As I mentioned briefly in the last post, this was our second trip to Shenandoah within a year. Last time, in the fall, we eschewed a trip to Monticello because, at two hours, it seemed like a far drive. This time, not only were we staying a little bit closer, but we were armed with the knowledge that two hours is not a very long drive in Virginia. It seems like it takes at least a half an hour to get anywhere, and the locals seem to compensate for distance by driving like maniacs on the narrow, shoulderless country roads that curve in every direction. So it was that I drove the family to Monticello, frustrating a growing line of drivers behind me while driving a bare 10mph above the posted limit.
Monticello was the plantation home of Thomas Jefferson, who inherited the property from his father and designed the hilltop house by himself. Jefferson was a self-trained architect among other things. Among many other things. He was a lawyer, revolutionary, statesman, president, architect, farmer, astronomer, botanist, and probably a bunch of other things that aren’t on his Wikipedia page. Of course, he was also a slave-owner and Native American oppressor, something that stands in stark, cruel, ironic contrast with his place in history as the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. I was glad to see that this is something that the Thomas Jefferson Foundation doesn’t try to keep hidden; in addition to the house tour, they offer a “slavery tour”, giving anecdotal glimpses into the lives of slaves and attempting to untangle Jefferson’s conflicting motivations, rhetoric and actions on the institution. Most of the contents of that tour are available on an app called “Slavery at Monticello,” for those that are interested.
When you get to Monticello, you park outside of a small campus of buildings. The buildings include everything you’d expect from a museum, including exhibits and galleries, a cafe and a gift shop. The house proper, at the top of the “little mountain” (the Italian translation of Monticello), is accessible by shuttle bus and walking trail. We had some time to kill before the tour of the house, so we checked out a few of the exhibits. There was a gallery devoted to the architecture of Monticello. I liked how the exhibit showed the process of design, something that I think the general public doesn’t necessarily understand about architecture. I think people tend to view a work of architecture as an inevitable destination, where putting in more and more detailed coordinates yields an ever more precise architectural solution. In reality, each project is just an address in a massive design grid. Architect and client navigate this grid together, and where a project starts, exists when it is built, or may have gone with future iterations are very different. Monticello is a great example. Jefferson started design and construction on a first version of his home in 1768, when he was just 26.
Construction continued for 10 years, but the above version was never fully completed; Jefferson had other important things to do, like writing enduring mantras of freedom and winning a revolutionary war. Beginning in 1784, Jefferson began a decade-long post as a statesman in France, and this time in Europe would change his thinking on architecture. When he returned, he began a massive renovation, expanding the first floor, tearing off and rebuilding the second floor and changing the massing entirely.
You can see the design changes above, with the original on the left, “Monticello II” on the right, and both of them overlaid in the middle. I really enjoyed learning about Jefferson’s failures and his willingness to learn from them. There is a quote stenciled on a privacy fence on the property that gets at that, reading “architecture is my delight, and putting up, and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements.” Jefferson was one of the most accomplished men in history, so it stands to reason that he also made a bunch of mistakes. You can see this in his meticulous records, with attempt after vain attempt at growing grape vines for wine, an endeavor that never bore fruit in his lifetime. You can see it in the clock in his foyer, which had to have a hole drilled in the floor for the counterweight to work properly. This is true for everyone but it’s a side of the stories of historical figures we don’t often hear, despite the fact that stories of struggle inspire more than stories of fortune and genius. So I was impressed with the exhibits, but other visitors were less so. There was an actual teenage girl who was wearing an actual tiara, in real life, even though she didn’t appear to be an actual princess, prom queen or bachelorette. Watching a video about the magnificence of Monticello, I overheard her breathlessly proclaim: “if I had my iPad, iPhone and a Nintendo DS I could live in a dump.” Later, she could be heard musing about an intricately carved and carefully proportioned balluster: “ooh, like I’ve never seen a piece of wood before.”
There was also a whole display about a flat roof system that Jefferson worked out, which required creating essentially a second roof system below for proper drainage. It’s a clever system that allowed for spanning large areas with a low profile compared to other roof systems at the time prior to the invention of high-tech membrane systems that are common today. But tell that to the guy who, I suspect, has been the victim of a leaky flat roof or two: “as far as I’m concerned, he never should have never thought of it.”
You can’t please everybody, I guess. There was one unnerving video display that had Jefferson’s portrait animated, South-Park style, muttering to himself about nails or something. That was weird.
Other than that, I’d give the galleries and unqualified thumbs up.
With the appointed time for the house tour closing in, we boarded the shuttle to the hilltop.
At the top of the hill there are three tours to take. We didn’t get to the garden tour, but we did do the slavery tour and the house tour. First, the house.
That’s actually the rear of the house, which you don’t see until the end of the tour. The tour starts on the front porch, where we get an introduction into how much of a tinkerer, a “gadget guy” TJ was.
That’s a compass that attaches to a weather vane on the roof, so TJ could walk out onto the front porch and see which way the wind was blowing without getting wet. Not only that, but he’d know what time it was as well; remember when I said he had a clock in the foyer? It was actually a two-sided clock, the other side faced out to the front porch. Here it is with our lovely docent.
