up and Goheen will be working on his to-do list: He'll be setting up tables, running electrical cords and getting the stage ready for the auction. He'll check that the privies are well-supplied, empty the garbage and generally "make sure nothing's here that shouldn't be here," he says. Because he's a churchgoing man, the last thing he may be asked to do is pray for good weather.
A very big to-do
On Saturday, guests who've paid $75 to $100 a ticket will arrive to find the estate looking serene and manicured. Nothing will be there that shouldn't be there. They'll have cocktails and dine on the back lawn, just as in Henry Clay's day. A band will play and there will be auctions, both silent and vocal.
And people will be encouraged to pitch in with donations to "Henry's Honey-Do List" — all the things around the house that will need attention in the coming year — because the maintenance needs of Henry Clay's beloved Ashland are far more than one maintenance technician can handle.