Thursday, March 6, 2014

Visiting Monticello

Monticello, Jefferson’s “little mount” is a national historic landmark upheld by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation which runs the house as a museum and interactive estate. Inheriting land from his father, Jefferson began construction at twenty six and eventually accomplished the plantation in 1772 upon which he cultivated tobacco and wheat. After acquiring modern architectural ideals from his time spent in Europe after the death of his wife, Martha Skelton, Jefferson decided to renovate his homestead into a neoclassical structure. Throughout his presidency, from 1809 until his death in 1826, he continued to remodel-a process which was adapted by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. The private non-profit organization purchased the property in 1923 and currently operates Monticello as a museum and educational institution.

I drove through thick Virginian wood until I reached the site prized atop a secluded buff in Charlottesville, Virginia. The villa overlooks the surrounding landscape and a grand visitors’ center that rests at the base of Monticello. Decorated by a naturalistic layout, the epicenter contains a ticket office, fountain, picnic tables, and a store that guests can browse while waiting to load onto a bus which carries tourists to the guided tour area. Once divided into a group, I was escorted about the premises by a tour guide. We approached the house along a gravely road and eventually I vaulted the steps of Monticello herself. Beginning at the Entrance Hall, the tour then proceeded to the study, library, private bedrooms, and parlor. Once the tour concluded on the balcony, visitors were allowed to roam freely.

Highly interested in horticulture, botany and agriculture, Jefferson entertained a lifelong pursuit of beautifying his grounds, establishing and nurturing an impressive flower and vegetable garden and vineyard. Fortunately the Garden Club of Virginia managed to reconstruct Jefferson’s garden to its current state, providing the public with a greenhouse blooming with over one hundred and five different species. I took advantage of this opportunity to explore the gardens, Jefferson’s prized orchard, and slave quarters along Mulberry Road before paying my respects at the family graveyard.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the statesman’s home was the welcome in which Thomas greeted his many visitors. Stunning his guests with revolutionary architecture and a personal reception, Jefferson also desired to impart his guests with a sliver of knowledge, an appreciation for culture and a portion of America’s rich history. He impressively furnished the Entrance Hall with maps, fossils, antlers, hides and various artifacts which Lewis and Clark had collected along their expedition, a mission personally sponsored by the Third President.
Serving as a museum and conversation piece, the Entrance Hall is filled with natural relics, Native American finery and artistic pieces that were meant to entertain and educate Jefferson's house guests. A humorous finding within this scene is that of a bust of Alexander Hamilton, his political opponent, fixed to eternally gaze across at the stony replica of Jefferson. A rather amusing detail is that Jefferson crafted his own likeness slightly larger than the Federalist. My tour guide explained that the two adversaries were intended to be “opposed in death” as they were in life; serving as a motivational challenge for Jefferson whenever he passed his threshold.

However, my favorite portions of Jefferson’s house were the parlor and the “Madison” room. Honorably, the Jefferson family referred to the west wing of the house as the Madison room for James and Dolly frequently visited and would often enjoy months of their dear friend’s company. On the other hand, the parlor featured as a living room specifically intended for discussion and entertainment. Jefferson is famously known as a violinist while many of his family members were also talented musicians who enjoyed hours of conversation, dancing and chess. The family would typically gather in the evenings to read. Virginia Randolph, Jefferson’s granddaughter, later recalled that sometimes while she was reading she would see him “raise his eyes from his own book, and look round on the little circle of readers and smile.” Reading would prove to be one of Jefferson’s greatest joys and in order to accommodate his company; Thomas installed a variety of chairs and sofas about Monticello, such as the campeachy chair.

Known as “siesta” chairs, Jefferson was often seen reclining in one with a book. Encouraged to try out the comfortable chair, I kindly took up the offer. I highly recommend its luxurious charm but inwardly cringed at the price of another campeachy I found in the store. I moved on from the chair and soon became fascinated by the numerous innovations Jefferson crafted which were showcased about the parlor. Jefferson is credited for designing a revolving closet, a dumbwaiter system based on the French dinning style, a weighted clock and even a dual pen which aided his many annotations.

Besides hosting notable figures that inspired Jefferson’s personal ideology, Jefferson also decorated the parlor and many of his private studies with busts of his close companions including Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, George Washington and even the distant Marquis de Lafayette. As I highly regard the French general, I was delighted to discover that his likeness was scattered about Monticello. Perhaps inspired during his tenure as Minister to France, Jefferson borrowed heavily from the French. Utilizing their sliding doors, modernized color schemes and artistic patterns, Jefferson designed his beloved home in an unconventional method unfamiliar to Colonial America.

Monticello remains an internationally acclaimed portion of world heritage, the only American house to be protected by the United Nation’s as an invaluable treasure and resource. Fun and interactive, the Monticello website is well organized with professional and engaging graphics and a surplus of links that are categorized according to Jefferson’s personal life, the architecture and the overall layout of his home. The website is user friendly and makes observing different portions of the site accessible while offering educational field trips, behind the scenes tours and holiday packages.
Additionally, the site features an elaborate greeting center and shop which contains authentic recipes, cheeses, wines, candles and books relating to the 18th century as well as tourist merchandise. The tour was an appropriate length and set at an affordable price although I wish one was allowed to study the rooms to a greater extent during or after the tour. In addition to receiving funding from private sponsors, the horde of annual tourists provides an ample income to regulate and improve the grounds for public history. Overall, this historic site is properly managed and maintained by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation which has successfully operated Monticello and intends to preserve the legacy of Thomas Jefferson for generations.

Suggested Reading:

Hatch, Peter J. “A Rich Spot of Earth”, Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello.
Fleming, Thomas. "The Jew Who Helped Save Monticello", The Jewish Digest, February 1974: 43–49.
"Monticello (Thomas Jefferson House)". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2014.

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