Jefferson's Virginia From Tuckahoe to Monticello, following in the footsteps of America's Renaissance man

September 21, 1997|By Story and photos by Dale M. Brown | Story and photos by Dale M. Brown,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

We reached out and touched Thomas Jefferson ... at least my wife and I felt we did when we entered his world on a recent driving tour of Virginia's Jefferson country. We discovered that the state where this extraordinary American was born, raised and passed his last years is so rich in structures and landscapes associated with him that he is a presence here still. Seeing his world in three dimensions made him seem even more real to us than did the commendable Ken Burns' television treatment of his life.

It was Burns' two-part series on PBS earlier this year that reawakened our interest in the multifaceted Jefferson, who was not only a politician, statesman and sage, but scientist, musician, gardener, architect and more -- probably the closest to a Renaissance man that the United States has produced. When we learned that we could obtain Jefferson's Virginia Passports from the Virginia Tourism Corp. for discounted admissions to five sites where Jefferson lived and worked, we leaped at the opportunity. The passports -- which cost $57 each and saved us $50 -- arrived with an illustrated guide enumerating not only the places with the strongest Jefferson connections, but also telling us how to get to them by car, what the visiting hours are and whether tours are available.

We drew up our own itinerary, deciding to start in Richmond because Tuckahoe Plantation, Jefferson's home during much of his childhood, lies just minutes from the center of town. With Charlottesville only an hour's drive from Richmond via Interstate 64, it made sense to go there next and visit its twin jewels: Jefferson's splendid home, Monticello, and his Academical Village, his term for the University of Virginia, which he founded and designed. From Charlottesville, we would head for Lynchburg, at the edge of which sits the great man's little-known country retreat and hideaway, Poplar Forest, now undergoing a complete restoration.

Lynchburg would put us within striking distance of Natural Bridge, a geological wonder that Jefferson admired so much that he bought it from King George III in 1774, just two years before the Colonies declared independence.

As the finale of our journey through his life, we chose Colonial Williamsburg, where the young Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary and had some of his first political experiences as a delegate to the House of Burgesses and as governor of the new state of Virginia.

Earliest memory

I do not use the word "magical" often when talking about a place, but I will use it to describe Tuckahoe, considered by many architectural historians to be the finest surviving early-18th-century plantation in the United States. We drove through the gate and followed a mile-long, cedar-lined, dirt road to a grassy parking area behind the trees. The white clapboard house with black shutters seemed to lift up on its sea of lawn as we approached.

How must it have looked in 1745 to the boy Jefferson, when he first beheld it in the company of his family? Only 2 or 3 years old at the time, he arrived here on horseback from Shadwell, his birthplace close to Monticello. Jefferson counted this moment as his earliest memory. How wonderful that our first impression should correspond to his.

Tuckahoe is privately owned, and permission to visit the grounds and house must be obtained in advance from the occupants, Tad and Sue Thompson, who live there with their four children and the ghosts of the past. A small brochure highlighting the plantation's landmarks may be plucked from a white box on a post near the parking area. We found Sue Thompson at work in her garden, pulling ivy from a brick wall. A friendly, gracious woman, she urged us to have a look around the grounds and to be sure to visit the schoolhouse where Jefferson received his first lessons between 1748 and 1752.

As we circled the house, we could see that it was much bigger than we had initially thought. In fact, it is really two connected houses laid out like a capital H, with the south side, the original main entrance, overlooking the James River. To the east stands the school building, a one-room, three-window affair.

Sue Thompson was waiting for us on the stoop when we returned from our stroll. She led us from one paneled room to another, each filled with antiques and paintings.

But the room that most impressed us was the one in which the Thompson family dines on formal occasions. It was not the names and dates scratched onto the panes by two centuries of owners and guests that captivated me, but the light streaming through the four tall windows. Jefferson, the product of the European philosophical Enlightenment, loved light as if it were truth itself, and he let it stream into all the buildings he designed.

In downtown Richmond, we would see clear evidence of how Jefferson incorporated light into his architecture, when we visited the Virginia State Capitol, the masterpiece he designed in 1785.

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