Monticello is even better the second time around

April 19, 1992|By Otile McManus | Otile McManus,Boston Globe

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Monticello is even better the second time around.

Not that the first time wasn't wonderful in its own way. That initial visit took place more than 30 years ago, a gift from my godmother on the occasion of my graduation from grammar school. I was not yet 14, but still, the house on the "little mountain" in the Virginia countryside and Thomas Jefferson, the man whose 40-year project it was, captured my imagination and, even more, my heart.

The second time around at Jefferson's Monticello has only reinforced the view that the man still doesn't get nearly enough credit, or the right kind of credit, for his accomplishments at home. I know he has been long hailed as the first American architect, even though historians until this century often ascribed the design to others. I know his plan for the University of Virginia, down the road in downtown Charlottesville, along with Jefferson's handsome rotunda there, is taught in the curriculum FTC of every design school in America. I know Jefferson himself once said that "Architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down one of my favorite amusements."

To me, it is Jefferson's putting up and pulling down, not his architecture in itself, that is ultimately significant for most of his countrymen. He was a homeowner obsessed with remodeling. In that, he may be the father of home renovation in America, the man who set an agenda for a nation that spends billions every year putting up and pulling down in their own versions of Jefferson's house on the hill. After all, he began construction on the land he inherited from his father in 1769 and didn't really finish building until well after he left the White House and returned to Virginia in 1809. His younger daughter, Maria, was married in the front parlor in 1797, while the rest of the house was torn apart during a major reconstruction project.

Our tour guide pointed out that during Jefferson's time, Monticello bore little resemblance to what we see now. Hardly static and serene, it was a work in progress, a house with plaster dust, a permanent construction site. Even so, Monticello today seems more like a house than a house museum. You can imagine moving in and settling down in a routine of family life -- though something would obviously have to be done about the narrow stairways. Jefferson didn't want to waste space on them, and now the public safety codes prohibit visitors from ascending to the second-floor rooms.

Libby Fosso, a spokeswoman for the Monticello Foundation, the private nonprofit foundation that owns and operates Jefferson's property, says more than half a million visitors

come to tour every year. She says she believes they are drawn to the house because it reveals such a human and humane side of an American giant. They see him in the house, but they see themselves in the house as well, whether they are homeowners or only aspirants to the bedrock American dream. Any one of us who has ever contemplated knocking down a wall, building an addition or hanging our own wallpaper can relate to Monticello in a way that is very different from the experience at Washington's Mount Vernon, Roosevelt's Hyde Park or Adams' clapboarded estate in Quincy, Mass.

Ms. Fosso says the foundation, which bought the house from the family that owned it in 1923, is expecting that even greater numbers of visitors will be drawn to Monticello next year for the 250th anniversary of Jefferson's birth. Curators are preparing a special one-time-only, yearlong exhibit of objects long gone from the estate that was sold to pay his debts after Jefferson's death on July 4, 1826 -- 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Borrowed from descendants, private collections and museums all over the country, the furniture, paintings, papers and artifacts will be placed in the house as they were during Jefferson's lifetime.

"You know, visitors started coming to Monticello right after Jefferson's death, and they've been coming ever since, even when the house was in private hands," Ms. Fosso explains. "The attraction is powerful and profound, and I imagine it will continue long after we're gone."

How could it not?

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