Monday, January 15, 2007

My DC Trip...Part II: Monticello

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello was simply gorgeous! I did the house tour which was just wonderful. I’d always had a picture in my head of Monticello and this was so much more. This was my main goal and I’m really glad I made the two hour drive from DC. Let’s start with a map of the plantation:

Monticello has never been heavily renovated – it never had to be. It was kept up since Jefferson’s built it and as such is a great opportunity to see the house he built and lived in. About 60% of the furnishings are original – that is a large amount for a place like this. The rest of the house is as faithfully as possible recreated from historical evidence.

Now the first thing you will notice about the house is that it is on a big hill (Virginia calls it a mountain) and looks over Charlottesville. It is really an awesome panorama of the surrounding land. I never realized that the house was so high! See the picture below for some of the view:

The house tour is really neat. You have several great online tour options. The house is a mass of different styles and as such as great character. Jefferson was self-taught in architecture and started out very neoclassical, but after his stint in France as US Ambassador came back and added French additions. The entrance hall to Monticello is really breathtaking. There are all kinds of really cool stuff on the walls. Antlers from the Lewis and Clark expedition, pieces of sculpture, a huge plantation clock…you get the picture. The plantation clock is controlled by weights that also tell you the day of the week. But the room wasn’t tall enough so Jefferson put a hole in the floor for the weights to go through and the Saturday marker is actually below the house – you can see it from outside if you know where to look. In the next room, he had lots of portraits and sculptures of Revolutionary War heroes and other great pieces of artwork. He even has a bust of his enemy, Alexander Hamilton. He put himself and Hamilton at opposite corners of the room so they could spar at each other for eternity.

Jefferson’s bedroom is a really neat room. The bed is actually in the middle attached two walls that come out and hold it off the floor. It is a variation on an alcove bed. It is the coolest thing in the house to me. Jefferson hated wasted space and was always working on ways to better use space. The area above the bed is a storage room for off-seasonal clothes.

You can see a complete alcove bed in one of the guest bedrooms. This room is actually an octagon.

If you look at the dining room in the panorama you can see the doors between this room and next are two paned. The reason is that Jefferson wanted light, but the windows made it too cold in the winter, so he doubled the doors to keep the other rooms warm.

This is just a part of house. The tour lets you see the first floor, but the top two floors are closed as the stairs are too narrow for tours.

This is the corridor between the kitchen (which wasn’t in the house) and the dining room. The slaves would bring the food into the house for the meals from the kitchen. There is a revolving door to the dining room so the slaves could put the food on it, nicely plated now and turn it and the butler could serve it. And you never saw anyone but the butler.

The grounds are also huge and you can take a self-guided tour of these. Monticello also offers information on the enslaved community and the ongoing archeology. The tour guides do bring up Sally Hemmings and the fact that Jefferson did father at least one of her children, if not all of them.

Jefferson’s house and grounds were a large experiment to him. He was always working with new breeds of plants, new additions to the grounds and house. You can explore a lot of this online, but it is definitely worth the time to see in person as well. Jefferson actually had to buy a lot of food for his household because so much of his crop was experimental.

Jefferson died in substantially in debt and the house was sold to pay off these debts. His family, most of whom lived with him at different times (his choice – he wanted all his family to live there), had to move out. His books were sold once during his lifetime to replace the Library of Congress after DC was burned in the War of 1812, but he replaced it and they were sold after his death to help pay off debts. The books at Monticello today are mostly only similar volumes to those that he owned at the end of his life, not his actual books. Monticello today only has a couple of his original volumes.

The website offers a substantial amount of education material for teachers. I could go on for much longer, but let’s just end with a few things to remember when visiting Monticello:

  • Monticello is pretty easy to find as the signs are pretty good, but the visitor center is a bit confusing. When you come into the area off Interstate 64, there are visitor’s center signs AND signs for Monticello. The visitor’s center is actually a ways off and really doesn’t have anything you need to visit Monticello. You buy your tickets at Monticello for the house tour so you actually don’t need to stop at the visitor’s center. Just follow the signs for Monticello and ignore the signs for the visitor’s center unless you want to go through the museum. They are in the process of moving to the visitor’s center to Monticello for this very reason.
  • That brings me to my next point – there is construction at Monticello. The house isn’t being renovated or the grounds, just the new visitor’s center being added so don’t be deterred by the sights and sounds of construction.
  • The road to Monticello is actually fairly steep and windy so be careful once you get off Route 53. Especially if you are visiting in the winter or if weather is inclement.
  • Tickets for the tour are $15, which I think is REALLY expensive, but I did have a great experience. Monticello is privately owned, which I’m sure contributes to this high cost, although the Thomas Jefferson Foundation that owns and operates the plantation is nonprofit. Children are cheaper and there are discounts for large groups. You buy your tickets at the parking lot and then are bused up to the house.
  • As typical, there is no photography in the house.

Stay tuned for Part III: Ashlawn

Missed Part I: Montpelier and the Introduction?


Jennie W said...

I forgot to post this: I took the exterior shots, the interior shots come from the Monticello website. So in other words: the good ones are theirs, the bad ones are mine!

The Tour Marm said...

Welcome to Virginia!

This is wonderful!

BUT you missed a gem: Poplar Forest, Jefferson's retreat.

They have a wonderful weekend in May (normally on my birthday) where Mr. Jefferson actually hosts!

Here's the website:

And the National D-Day Memorial is not too far from here.

Jennie W said...

Thanks for the tip - that house looks gorgeous! I will definitely have to check it out if I'm in the area again!