Thomas Jefferson's home away from home

At Poplar Forest, Jefferson's estate 90 miles southwest of the more well-known Monticello, the public man could truly enjoy his privacy.

Short Hop

May 14, 2000|By Karen M. Laski | Karen M. Laski,Special to the Sun

Scores of well-wishers, curiosity seekers, relatives and friends constantly tramped through Thomas Jefferson's house and over the grounds at Monticello. One lady even poked out a window with her parasol for a closer look inside the mansion.

Jefferson longed for "the solitude of a hermit," and a retreat free of distractions. He fulfilled his wish at Poplar Forest, his estate 90 miles southwest of Monticello near Lynchburg, Va.

When his wife, Martha, died in 1782, Jefferson inherited the 4,812-acre plantation in Bedford County, Va., from his father-in-law. Majestic tulip poplar trees on the property had inspired the estate's name long before Jefferson took possession.

It wasn't until 1806, during Jefferson's second term as president, that construction began on America's first octagonal residence. "Jefferson took the classical world to heart," says Travis McDonald, Poplar Forest's architectural restoration director. He was "forever a student." "The English Palladian movement gave Jefferson his love of octagons," McDonald explains, and the same classical style inspired other Jeffersonian designs: Monticello, the original buildings of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, and Virginia's Capitol at Richmond.

Jefferson retreated to Poplar Forest several times a year, to oversee the working tobacco farm (from which he derived a significant portion of his income) but also to escape, as Poplar Forest literature notes, "the almost perpetual round of visitors at Monticello."

After his death in 1826, the estate had a succession of owners. The house was nearly destroyed by fire in 1845. Few people outside Bedford County even knew of the unoccupied dwelling's existence.

In the late 1970s, the county allowed a developer to build several hundred homes on the estate's former dairy farm. Urban development had encroached.

Rescued by neighbors

When Poplar Forest was later put up for sale, local residents formed a nonprofit corporation to rescue and restore the house. In 1984, the site was made a National Historic Landmark.

The corporation bought the house and 49.5 acres, enough to protect the estate from further encroachment. Eventually another 451.5 acres were purchased. It wasn't until 1992 that significant research and additional funding allowed restoration to begin. Work on the exterior was completed in 1998.

Except for structural restoration, much of the interior remains unrestored. Many visitors prefer it this way, saying it gives them a better feel for the restoration process.

Jefferson would have approved. He loved construction sights. "Architecture is my delight," he wrote, "and putting things up and pulling them down, one of my favorite amusements."

Poplar Forest's design is in the best tradition of Andrea Palladio, the 16th-century Italian architect who introduced the elements of classical Greek and Roman designs into Renaissance architecture. When completed, Jefferson considered Poplar Forest "the best dwelling in the state except that of Monticello; perhaps preferable to that, as more proportioned to the faculties of a private citizen."

During the home's restoration, when brick columns on the rear portico were covered with mortar, workmen used a mixture of sand, lime and brick dust from smashed bricks -- the same mortar recipe Jefferson used on the front portico. Each spindle on the re-created balustrade was hand-turned on a lathe, just as it was done in Jefferson's era, a task accomplished by eight craftsmen in as many months.

Undoing the changes

The restoration of Poplar Forest required the undoing of alterations made by three families who had lived there. One family, the Hutters, had 13 children living in the house, which had only two bedrooms. An attic floor was added, windows lowered and dormers installed, creating a headache for archaeologists and historians.

The last residents, the Watts family, were relatively successful in camouflaging the modern plumbing and heating systems they installed. Throughout the changes in ownership, one thing remained basically the same -- the eight-sided octagonal design.

Jefferson left a written record rarely enjoyed by other historic sites. More than 1,500 letters to and from workmen, most of them conveyed on horseback, provided a wealth of construction details.

Yet, he altered the original plans during construction and continued to tinker with his design after completion, seldom recording these changes.

After entering the front door, visitors once walked down a short, narrow hallway leading to a large dining room. A well-documented 16-foot-long skylight is the only source of natural light in this otherwise windowless room. The 20-by-20-foot cube-shaped room dominates the floor plan.

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