More than a few drivers along Route 54 in Ashland have noted over the years that the magnetic pole at the center of the universe had begun to get a bit long in the tooth.
With its back-lighted image of Henry Clay, the Hanover-born statesman, the sign at the entrance to the Henry Clay Shopping Center had without fail declared the town's central place in the cosmos to drivers until late last month.
Now Clay is gone, hacked off at his base as part of a facelift for the 45-year-old shopping center.
As plotted by noted former Ashland mayor, booster and metaphorical cartographer Richard “Dick” Gillis, that pole was perhaps the most visible part of Gillis' legacy to the town — an informal, playfully self-centered public relations campaign.
If the town's latest crop of boosters have their way, Henry Clay won't soon be forgotten. The icon will be auctioned off May 30 as a benefit for the Hanover ARC charity. Organizers hope to earn as much as $3,000 for sale of the '60s-era sign.
“A lot of people didn't even know the name of the shopping center, the sign was so bad,” says Yancy Jones, an executive with the Supply Room Co., who bought the shopping center in October with an eye to sprucing up his hometown's gateway. “The shopping center was run down and it's the first thing you see when you come into the town of Ashland.”
The strip center, built in the typical style of early urban sprawl, had seen its day by the time Gillis, resplendent in white suit, cowboy boots and 10-gallon hat, dreamed up his visionary promotional scheme that's since become a mantra for this sleepy railroad town. The message on the Henry Clay sign probably went up sometime in the 1980s, probably not long after Ashland's tongue-in-cheek universal centrality had been established.
Decades later, with residents still basking in last year's celebrations of Ashland's 150th anniversary, the sign really is becoming history, Jones says.
Along with the facelift will come a new name, Ashland Town Center, and no plans to return the “center of the universe” slogan. The new faAade will be more reminiscent of architecture from the 1858 founding of the town.
The slogan will be missed, says Ariel Tinsley, owner of Old Friends Antiques, which moved into the shopping center seven months ago and who will conduct the benefit auction of Clay.
“I always am sad to [lose] a piece of history, but in order to progress you have to have new things,” Tinsley says. Besides, she says with a bit of defensive pride, “just because the sign's not there, doesn't mean we're not center of the universe.”