Archive for Sunday, June 27, 2004

Monticello shows modern interests

Thomas Jefferson’s estate displays love of gadgets, home improvement

June 27, 2004


— Thomas Jefferson was the quintessential 18th-century man -- a revolutionary tempered by reason. Yet a visit to his estate, Monticello, reveals his habits and interests to have been surprisingly similar to those of many 21st-century Americans.

For example, Jefferson wrote almost 20,000 letters and kept detailed meteorological records; you can almost imagine him addicted to e-mail and the Weather Channel. His obsession with gadgets, home improvement and gardening also seem contemporary. He returned from France with 86 crates of wallpaper, copper pots, art, books and housewares; he planted more than 200 varieties of grapes in a doomed effort to produce wine; and he literally renovated his house for 40 years. Anybody who's ever overspent at Home Depot or The Sharper Image can relate to that.

Perhaps Jefferson's modern tastes and hobbies help explain why Monticello is one of the most popular attractions associated with any U.S. president, hosting a half-million visitors annually. And if a picture of that domed building with neoclassical columns seems familiar even though you've never been there, look at an ordinary nickel. You probably don't carry pictures of your own home around, but you do carry a picture of Jefferson's.

Showcase of talents

Jefferson's accomplishments were many -- author of the Declaration of Independence, secretary of state, vice president, president, minister to France, governor of Virginia and founder of the University of Virginia. But Monticello showcases his talents as architect and scientist. Every aspect of his designs had a purpose, beginning with Monticello's entrance hall.

Tour guide Gina Lombardi explained that Jefferson wanted to edify visitors from the moment they walked in. Displays in the hall include maps, copies of Old Master paintings, a model of a pyramid, and items collected in the West by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. As president, Jefferson had commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition. Buffalo hides given to them by Indians drape the balcony; antlers they collected are on the wall.

Love of windows

Monticello's 33 rooms are spread over three stories and a basement. The upper floors, where Jefferson's daughter Martha raised her 11 children, are closed to the public. But the first-floor tour of Jefferson's bedroom, study, library, parlor, tea room and dining room provides plenty of insights.

A clock he designed sat at the foot of his bed in an era when only one in 10 families owned a timepiece, Lombardi said.

A visitor walks toward the entrance to Thomas Jefferson's home
Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. The home hosts half-million
visitors annually.

A visitor walks toward the entrance to Thomas Jefferson's home Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. The home hosts half-million visitors annually.

She added that "most houses in Virginia would not have had even a fraction of the windows" found in Monticello, not to mention its 13 skylights; Jefferson liked natural light.

Monticello's house slaves lived and worked in L-shaped wings called "Dependencies." The Dependencies housed the kitchen, smoke house, ice house, dairy and stables, and were connected to the cellar by an all-weather passageway; their roofs formed the terraces for the main floor.

The little mountain

Jefferson was born in a frontier farm at the foot of Monticello Mountain. He inherited the land, chose the mountaintop for his future home because he liked the view, and began clearing the land in 1768 at age 25. (Monticello -- pronounced Monti-CHELL-o -- is Italian for little mountain.) He redesigned the building after returning from France, adding the dome, new rooms, and altering the facade to give the illusion of a single story. Renovations continued until 1809.

No Monticello visit is complete without an outdoor tour. "Few topics tell us more about Jefferson than gardening," said Peter Hatch, Monticello's gardens and grounds director. "He was a scientist, a designer, a family man and a lover of nature." He had contests with neighbors over who could grow the first peas of spring; he loved planting tulips with his granddaughters; and like many modern Americans, he used gardening to escape work-related stress and as a hobby in retirement.

Garden laboratories

If you go...Location: Monticello is on Route 53 in Charlottesville, near the intersection of Interstate 64 (exit 121) and Route 20, 120 miles from Williamsburg and 125 miles from Washington, D.C.Admission: Adults, $13; children 6 to 11, $6. Admission includes guided tours of house and surrounding gardens. Special tours for families with children will be available from June 15 to Aug. 15.Hours: Open daily except Christmas. March through October, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; November through February, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.Tips: Arrive early to beat the crowds. Allow at least four hours for tours and for exploring the grounds, shops, cemetery and other open areas. Bring a picnic, visit the concession stand or dine at a nearby Colonial-era tavern, Michie's, at 683 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, (434) 977-1234 or (lunch entrees $14 and up).Contact: or (434) 984-9822.

Jefferson used his gardens as a laboratory, growing hundreds of varieties of vegetables and fruits and keeping meticulous records. "The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture," Jefferson said.

He had no luck starting a vineyard with European grapes. "Few gardeners failed as much as he did," Hatch said.

In 1985, with the help of modern pesticides, Jefferson's vineyards were revived. Monticello now sells wine made from a grape variety documented by Jefferson.

Jefferson also designed 20 oval flower beds and walkways called roundabouts, then filled them with a mix of European imports like tulips and native American plants -- including specimens provided by Lewis and Clark.

A measure of immortality

Recreating these gardens has been difficult. Described plants cannot always be identified, and cultivated varieties have changed a lot in 200 years. "We are trying to be as authentic as we can be, but sometimes we compromise," said Gabriele Rausse, associate director of gardens and grounds.

But as in Jefferson's day, forest, farm and flowers still converge at Monticello in waves of green, brown, yellow, purple and red. What's blooming depends on when you visit, but may include poppies, phlox, calendula, roses, lilies, sweetpeas, foxglove and larkspur.

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed. Fellow patriot John Adams died the same day; his last words were "Jefferson survives."

Actually Jefferson had died a few hours earlier. But if Monticello is a measure of Jefferson's immortality, then maybe Adams was right.

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