It’s a fitting picture, because the docents run the tour like clockwork, while also being accessible to ask questions and keeping an eye out for nebby people taking pictures inside even when they’re not supposed to. Here’s the only picture that I could get off, of the counterweight for the clock, falling halfway through the floor.
After that, he was onto me using the camera on my phone, so I had to don something a little less conspicuous.
Yeah, as it turns out, schmucks like me can’t take pictures, but if you’re Google, you’re allowed to go nuts. If you go onto Google Maps, you can not only take the whole tour that I got, but you can get into the second and third floor of the house, areas that typical tour groups don’t get to see. Here’s an exploded axo that I found, none of the areas colored in red are accessible to the public.
That’s not to say the stuff you can see isn’t interesting. As I mentioned before, Jefferson’s design sense was hugely influenced by a trip to France. He brought back many ideas, beds inside of walls, pocket doors inside of walls, and wine inside of walls (in the form of concealed dumbwaiters). The “bed inside the wall” thing isn’t like a Murphy bed, it’s really a thick wall, not unlike the book nook that I want to have someday. In some rooms it works well, like the one that straddles Jefferson’s master bedroom and his study. There, a cross breeze keeps the sleeper nice and comfortable. Without it, it’s an uncomfortable sweatbox, as Dolley Madison came to know and hate during her and James Madison’s extended stays in the guest bedroom.
The house is full of art and artifacts, but still feels like more of a museum than a home. That’s fitting, because it’s how Jefferson himself kept his house later in his life. He was constantly receiving guests, too many to see at once. So he had many things on display so that guests could better their minds while they waited. On display when we visited were maps and specimens sent back by Lewis and Clark from their expedition to survey the land acquired through Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. The purchase doubled the size of the fledgling country. It also played a huge part in bankrupting Jefferson. Land values plummeted following the purchase and Jefferson, always land-rich and cash-poor, fell into debt. It also didn’t help that, as Minister to France and Secretary of State, he bought tons of wine and books and fancy gadgets, not realizing that the U.S. Government wasn’t going to cover the bill. He then donated the books to start the Library of Congress, and presumably drank the wine, which didn’t leave much to cover his debts by the end of his life. He left his heirs hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt; it would be one of his grandsons who would eventually pay it off. The sale of the estate (including its most valuable assets: the slaves) would not quite do it. If sold into the wrong hands, the house could have been altered, or torn down entirely. But it was bought instead by Uriah P. Levy, who not only respected Jefferson and his commitment to religious freedom (Levy was the first Jewish commodore in the U.S. Navy), but had the foresight to see that Monticello would be a priceless landmark someday. He and his family preserved the property, making almost no changes, until the Thomas Jefferson Foundation took over. In 1987 it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the only private residence in the United States to have earned the distinction.
Finally, 1,700 words later, the elephant in the room: slavery. At Monticello, the story of Jefferson is told through architecture, artworks, artifacts, and articulations of his extensive notes, letters, and journals. At Monticello, there is sparse physical record of slavery. The residences, stick instead of brick, have returned to the land. Most slaves lacked the time and education to make much in the way the rest. And so, aside from a few shells and a reconstructed building or two, all that remain are the stories. We have Jefferson’s word, which describes Africans-cum-Americans as lacking depth of emotion and foresight, which describes the institution of slavery as an abomination, which describes maintaining slavery as holding a wolf by the ear: always having to weigh justice against self-preservation. We have the story of Joseph Fossett, who by 13 had his siblings given away as gifts and mother married and sold to a white man, who was freed by Jefferson after his death, only to have to watch his wife and children be sold at auction in the estate sale, who worked as a blacksmith to earn enough money to by his family back and make a life fighting for freedom in the free state of Ohio. We have the story of Sally Hemings, slave and mother to four of Jefferson’s children. And then there are the countless stories that we don’t know.
Over 600 slaves lived at Monticello at one time or another. When a deal could be had, they were bought and sold as adults. But most were born into slavery on the plantation; Jefferson designed it that way. He knew that a fertile woman “was worth more than the best man in the field.” So when he moved slaves from mixed barracks to single-family homes on Mulberry Row (the 1,000 foot lane next to Monticello) and scattered throughout the fields, it wasn’t out of the goodness of his heart, it was because he needed more slaves. A slave born on Monticello would be on their own until 6 years old, in the care of those under 10. From 10-15, girls would make clothing, and boys would make nails. This was a crucial period, because those who were proficient would be selected for house duty, learning skilled trades like cooking and woodworking and living in slightly better conditions.
Those without such proficiency would, at age 16, be sent “to ground,” where they’d work from “can’t-see to can’t-see” doing whatever needed done. Jefferson may have never whipped a slave, but he wasn’t around much, and his overseers were fond of those brutal tools. He’d intervene with punishment only when an example needed to be made. When such a situation would arise, his preferred example was to sell the offender to the furthest plantation that was buying.
I don’t mean to end this on a down note; Thomas Jefferson was a great man, a legend. But slavery is a part of that legend, a part that thankfully does not go unacknowledged at Monticello. It’s up to us as individuals to weigh the shame of slavery against that which Jefferson was proud enough to put on his tombstone.