Driving through the beautiful Virginia countryside, you cannot escape history. But we were house hunting, on a quest to meet the Founding Fathers by visiting their official homes. This day: James Monroe, President #5, Revolutionary War fighter, Monroe Doctrine writer, public servant of 50 years, and a driving force behind America’s growth to a truly continental nation.
Virginia is modern America’s oldest ground, being the first permanent European colony in the New World. It was the largest and most successful of the 13 colonies, and four of the nation’s first five presidents – the Virginian Dynasty – called it home. If you want to see how the Founding Fathers lived, this is the place to be. Thanks to dedicated staff and volunteers, we get an inside look at family life at the home of the Monroes, preserved as a Virginia Historic Landmark, owned by the College of William and Mary, Monroe’s alma mater.
Ash Lawn – Highland
One of the peculiarities of Monroe’s estate is the sign out front that reads Ash Lawn – Highland. When Monroe purchased the land, he named the estate Highland, and so it remained until after his death. In the 1800s, the home was purchased and renamed Ash Lawn, after the line of white ash trees bordering the northwest lawn, and lining the long entryway. As work continues to restore the home, the name is also being restored to Highland, as James Monroe would have known it.
Sadly, what remains today is only a portion of the original estate. At its largest, Highland was a plantation of 3,500 acres with as many as 40 slaves. As was common, Monroe sold much of the property to pay debts, finally selling the house and remaining acreage in 1825, and moving to Oak Hill after his presidency. The home continued to change hands until 1867, when purchased by John Massey. The Massey family stayed at Ash Lawn for more than sixty years, remodeling the home to its current structure. (The white portion is original; the yellow portion was added by the Masseys.) In 1930, philanthropist Jay Winston Johns purchased the home and began offering public tours. Upon his death in 1974, the estate was bequeathed to the College of William and Mary under the condition they continue operating the home as a “historic shrine” open to the public.
But not all is lost to history. In 2016, archaeologists working at Highland uncovered the foundation of a much larger structure. Work continues to determine if that structure might actually have been the Monroe’s mansion. If that is the case, many believe the building we see today may have been a guest house.
The main house is an early-19th century farmhouse which Monroe referred to as his “cabin castle.” While appearing quite modest, it holds an eclectic collection of furnishings, artwork, and housewares that reflect the Monroe’s time spent in Europe, as well as American influences. The drawing room, for example, has a large bust of Napoleon that was a gift from the Emperor to Monroe, who served as George Washington’s Minister to France. There are also three large and beautiful paintings from Holland’s Queen Hortense, a lifelong friend of the president’s daughter Eliza. The paintings were a gift marking the christening of the Eliza’s daughter, Hortensia Monroe Hay.
Other furnishings include a Louis XVI desk in the study, which is almost identical to the “Monroe Doctrine Desk” on display at the James Monroe Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia. In the Monroe’s bedroom is their intricately carved four-poster bed, and a large bureau from Monroe’s first term as President. In the newer section of the home is a display space with several artifacts including one of my favorites, a copy of “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” the iconic painting by Emanuel Leutze. I didn’t get the connection until our guide pointed out a young Lieutenant, directly behind Washington, holding the American flag. None other than an 18-year-old James Monroe!
As with every historic home we’ve toured, photographs are not allowed inside of Highland. However, you can take a virtual tour of the home and grounds at the Encyclopedia Virginia.
Admission to Highland allows self-guided tours of the plantation buildings and grounds, including the “kitchen cellar” where some items from a colonial kitchen are on display. Nearby are several structures, which include a smoke house and the Overseers Cottage, thought to be the oldest original outbuilding. A three-room building was built in the 1980s, replacing a structure that had survived into the 20th century but is gone today. The building is based on photographic evidence and a letter from Monroe to his son-in-law that indicated the three rooms originally housed enslaved workers, but were later converted to guest rooms.
Surrounding the house are 100-year old boxwood gardens with pathways and statuary. Two of our favorite scenes at Highland are the lawn framed by boxwoods just outside the north entrance to the house, thought to be the original servant’s entry, and the tall hedges outside the east entrance. As you leave the main house after your tour you’ll see the lane of boxwoods leading to a statue of Monroe. The majestic White Oak to the right of the garden has survived from Monroe’s time, and is the oldest living oak in the area.
In addition to the home and plantation buildings, Highland includes a large, open-air performance space with astounding views of the Southwest Mountains and Montalto, the highest peak on Thomas Jefferson’s land. Special events are often held here, including the Albemarle County Fair. Agriculture and livestock are the lifeblood of the region, and Highland is still a working farm with cattle, sheep, hens and peacocks, as well as producing gardens and demonstration crops.
Thanks to a smaller-than-normal group, our tour seemed to go very quickly despite many questions for our hosts, who were gracious enough to answer even more questions after the tour. With your admission, you are free to wander the grounds and explore the estate. Sometimes, interpreters are on hand to give demonstrations and explain many aspects of plantation life and work. We spent several hours enjoying Highland, where the staff recommends allowing at least ninety minutes.
Getting to Highland
Highland (or Ash Lawn – Highland) is on James Monroe Parkway, east of Charlottesville, Virginia. A little more than three miles from east of Monticello on the Thomas Jefferson Parkway (Route 53), the James Monroe Parkway (State Route 795) intersects from the south. Charlottesville is within 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.
The estate is open to the public, with tours offered throughout every day, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Admission and tour tickets are available 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 Monticello.
Getting a Bite
Highland does have picnic grounds, and visitors can take advantage of Highland Fare for a snack, beverage, or lunch, available in the museum shop, which also offers complimentary picnic blankets.
If you have been to James Monroe’s Highland, we’d love to hear your impressions, and what else you liked in the Charlottesville area. 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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TravelLatte was the guest of James Monroe’s Highland, and we thank the staff for their hospitality; all opinions and photographs are our own.