“I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
- President John F. Kennedy
addressing a gathering of Nobel laureates,
April 29, 1962.
There were no rock stars in 1806. There were no movie stars, no TV stars and no big-name athletes. In the early 1800’s, statesmen were the superstars, and in the United States Thomas Jefferson was the biggest of all.
He is still big. This Tuesday and Wednesday at 9 p.m., KPBX and other public television stations will air a two-part documentary on the life of Jefferson, the latest product from award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball). Burns recently said, “In Jefferson, we have found one of the most interesting and enigmatic human beings I’ve ever tried to get to know.”
Like diehard fans today, Jefferson’s admirers in his time, from the fervent to the curious, clamored to get a close look at the Renaissance man, president and author of the Declaration of Independence. This often meant flocking to his estate, Monticello, in the Virginia highlands where they would peek through windows in hopes of catching a glimpse of their idol.
Jefferson decided he needed a retreat not only from the White House but from Monticello, as well. So in 1806 he began building a home 93 miles south of Monticello near Lynchburg. He called his new home Poplar Forest. As relatively few people today know about Poplar Forest, few in Jefferson’s day knew about it either. And that is just what he wanted.
Monticello presents a look at Jefferson the statesman. Poplar Forest affords a look at the man’s private side. And outside Richmond is Tuckahoe Plantation, his boyhood home, perhaps the best place to begin a Jefferson pilgrimage.
This H-shaped colonial plantation, about seven miles west of the Richmond city limits, sits off a country lane on the edge of the Virginia capital’s suburbs. But Tuckahoe was already here 20 years before the city of Richmond was even settled. Little has been done to alter the whitewashed main house, begun around 1715 and said by some historians to be the nation’s finest existing 18th century plantation home.
Jefferson came here as a toddler, brought by his parents from his birthplace, a farmhouse called Shadwell near Charlottesville. (Nothing of Shadwell remains. It burned in 1770.)
Young Tom’s earliest memories were of Tuckahoe. He wrote that he learned to hunt and fish here, and like many a young boy, he despised his teacher, a tutor who instructed Thomas and his cousins in a one-room schoolhouse on the plantation grounds. The schoolhouse still stands, a testament to a learned man’s learnings. It is said the school’s high ceiling instilled in Jefferson a fondness for domes, evident in many buildings he designed.
The canopy beds and most other furnishings inside Tuckahoe are period pieces, but the floorboards, panelling and most window panes are original. Centuries-old graffiti etched into windows recalls the date of a family funeral and the name of a bride or two. Eighteenth-century women often used their engagement rings to scratch their names into windows as proof that their rock was real.
Save some time to walk Plantation Street, the row of outbuildings where meat was smoked and slaves cooked and lived.
It took three days to journey from Monticello to Poplar Forest by carriage, and Jefferson often brought some of his granddaughters with him. While Jefferson would write that he “had a wonderful trip,” his granddaughters wrote that they “had a dreadful trip.” The teen-age girls found the constant bumping hard to take.
But the bounces and jostles were worth it, since the girls savored their stays with their grandfather at his retreat. Like Monticello, Poplar Forest is an octagon built according to Jefferson’s design. Octagonal-shaped houses, he felt, created a light and airy feel.
The president was evasive about Poplar Forest’s location when corresponding with acquaintances. He called it “my home in Bedford County” or “my personal retreat.” He didn’t want others to know where he went to be alone with possibly his two most valued possessions, his books and his family.
Today Poplar Forest’s location is no secret. It is on the outskirts of Lynchburg, protected by conservation-minded individuals from an encroaching subdivision.
There were no public rooms in Polar Forest as at Monticello. There is no grand entrance. This was Jefferson’s ideal Roman villa, with spaces more private and intimate than at his famous home to the north.
And unlike Monticello, Poplar Forest is not filled with ornate objects or any of Jefferson’s eccentric inventions. The home is empty inside, save for a few exhibits. Open to the public since 1986, Poplar Forest is in an ongoing state of restoration.
The guided tour takes you through vacant rooms where Jefferson read classics while his granddaughters embroidered and drew. Guides point out ghost marks where Jefferson’s alcove bed cozied against a wall and where staircases stood.
Ongoing archaeological digs are producing all sorts of early 19th century relics. Curious visitors are invited to watch through large windows as staff members in the lab piece together shards of a plate or dust off colonial dice made from animal bones.
