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Taking a Step Back in Time at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

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Monticello entrance
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Nestled in the beautiful Albemarle County is Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello. Maintained as a historical landmark and open to tourists since the early 20th century, the property is probably one of Virginia’s best known landmarks. Jefferson had chosen Charlottesville as the location to build his home. Today, Charlottesville is a booming area and centered around the University of Virginia (UVA), the college Jefferson himself is the founder. There are also many vineyards and other fine attractions in the area.

Construction of Monticello

Construction of this grand house began in 1769 and was a work in progress over a span of 40 years. Jefferson, known as not only one of the first architects in America in this time, was also considered as one of the best. He took his time building his masterpiece which he referred to as “his essay in architecture”. 1

Touring the home and property, it is clear Jefferson took pride in his construction of what he must have viewed to be the ideal house. The build took several different styles over the years, as Jefferson changed things along the way. In spite of having changed his mind during construction to reflect changing styles, the final result is magnificent. Many of the other grand homes of this period are restored to what is interpreted by what records are found at any given time, but this is often difficult since there is always research and new things to be found. (As an example, for years George Washington’s Mount Vernon was white, but over the past decade researchers discovered it was actually more of a beige color for the period they were interpreting. The change was made to reflect accuracy). However, in the case of Jefferson and Monticello, he took such meticulous records, the interpretation visitors see today is pretty accurate to my understanding. His documentation provided future generates with a very detailed history to follow.

[ Related Reading: Visiting George Washington's Mount Vernon ]

The house was originally supposed to have 14 rooms (by the 1780s it still only had eight rooms), but by completion it had over 40. In 1784 Jefferson had traveled to France on official business and spent a total of five years there. “Smitten with the new Neoclassical architecture that he saw,” Jefferson made a number of changes to the design of his home to show this admiration of architectural style.  2

Jefferson lived in his masterpiece until his death in 1826.

Reflections at Monticello
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

The grand Monticello and its reflection in Jefferson's pool. A sign states "fish pond" and our guide told us that freshly caught fish were stored here before being sent to the kitchen.

Inside the Home

Jefferson had eclectic tastes and this is very clear in the décor of Monticello. His entryway shows his interest in westward expansion, Native American life, exploration and technology. Many of his original pieces still are intact and placed where he originally placed them, including a large clock he’d designed. The dining room showcases sliding glass doors that lead to a tea room and also has a wine dumbwaiter, which is interesting to see.

Of importance to Jefferson was his “book room” which is adjacent to his office, which connects to his bedroom. His library boasted a number of very large bookcases, showcasing his love of books. The books visitors see on their tour are not originals, but a large percentage of them reflect, or are reproductions, of the books he did actually have in his collection. (His original books are currently on display at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., as he’d sold his collection to the government to replace the books that had been lost when the British burned the U.S. Capitol during the War of 1812). 

Overall, the interior of Monticello is remarkable. The upstairs is not part of the traditional tour, but there is a special tour that can be booked. I haven't had the pleasure of doing that just yet on either of my visits.

The Property

Monticello (or “little mountain”), indeed located on top of a mountain. The views are stunning, it’s no wonder he chose to build such a grand home on the property left to him by his father, Peter Jefferson. The gardens are spectacular and much restoration has been done on the property to bring it back to the way it looked during Jefferson’s time. There are flower and vegetable gardens are extensive (and to my understanding, many of them are planted with heirloom seeds). The orchards are also quite impressive, he called it his "fruitery" which included the South Orchard, two small vineyards, a nursery for his plants and a number of "berry squares".  Over the years he planted approximately 1,031 trees which included:

  • 18 varieties of apples
  • 38 types of peaches
  • 14 cherry varieties
  • 12 pears
  • 27 types of plums
  • 4 nectarines
  • 7 kinds of almonds
  • 6 apricots
  • 1 quince

This is just another example of the detailed accounts Jefferson kept and left behind for future generations to know. I've visited a lot of historic sites and, while many have detailed records, Monticello probably has the most specific records kept by its owner.

Monticello and partial garden
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Taken on a summer's day in 2014 when the gardens were in full bloom.

Adjacent to the house is "Mulberry Row" which is where daily activities primarily took place. It had over 20 dwellings, workshops and storehouses. The many rooms each had a singular purpose. Today visitors can walk through and see plantation life in Jefferson's time. There are also many artifacts that can be viewed. Jefferson's visions and innovations are clear both inside and outside of the grand structure.

artifacts at Monticello
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Things to Know For a Visit

In addition to touring the home and gardens, on the property there is a movie theatre, hands-on discovery center for the kids, museum, and much more. Additionally, a family cemetery is also located on the grounds and Jefferson’s grave is visible through the gates.

Throughout the property, there are many areas available to tour and learn the stories that took place during Jefferson’s time, including the Jefferson family and the history of the hundreds of both free and enslaved people that lived on the plantation. There are detailed family trees located in the museum and tells the stories of the people who lived at Monticello.

Other things to know:

  • Peak season can be rather crowded. Usually, you can get tickets for a general tour, but if there are any special tours you do not want to miss, book these ahead of arrival.
  • The second floor is not a part of the regular tour; this is a special tour.
  • There is a child-friendly version of the house tour. The regular tour is OK for kids too, but the presentation of this one is geared towards the little ones.
  • No photography is allowed inside Monticello or at the museum located on the property.

A whole day can easily be spent at Monticello to explore and learn about this era in U.S. history and how Jefferson contributed to it. In terms of architecture, Monticello is probably one of my favorites I've visited so far. These old grand homes are interesting for me in terms of architecture and what contents are inside that belonged to the original owners.

One of the gardens at Monticello
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved
Get Directions
Monticello, 931 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy, Charlottesville, VA 22902, USA
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Bibliography

  1. "Journey Through Hallowed Ground." National Park Service (NPS). 27/06/2016 <Web >
  2. "Monticello Virginia." National Park Service (NPS). 27/06/2016 <Web >
  3. "Thomas Jefferson Jefferson's Library." Library of Congress. 27/06/2016 <Web >
  4. "Monticello's South Orchard." Monticello. 27/06/2016 <Web >
  5. "Overview of Fruits at Monticello." Monticello.org. 27/06/2016 <Web >

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