Jefferson's Virginia, Part 1

In terms of natural beauty, the Commonwealth of Virginia ranks high on my list of east coast destinations.  Every time we drive through the state I’m amazed at the picturesque rolling hills, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and plains of grazing animals.  At Christmas we had the use of a GPS which routed us through some small country roads, giving us an even greater appreciation for the attractiveness of area.  But, obviously, Virginia has much more to offer visitors than simple geography.  Just driving along the highway seeing signs for Antietam and Appomattox Court House causes one to reflect upon and desire to learn more about our nation’s history, specifically the American Civil War.  Because we were so close to Charlottesville on our return trip from North Carolina, we decided to stop by and see some of the great buildings designed by President Thomas Jefferson…and we were not at all disappointed in our decision.

Perhaps the cooler temperatures of January in northern Virginia kept down the crowds; in any event, the actual experience of paying a visit to Jefferson’s Monticello was much more pleasant than fighting through the Biltmore Estate had been a few days before.  Included in the winter entry fee (of $17) is a tour of the mountain-top home, named from the Italian word for little mountain.  First constructed in 1772 and entirely redone in 1796, the current building has many architectural marvels that Jefferson either conceived of himself or adapted from his knowledge of French architecture from the time he served as ambassador to France in the late eighteenth century.  In the entrance hall, for instance, there is a clock, still functioning today, which tells both the day and the time.  The home contains 13 skylights, symbolic griffins in crown molding, and triple-sashed windows.  There is also an octagonal–shaped guest room (often used by another former president James Madison and his wife), a very bright chrome yellow dining room complete with two wine dumbwaiters, and a library which once held over 6,000 volumes (subsequently donated by the president to the Library of Congress after a fire destroyed its collection).  Jefferson designed his bed in a kind of alcove which allowed him to get up either on the right side into his cabinet (“study”) or on the left into his dressing room.  We learned that he soaked his feet in a bowl of cold water upon rising to wake up each morning!  (Wouldn't catch me doing that...)  A set of stairs in the dressing room leads up to a closet which used to contain Jefferson's clothing.  The kitchen, wine and beer cellars are also available to see in the basement of the house.

Besides the understated splendor of the neoclassical building, there are many interesting decorative elements as well: elk antlers sent by Lewis and Clark from their transcontinental expedition, native American art similar to that prized by the former president, and famous portraits of Jefferson by Thomas Sully and Gilbert Stuart.  Visitors can also walk around the property and see the president’s grave, the fish pond, and the gardens.  Thomas Jefferson was a true renaissance man whose broad interests and expertise were nothing short of outstanding.  A politician, architect, traveler, avid reader, rabid learner, and speaker of several languages, he even taught himself to read Spanish during his transatlantic trips to Europe.  A trip to Monticello helps tourists to understand what prompted President Kennedy to tell a group of Nobel Prize winners at a dinner at the White House: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together in the White House—with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."  Next week we'll examine other architectural accomplishments of this great man.

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