Welcome To Monticello

A Visitor And Education Center Serves As A Gateway To What Some Hope Is A New Era At Jefferson's Estate

April 19, 2009|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,ed.gunts@baltimoresun.com

When Thomas Jefferson left the U.S. presidency 200 years ago this spring, no one needed to build a library or memorial to commemorate him.

Jefferson already had a memorial in the form of Monticello, the mountaintop estate he created near Charlottesville, Va., long before he became the nation's third president in 1801.

Jefferson felt so completely at home at Monticello that he almost never left the grounds from the spring of 1809 to the day he died in 1826.

"I am as happy nowhere else and in no other society," he wrote in 1787, "and all my wishes end where I hope my days will end, at Monticello."

More than 27 million people have gone to Monticello to learn about Jefferson and his contributions to American history, including his roles as president, author of the Declaration of Independence, former minister to France, founder of the University of Virginia and citizen farmer.

This spring has brought the completion of a new visitor and education center that promises to enhance the experience for those who make the journey from now on.

The $43 million Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith Education Center, designed by Ayers/Saint/Gross of Baltimore and others and dedicated last week, is a "21st century gateway to Monticello" that reflects an ambitious effort to help tell the story of Jefferson's many roles.

It "represents a new era at Monticello," said Leslie Greene Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the nonprofit organization that has owned Monticello since 1923. "We are extremely pleased that we will be able to offer our valued visitors not only a more comfortable experience, but also fresh perspectives on this unique place and its complex, ever fascinating owner."

"From the start, we wanted to build an environmentally sensitive facility at Monticello that would enhance our visitor services and advance our educational mission without competing with or detracting from the house and mountaintop in any way," said Daniel P. Jordan, the foundation's former president, who retired last year.

Monticello's visitor center is part of a national trend in which stewards of historic landmarks and sites are building visitor centers to serve and educate crowds that come to destinations as part of an explosion of heritage tourism in America. Examples include the recently completed visitor centers at the U.S. Capitol and Gettysburg National Military Park and the one proposed for Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

For Monticello, which means "little mountain" in Italian, the center is part of a larger campaign to restore the land around Jefferson's home to the way it looked in the early 1800s, by removing a gift shop, food stand and other facilities added within the past century.

The project was sensitive because Monticello, designed by Jefferson, is a National Historic Landmark and the only house in the U.S. designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Besides the house, which dates to about 1770, the 5,000 acres include an ornamental landscape, farm and plantation. The visitor center represents the most sweeping change to Monticello since Jefferson walked the grounds.

Because Monticello is a historic landmark, the architects could not simply plop a new building anywhere. They had to develop a strategy for protecting what is there and restoring as much as possible. Their solution was to use a site partway up the mountain to create a new setting for exhibits and teaching facilities, and make that the starting point for guests. From there, visitors can walk or take a shuttle bus to the top of the mountain for a tour of the house and grounds.

As planned by the Jefferson Foundation, the 42,000-square-foot complex includes a ticketing facility, 125-seat theater, exhibits, classrooms, cafe, restrooms and gift shop.

The Baltimore-based design team - with Adam Gross as principal in charge, Sandra Parsons Vicchio as project director, Robert Claiborne as project manager and Glenn Neighbors as project designer - divided the project into five pavilions grouped around a courtyard. The arrangement recalls Jefferson's academical village at the University of Virginia or the way the house at Monticello frames its west lawn, with the main building and side dependencies. In this case, the buildings are laid out in a pinwheel arrangement rather than a formal symmetrical plan. Building sites were selected in part because they required removing as few trees as possible.

The pavilions are connected by covered walkways. Working with landscape architect Michael Vergason, the architects designed the pavilions to follow the contours of the mountain setting and to blend into the wooded landscape. The buildings are intentionally different in appearance from Monticello's brick walls and painted trim. Materials include red cedar, local fieldstone and pitched copper roofs. The gift shop has a green roof, one of many eco-friendly design touches.

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