Jefferson Country

At Monticello and nearby Charlottesville, the influences of Thomas Jefferson are everywhere to be admired.

Virginia

Cover Story

October 26, 2003|By Jerry V. Haines | Jerry V. Haines,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

IMAGINE HAVING LIVED SUCH an accomplished life that on your tombstone you neglected to mention that you had been ambassador to France, secretary of state, vice president and president of the United States. But then, how many of us are Thomas Jefferson?

And how many cities can claim not only a Jefferson, but a Madison and Monroe as well? I suspect that people would love Charlottesville, Va., even without the multi-presidential connection, particularly in the fall, when morning mists cling to the hills and enshroud the two-lane roads that wind past vineyards and horse farms.

I can understand why Jefferson, who had seen a great deal of the world for a man of his era, chose to keep his home here in his native Albemarle County.

Even today, nearly two centuries after his death, Jefferson dominates the area. The focal point is his home, two miles southeast of the city and at the crest of a "little mountain" -- in Italian, "Monticello."

As a boy growing up on his father's plantation at nearby Shadwell, he had admired the location; then as a young man he began planning a home there. His plans changed as he learned more of the world and its styles of architecture, but the version we see now, largely completed in 1809, reflects not only the influence of European masters, but his love of a new nation of limitless potential and his fascination for gadgetry.

The Monticello tour begins in the entrance hall, where Jefferson wanted arriving guests to understand immediately that they were in an American home. He had sent Lewis and Clark westward in 1803 to explore the lands of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, and they were sending back painted hides, Indian weaponry and quill work.

At Monticello, Jefferson mixed these distinctly American artifacts with examples of European art, thereby making a cultural statement to his visitors.

The tour winds through formal and informal spaces. Pains have been taken to maintain authenticity, with only a few concessions -- air-conditioning, for example.

And only a few of the volumes now in the book room actually belonged to Jefferson. His original collection of 6,700 books went to the Library of Congress after the Capitol was burned in the War of 1812. (He bought more, though: "I cannot live without books.")

The library is the first stop in Jefferson's four-room sanctum sanctorum, where he worked, read and wrote. Fortunately for modern scholars, he made copies of his writings with a polygraph -- not a lie detector, but a device that linked two pens together -- and thus recorded his words along with a copy.

He slept in an alcove bed positioned between his bedroom and his office, so that in the morning he could step out into either -- pausing first to wash his feet in cold water, a practice to which he attributed his long life. (Jefferson lived to be 83, a remarkable attainment in that time.)

The dining room displays not only the tableware and service items typical of the time, but more of Jefferson's ingenuity. A bottle-sized dumbwaiter carried wine up from the cellar below. French doors were connected through a chain device that caused both to open when only one was pushed.

Underneath the building are the service rooms -- the wine cellar, for example, and the smokehouse, icehouse and kitchen. Here also were quarters for some of the servants.

Most of the servants were, of course, slaves. Monticello's tour guides are unflinching about this controversial aspect of Jefferson's life, and conduct tours of slave quarters and workshops near the house at what is called Mulberry Row. Even questions about Sally Hemings, the slave with whom Jefferson is alleged to have had a long affair, are answered directly.

Jefferson's gardens

At the rear of the house, visitors often turn around and have a brief "aha!" moment. This is the famous view that everyone recognizes from the back of the nickel. Here also are Jefferson's gardens, whose designs he labored over. On the upper level, he created serpentine flower beds, where, with typical Jeffersonian attention to detail, flowers are carefully grouped to present a new variety every 10 feet.

If some of the plants growing there seem a little scrawny or otherwise inconsistent with modern gardeners' expectations, it's because Monticello's caretakers have striven to reproduce the varieties that existed during Jefferson's time. Modern pesticides are sometimes used, but only if there is no other way to protect the plants.

The lower-level garden is for vegetables. Again, there is a pattern: It is organized into squares according to the part of the plant that was to be harvested -- fruits, roots or leaves.

Jefferson loved to eat from his own garden (he had a particular fondness for peas) and enjoyed the challenge of introducing European varieties into this American soil.

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