The piercing ring of metal striking metal mingles with the sizzling fumes of a roaring forge. On Mulberry Row, a worker pounds smelted ore into nails – a mainstay of life at Monticello, circa 1790. Nearby, two men shape softened wood into strips for baskets. Another, a cooper, bends wood into barrels.
I am fortunate to happen upon Thomas Jefferson’s beloved home on a plantation community weekend, when interpreters bring the daily work of a colonial estate to life. Before, during, and after his presidency, Jefferson housed and fed up to 100 people – free and slave – who tended the gardens, worked wood, spun flax, and otherwise kept everything in motion while he tended to the business of running a country.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Thomas Jefferson is a fascinating subject for American history buffs.
- Monticello’s distinct design is full of architectural delights.
- Our early Presidental homes provide a peek into the founding of America.
The Roots of Monticello
Standing tall over the busy estate is the house, an architectural monument reflecting the mind of the man who called it home. It commands a sweeping view of the surrounding countryside, the foothills of the Blue Ridge. Jefferson called it the “Little Mountain,” his favorite boyhood playground. By 1768, he’d acquired 5,000 acres and began building his home. The untimely death of his wife Martha in 1782 spurred him to public service, and he traveled to France. Provincial architecture affected him to the extent he re-designed and remodeled his home after returning in 1789.
You reach the home tour after boarding a bus from the parking area for a brief ride up the mountain to a waiting area. My tour guide, well-versed in Thomas Jefferson’s personal and public life, parried all sorts of questions from our group. Although we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the home, the guide pointed out details that made for a memorable visit, including a wealth of Early American artifacts not duplicated by any museum.
The architectural quirks of Monticello reflect Jefferson’s inventiveness and practicality. Each room is an octagon or a half-octagon, to spread light evenly around the room, banishing dark corners. Thanks to plenty of windows, the rooms seem to meld into the outdoors.
The entrance hall contains no grand staircase – Jefferson considered it a waste of space – but provides access to all major rooms. To the east, the sitting room, decorated in a soft blue, served as the central command post for family business. Behind it, Jefferson’s library looks out onto the tree-draped porch and greenhouse. Adjoining is his observatory and bedroom, with a high skylight and creamy red velvet walls. In another space-saving move, Jefferson’s bed is built in between the walls of the two rooms, so he could climb out of bed into either room!
Parquet wood floors add a distinctive touch to the formal parlor. The adjoining cozy dining room, decorated with watercolors of Niagara, Natural Bridge, and other geologic wonders, features a Jefferson-designed revolving “serving door” and wine-bottle-sized dumbwaiter that allowed servants to send the meal into the room without entering the room.
James Madison and his wife Dolly frequently visited Monticello – enough so that Jefferson set up a first floor guestroom especially for them. With its own private terrace entrance, the room features beds tucked into alcoves, to save floor space, and a goodly amount of storage space above the beds.
A long, all-weather passage runs beneath the house – a first in home design – and at each end of the passage is a privy, built into the ends of the basement. The north terrace shelters the stables and an igloo-shaped icehouse with an earthen top. Providing fuel for the icebox, the 16-foot-deep icehouse held 62 wagon loads of ice! The south terraces shade the kitchen, smokehouse, and dairy.
A Planned Plantation
While the tour focuses on the home itself, wandering the lawns and gardens of Monticello provides a well-rounded picture of Thomas Jefferson’s estate. The thousand-foot-long garden terrace was a place he experimented with over 250 varieties of vegetables, keeping detailed notes on their growth. His orchards bore 170 different fruit varieties, a diverse mix of Old World and cultivated American species.
Jefferson’s deep love of botany, cultivated during his friendship with botanist William Bartram and visits to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, meant regular shipments of new and rare plant species arrived at his home. In 1806, he designated a portion of the estate the Grove, a portion of which became an arboretum of his “pet trees.”
After Jefferson’s passing, the plantation fell into disrepair. It wasn’t until 1939 that the Garden Club of Virginia began restoration of the formal flower gardens, based on Jefferson’s detailed notes and drawings — and the locations of perennial bulbs that continued to bloom, no matter how unkempt the gardens and lawns, after 115 years. Care was taken in 1977 to re-establish Jefferson’s vision of the 18-acre Grove, with glades and thickets and scenic views amid a forest with a gentle, open understory.
Established in 1987, the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants has a mission to collect, preserve, and distribute historic plant varieties and promote appreciation of the origins and evolution of garden plants, particularly those that Jefferson held dear. A legacy that the President would appreciate, the Center holds educational classes and forums, runs a garden shop at Monticello, and sponsors the Heritage Harvest Festival each fall.
- Monticello’s caretaker is the non-profit Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation. Check their website for a schedule of special events, including plantation community weekends. The grounds are busiest on weekends and during the summer months.
- Monticello is near Charlottesville, Virginia, a college town with ample accommodations.
- If you’re planning a weekend getaway, two other distinctive early Presidential estates are also nearby: James Madison’s Montpelier and James Monroe’s Ash Lawn.