Hey, do you have a nickel? That is, an American nickel? There’s Thomas Jefferson on one side, and his mountaintop estate Monticello on the other. Some of us have seen it all of our lives and know the building almost intuitively. But what we learned by visiting Monticello is that, as beautiful as the outside is, what’s inside is astounding.
Before we begin, a note: Photography is not allowed inside of Monticello. Surprisingly, many of the artifacts and artworks are not owned by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello. Instead, they are on loan from various museums and private collections. Intellectual Property rights get involved, and it gets messy. Short story: Put your camera away. Bummer. You’ll have to take our word for it: the home is filled with pure gold! Okay, not really, but it is a treasure chest of all that is Jefferson. (Thankfully, you can see photographs from inside the mansion at Monticello.org.)
It has been said (quite often) that no other house more accurately reflects the personality of its owner than Monticello, and it’s easy to understand why. Almost everything captured Jefferson’s attention, and much of it is on display. In the foyer, the floor is painted green and, looking around the room, hodgepodge is the word that comes to mind. It’s somewhere between a museum of natural history and a roadside attraction. Could this be what Jefferson’s home really looked like? After visiting Monticello in 1815, linguist and historian George Ticknor described it like this:
You enter, by a glass folding-door, into a hall which reminds you of Fielding’s ‘Man of the Mountain’ by the strange furniture of its walls. On one side hang the head and horns of an elk, a deer, and a buffalo; another is covered with curiosities which Lewis and Clark found in their wild and perilous expedition. On the third, among many other striking matters, was the head of a mammoth, or, as Curier calls it, a mastodon…On the fourth side, in odd union with a fine painting of the Repentance of Saint Peter, is an Indian map on leather, of the southern waters of the Missouri, and an Indian representation of a bloody battle, handed down in their tradition. Through this hall-or rather museum-we passed to the Dining Room…”
– George Ticknor; Peterson, Merrill, ed. Visitors to Monticello. University of Virginia Press, 1989
More than 200 years later, that description is completely accurate. When you do pass into the next room, in our case the library, things start to calm down. This is the entrance to Jefferson’s private domain, and the chaos of the foyer gives way to order and practicality. A well-known bookworm, some visitors estimated his library held as many as 20,000 books in several languages, all of which he was fluent in. Be sure to scan the shelves as you pass. My personal favorite: his worn copy of Shakespeare’s XX Plays.)
The library opens to his cabinet, or study, where Jefferson did much of his work and research. His drafting desk and writing table are here. As if illustrating his interest in everything small and great, there is a microscope, a telescope, and an operating model of the solar system. It is obviously the room of a man enamored of science.
But Jefferson was also a practical man ahead of his time. At on one side of the study is a bed, connecting the study with the third room of his private quarters, the bed chamber. His bed rests in the alcove open to both rooms – not wanting to waste space in the room, every chamber has an alcove bed. Just above his is what could be the first “walk-in closet.” Everything Jefferson needed was conveniently close at hand in his suite of rooms.
Jefferson’s chambers open to the parlor, the social hub of Monticello where guests were entertained, music was played, and the President often danced. The room also served as Jefferson’s art gallery where portraits of his friends Washington, Madison, Monroe, and the Marquis de Lafayette hung. Monticello’s collection is impressive, even by today’s standards. As a backdrop, a wall of full length windows frame the lawn and gardens beyond.
The octagon was one of Jefferson’s favorite architectural devices, and the downstairs octagonal bedroom was a favorite of guests. In particular, close friends James and Dolly Madison would stay here when they visited. More bedrooms, used by family and guests, are upstairs. Interestingly, the second floor rooms have windows at floor level, appearing from the outside to be on one story, rather than two, to appear more modest. Compared to the ornate furnishings and embellished architecture in the public areas, the second floor is quite plain, dominated by a few large rooms that held, according to family, sometimes a dozen children or more.
Jefferson crowned Monticello with its most distinctive feature, the Dome Room. The large, open room is another octagon, perfectly symmetrical with large porthole windows all around. An oculus above gives the impression of a small Pantheon, but the dome may have been inspired by Trajan’s Forum. Beautiful as it is, the Dome Room was largely unused except for a storage space above the west portico, which Jefferson’s granddaughter, Virginia Jefferson Randolph, turned into a hide-out.
While touring the home, you would be hard pressed to determine which of the artifacts are original, and which are reproductions or replacements. In the library, for example, several of Jefferson’s original books are on display (behind glass) but many more were lost, or are kept elsewhere. Thanks to Jefferson’s copious notes (he catalogued every book he owned), the missing books have been replaced with the exact same volumes, right down to the edition when possible. Those who care for the estate are as meticulous as Jefferson was.
Speaking of being meticulous, you will note throughout the estate that, for a home which is hundreds of years old, it is in very good condition. That is thanks to thorough and continuing restoration by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. The Mountaintop Project has been dedicated to restoring the estate as Jefferson knew it, and the main house is fresh off a five year restoration.
The fact that his estate is undergoing a massive restoration is ironically Jeffersonian. The man was a skilled architect with unmatched vision. He would continually build, dismantle, and rebuild the mansion. According to biographer B. L. Rayner, Jefferson said he hoped Monticello would always be under construction, so to speak, proclaiming “architecture is my delight, and putting up, and pulling down one of my favorite amusements.” So it’s appropriate that the estate is in near-constant renovation; ironic that it’s being returned to its appearance during Jefferson’s lifetime.
Given all of the restoration, you want to be sure and see as much of Monticello as you can. There are several tour options, starting with the Day Pass which includes access to the grounds, a guided, half-hour tour of the ground floor and, seasonally, the Slavery at Monticello and Gardens & Grounds tours. There is also a Family Friendly Day Pass tailored to families with children from 5 to 11, but otherwise the same. Two tours, the Behind the Scenes and Monticello Sunset Pass, venture above the ground floor but often sell out. If you’re thinking about these tours, book early and be aware that there are several steep, narrow staircases; oddities of Jefferson’s view that a grand stairway is a waste of space.
We opted for the Behind the Scenes tour and were not disappointed. Our host and guide was brilliant. His command of Jefferson’s life and history, and the times he lived in, was astounding. Our group of twelve spent two hours together, exploring Monticello room by room. We saw literally everything, including the presidential privy – one place we’re happy pictures were not allowed.
Getting to Monticello
Monticello is just east of Charlottesville, Virginia, which is where we stayed. It took us less than 20 minutes to drive from our hotel, but it’s less than three hours driving from Norfolk, Virginia, and Washington, DC. Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport (CHO) is served by daily flights by American Airlines, Delta, and United Airlines.
Monticello is open every day except Christmas; hours vary seasonally. Admission and tour tickets are available online and at the Visitor’s Center. Check the website in advance to find hours and tours available during your visit. You can also get a Neighborhood Pass, which includes admission to the nearby Michie Tavern and Ash Lawn-Highland, the home of Fifth President James Monroe, Jefferson’s friend and neighbor.
Getting a Bite
The Monticello Café at the Visitor’s Center offers lunch, snacks, and hot and cold drinks. If you’re there at the right time, the café offers seasonal items made from produce grown in Jefferson’s restored vegetable garden.
If you have been to Monticello, we’d love to hear your impressions. Or, if it’s on your bucket list, what are you most looking forward to? Let us know with a comment!
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