Thomas Jefferson was the third President of the United States. His brilliance and great writing skills are well known. He authored one of the greatest statements of liberty in human history, the Declaration of Independence (if you've never read it before, give it a look). Jefferson served in many political offices but he was also a scientist, avid gardener and landscape designer, plantation (and yes, slave) owner, fanatical reader and book collector, and also a self-educated architect and building designer of unusual ability. Not only did he build a magnificent home – Monticello — on the hills near Charlottesville, he also founded, designed and supervised the building of its world famous University of Virginia. These two structures are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Monticello the only home in the United States so honored.
One of the highlights of any visit to Virginia is a stop in Monticello, something I’d recommend without reservation to anyone. Monticello is located on the outskirts of Charlottesville and is built on a hilltop Jefferson selected for this purpose as a young man. The building of Monticello took place in several phases over a 40 year period and it was Jefferson’s home from 1770 until he died in 1826 (of interest, both he and his colleague John Adams died on that July 4th, exactly 50 years after they had signed the Declaration of Independence). The building of Monticello was always done using architectural plans drafted by Jefferson and usually under his direct supervision. Jefferson was heavily influenced by the architecture of Europe which he studied in detail during his ambassadorship to France, and was especially fond of Roman architecture. Monticello reflects these interests.
(Monticello Visitor Center)
Your visit to Monticello begins at its lavish Visitor Center, recently built at a cost of over $50,000,000. The Center features a short film of Jefferson’s life that’s worth viewing and the Smith Education Center, a museum filled with artifacts from Jefferson’s life and the microcosm of Monticello, which is worth an hour’s visit. From the visitor center you have the option of walking uphill to the home site or taking a shuttle. Most people take the bus uphill, which drops you off close to the front door of the estate. You will need a timed ticket for a specific home tour and during peak holiday periods it’s good to make reservations well in advance on the Monticello website.
(Sundial at Monticello)
As you enter Jefferson’s home for your guided tour you will be impressed by the spaciousness of the place, by the use of windows and daylight, and by its excellent views of the property, surrounding foothills and distant Blue Ridge Mountains. Jefferson loved to learn and collect and his home reflects these passions. For example, in the entrance hall are artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition (which he commissioned) as well as assorted fossils (rumor has it that one of Jefferson’s motives in sending Lewis and Clark out west to see if they could find any surviving mastodons), maps, paintings, statues and many books. The tour will walk you through Jefferson’s library, study, bedroom, parlor/living room, dining room and tea room. While genuinely an impressive place, to me Monticello still felt like a home and not a museum. I think you’ll be impressed at the ingenuity and pragmatism exhibited by Jefferson in so many aspects of the design of his home. For example, his clever designs for food and wine dumbwaiters, innovative use of double pane windows, etc. etc. Unfortunately there is no photography allowed inside the mansion so I can't share this with you.
(Crocuses in Monticello's lawn)
After the house tour you’re allowed to independently visit the basement and North and South terraces, which housed the stables, kitchens, food, beer and wine storage, cook and some slave quarters, etc. And you can spend all the time you want visiting the beautiful lawn, flower beds, vineyards, vegetable garden and orchards. During peak periods tours of the gardens are available. We visited in March and Virginia was recovering from a harsh winter, so only rare (but beautiful) crocuses and daffodils were in bloom. We explored the grounds, including Mulberry Row (where slaves and workmen lived near the mansion) and then walked back to the visitor center. If you’re able, this walk is worth doing because it takes you past the family burial plot, including President Jefferson’s grave, which is still controlled by Jefferson’s descendants.
President Jefferson’s tombstone is large but the epitaph on it, which he wrote, indicates that he wanted to be remembered for three things – writing the Declaration of Independence, the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and being the father of the University of Virginia. Notably absent from his personal list of accomplishments was being President of the United States. Admittedly the United States was a much smaller and less powerful country when he was President, but still he was its chief executive! So I find this omission amazing and speaks legion of Jefferson’s character and to me makes him all the more interesting.
Go discover more about this brilliant man and where he lived for yourself!