Last month we celebrated President's Day, and that got me thinking about a couple of the homes of former President's I have visited. I have been to George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate near Washington D.C. I love going there and highly recommend it if you are in the area. Today I want to write about a trip I took last year to Monticello, where Thomas Jefferson lived. This former President's birthday is coming up here in April, so seemed a good time to reflect on that trip.
Before I visited, I have to admit I didn't know much about Jefferson. I knew he was third President of the United States, primary writer of the Declaration of Independence, and their were rumors around him having affairs with his slaves. I learned a lot about him during this trip and it was very fascinating. More on that later. My love of old houses comes from my mother, and she has always wanted to see Monticello. My husband and I planned a weekend the end of June in 2019 to take her as a gift.
Monticello is Italian for "Little Mountain," and the house does sit on top of a mountain near the town of Charlottesville, Virginia. You cannot drive directly to the estate. At the bottom of the mountain is a visitor center area by the parking lot. At the visitor center there is a cafe for food, a nice gift shop, exhibits on Jefferson, and a few other activities. You can purchase tickets there, though we got ours in advance. There are several ticket options, but if you want the more extensive tour (which we got); its recommended you book in advance. Once you are done at the visitor center, there are shuttle buses that take you up the mountain to the property. The good news is, your pass is good for the entire day. Meaning you can leave and go back in the same day if you want. I was told it was a popular thing to do among visitors. They go up in the morning, come down and go to nearby Michie Tavern for lunch, and then come back in the afternoon.
I was glad we visited when everything was green and blooming, as the view from up top is gorgeous. Valleys of green hills, trees, and houses in the distance. The setting itself feels a little remote, but is also peaceful. It is easy to see why Jefferson would have picked this land. Below is an aerial view image of the place taken from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello Facebook page.
We arrived a couple of hours before our scheduled tour and used that time to explore the grounds. We happened to get the garden area right when one of the free garden tours was starting and stuck around to listen to the guide. What we learned was that Jefferson was really into Botany. A beautiful and variety of flowers and trees are all around the property, making the outdoor space even more alluring than the house.
After that we headed to the garden areas used for food. Jefferson's grew a variety of vegetables and fruits; and the estate still does today. According to the guide book I bought, Jefferson loved peas, He used to have a competition with his neighbors on who could bring the first pea crop to the table every spring. This was probably my favorite part of the grounds. I pictured hanging out in the pavilion in that area picture below with a good book for hours.
After this we explored Mulberry Row. The road is named for the Mulberry Trees planted along side this road. Back when Jefferson owned the estate, this was the hub of all the enterprise. This is where the weavers, smiths, carpenters, and various others workers lived. This also includes where the slave dwellings were located. It is interesting to see how the subject of slavery is done at estates that have a known history. I thought overall it was handled pretty well. It was stated more in facts of what they know from records and letters. Jefferson himself was know to call slavery an "abominable crime," but yet he owned them his entire life. The guidebook mentions he would sometimes give them financial incentives to work better and on the tour they did mention he taught them to read and write (he valued education a lot). Yet they were mistreated by the overseers; so its kind of a mixed bag in my opinion. Anyways, not a lot of the buildings remain on Mulberry Row, but there are enough worth exploring, with information inside the structures. Below is a picture of a slave dwelling.
Finally it was time for the main event, the tour of the house itself! As I mentioned before, buy your tickets ahead of time. We did this and opted for the, "Behind-the-Scenes Day Pass." We selected this tour because its the only tour that takes you into the second floor and the dome room. The big dome is iconic from the outside, who wouldn't want to go in it? The tour does cost more but you not only get to see more, you get the advantage of being in a smaller tour group.
During the tour of the house we learned not only about Jefferson and his family but what it was like to live in the early 1800's. Jefferson was inspired by Neoclassical Architecture when it came to the design of the house. Inside the house was filled with artifacts and furniture based on his worldly travels. His had many interests that were displayed in the house. His parlor he had musical instruments, art, and games for guests to enjoy. He loved to read and had an extensive library. In fact he sold 6,500 of his books to the congressional library after the War of 1812. We also learned he was terrible with money; so that may be another factor in why he sold those books.
He had a love of different sciences and it was interesting to see some engineering around the house and property. Water was always a struggle for him being on a mountaintop. He built cisterns to help capture rain water. Their is a giant clock that displays not only the time but the day of the week. One of my favorite feature was a dumbwaiter hidden in the side of the fireplace of the dining room. These ones were designed to hold bottles of wine that could easily be transported up to the guests to enjoy without interruption.
The biggest disappointment for my mother who came with us, was there was not big grand staircase. Which I understand, those are an awesome feature in a home. However, Jefferson wanted to use as much space as possible so to get to the second story of the house we had to climb some pretty narrow and slightly steep stairs. I believe its the only way to do the tour we did; so sorry this part of the tour is not handicapped accessible. The highlight of the second floor is the dome room. I will say there is no big window with a grand view of the grounds but there are some smaller oval ones that offer a nice view. Its also one of the only rooms they allow photos. Here is one below we snapped of a window.
The door actually leads to a slight drop and a little cuddy. It was clever, as you would think it leads to a balcony . If you look at the outside of the house pictured below, you would think there is some sort of outdoor area on the second floor; there is not. In fact you can see the roof from the room and its all slanted and there is no easy access. It's appearance from afar is not what it actually. The cuddy I mentioned actually has a window its the half circle you see in the triangle above the porch columns.
The tour ends with some of the rooms that are connected to the house but not in the main house. They are the domestic rooms needed and are wings on each side of the property. They are accessible from the outside the house or in the basement. One of those rooms is the kitchen pictured below.
After our tour ended, we had been there a few hours and were starting to get hungry. We took the bus back down to the cafe at the visitor center to eat. On the way back down there is an option to stop at Jefferson's grave. We did not as food was the bigger priority, but we did learn on the tour that he put what he considered this three greatest accomplishments. His epitaph reads, "Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia. He didn't consider being President one of his biggest accomplishments.
After our lunch at the cafe, we actually went to a nearby hard cider and farmers market type place called Bold Rock Tap Room at Carter Mountain. I recommend this stop for sure if you have time. Even if you are not into try a flight of delicious hard ciders or want a nice piece of pie; the views from on top of the mountain of the town of Charlottesville, are worth the stop. Picture of my flight sample with part of the view pictured below.
Really hoping to go visit Monticello and the area again sometime in the next couple of years. In the meantime, Monticello is offering online virtual tours while they are shutdown. For only $10 you can sign up for a live interactive tour through zoom. For those with kids at home, could be a fun and education "field trip for the day." For more information visit their site here.