Anyone who has seen the reverse side of a nickel has seen a likeness of Monticello, but even glossy four-color photos don’t do this architectural gem justice. Monticello, in Charlottesville, is more reflective of its owner than any early presidential home. Jefferson designed and built this house and gave it the Italian name for “little mountain.” Pronounce it “mont-ti-chello” and you’ll pass as an expert.
Outside, the most striking vision is the dome.
According to the staff, it was the first dome built on any American house. Jefferson used as his model the ancient Temple of Vesta in Rome.
Inside, Monticello breathes quiet formality. Unlike Poplar Forest, this home is graced by a commanding public entrance hall which served as a reception area. Jefferson’s love of all things mechanical is summed up by the calendar clock above the entrance door. The hands mark the time and a copper gong strikes at the hour while weights, stacked like little cannonballs on the sides, indicate days of the weeks.
Monticello is filled with Jeffersonian touches, like skylights and alcove beds. A duplicate writing device called a polygraph - sort of an early American copier - is in the study. And the best wines were always at hand. Mechanical dumbwaiters hidden in the sides of the dining room fireplace brought the finest vintages up from the wine cellar.
The elegant parlor, however, was a public room designed mainly for show. Portraits of persons Jefferson admired - John Locke, Lafayette, and Sir Walter Raleigh - deck the walls and overlook a harpsichord similar to one played by daughter Martha. Weddings and musical performances were held here.
It took slaves and facilities to make a plantation work, and Jefferson had plenty of both. The dependencies, carriage house, ice house, stables, kitchen and servants’ rooms are tucked under the hillside supporting the main house.
Outside the mansion, Jefferson’s knack for invention is in evidence as well. A marker on the property notes a square opening in the hillside labeled an air tunnel. By an arrangement of ropes running through pulley stations, human waste was carried in vessels from toilets in the house to the air tunnel. Some lucky slave had the honor of disposing it.
Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption hours later on the same day.) Jefferson is buried at Monticello in the family graveyard.
According to Jefferson’s instructions, his burial monument is inscribed with the three lifetime accomplishments he most valued: “Author of the Declaration of American Independence, Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia.”
There is no mention of him ever serving as president of the United States.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Tuckahoe Plantation, a private residence as well as a public historic site, is open year-round by appointment, 9:30-3:30, daily. Admission to house and grounds: $7 per person; for grounds only: $1. Information: Tuckahoe Plantation, 12601 River Road, Richmond, VA 23233; (804) 784-5736. Poplar Forest is open April 2-Nov. 30, Wednesday-Sunday and major holidays except Thanksgiving, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Adults: $5; less for seniors and youth. Information: Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, P.O. Box 419, Forest, VA 24551; (804) 525-1806. Monticello is open daily except Christmas. Hours are 8 a.m.-5 p.m., March-October, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. the rest of the year. Adults: $9; seniors over 62: $8; ages 6-11: $4. Monticello receives over 500,000 visitors a year; expect lines in summer, in October and on busy weekends. Early in the morning is best to avoid waits. Information: Monticello, Box 316, Charlottesville, VA 22902; (804) 984-9822. Also try to plan an hour at the Monticello Visitors Center, a plenary museum in its own right, at the junction of Interstate 64 and Route 20. Hours: daily, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m. in winter). Admission is free. For information, call (804) 984-9856. The University of Virginia is open for free tours except during holidays and exam periods. Telephone (804) 924-7969. The Commonwealth of Virginia is promoting “Jefferson’s Virginia,” nine sites associated with Jefferson scattered through the state, from Colonial Williamsburg to the Shenandoah Valley. For further information on “Jefferson’s Virginia,” call (888) 293-1776 or (888)-RICHMOND. Lodging: Richmond - Fairfield Inn by Marriott, 7300 West Broad St., doubles: $61, (804) 672-8621; Comfort Inn, 7201 West Broad St., doubles: $71-$77, (804) 672-1108. Lynchburg - Days Inn, 3320 Candler’s Mountain Road (off Route 29), doubles: $74.95, (804) 847-8655; Innkeeper, 2901 Candler’s Mountain Road, doubles: $54-$59, (804) 237-7771. Charlottesville - Ramada Inn, junction I-64 and Route 250, doubles: $50-$55, (804) 977-3300; Comfort Inn, 1807 Emmet Street, doubles: $65-$67, (804) 293-6188.
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