Sunday, January 25, 2009

Road to Monticello

Part of the reason I've been trying to get my Tomtom to work is because we were going to Monticello on Saturday. Monticello is, of course, Thomas Jefferson's plantation home, over 600 acres near Charlottesville. The main house, famously built and remodeled over fifty years, sits high on a mountain, surrounded by the ranges of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We drove for about two hours west to get there, arriving about eleven-thirty. The sky was grey, and the grounds were fairly quiet. I figured it was just the off-season. A CW pass got us in for free, and a shuttle took us up to the top of the mountain.

As the house came into view, I snapped this picture, thinking how nice it was that the trees were bare of leaves so I could get a picture of the whole front of the house. It was only when I uploaded it I realised it looked like an abandoned, spooky building. Nothing could be farther from the truth, however--Monticello was sold after Jefferson's death, but three years after that it was bought by Uriah Levy, a Naval captain who was determined to keep the building as a monument to Jefferson. Subsequent owners had similar intentions, and when the house was taken over in 1923, a lot of the original furnishings, dishes, clocks, etc, came back to it. Items that had been sold in 1826, passed down through families and then given back to the estate. Very cool.

Right inside the front door Jefferson had a museum of American artifacts--Native American art, fossils, and things that Lewis and Clark had brought back from their expedition. The coolest thing, however, had to be a clock over the door. The inside told the time, but it also had a pulley with cannonballs hanging off of it near the wall, to tell what time of the day it was. While we were there it struck noon, but since the gong had been disconnected, it was only a wheezy sound.

Our next stop was the office where JEfferson's daughter ran the household. Then into the library, where I was forced to stuff my hands under my armpits to stop myself from touching everything. It was such a lovely, cozy room filled to the brim with books and comfy chairs, connected to Jefferson's study by a little hallway that led into a greenhouse which featured cherry tomatoes, hibiscus and lemon trees. Jefferson's study was interesting too: all the desks and tables were carefully strewn with books, instruments and papers, making it look like the great man had just gotten up and gone for a stretch. Or possibly he was in his privy closet--one of the first indoor loos in America. Jefferson loved France and classical architecture, and it shows in his bedroom. His bed was tucked in an alcove between the study and bedroom, which had twenty foot ceilings, topped with a classical frieze. The space over his bed was his closet. Did you know Jefferson introduced hangers to America?

The next room was the parlor, and here Erin left us. She had filleted her thumb the day before, and was suffering from light-headedness due to blood loss. Thought briefly about following her, but the Monticello people were so nice I figured they could take care of her. Jefferson's parlor had a high ceiling as well, with windows looking out on a spacious lawn, the walls covered in paintings. Some of them were classical, copies of paintings in the Louvre, some of them were portaits of friends. I proved myself a smartie when I correctly identified Lafayette and Adams, and then went on to ask if that was a bust of Napoleon (it was). The next room was the dining room and tea room, an echo of the greenhouse with floor to ceiling windows. Busts of Washington, Franklin, Lafayette and John Paul Jones stared down at guests. The sides of the fireplace cleverly opened to reveal a wine-dumbwaiter which could bring up fine vintages from the cellar below.

The last stop on our tour was two of the guest bedrooms. More alcove beds, heavily draped in damask silk. Well, at least they'd be cozy in winter. But I was really struck by how small the individual rooms were. Very boxy and small to modern eyes used to open floor spaces, with tiny twisting staircases and hallways. We speculated on how Jefferson got his furniture upstairs, figuring he probably just ordered a window or two taken out. We didn't get to go upstairs, alas, but they have special "architectural" tours, so maybe we'll go back.

It was nearly one at this point, so we decamped back down the mountain for some lunch. Erin was feeling better, but still not one hundred percent, and we were all hungry. Monticello has a new visitor center which complements the mountainside beautifully--and it's far enough down that it doesn't interfere with the classical, historical layout of the plantation. And they have absolutely AWESOME turkey-apple-brie paninis. AND Sprecher root beer!!!

After lunch we headed up to see the grounds and gardens. This is the view most people know of Monticello: it's actually the back porch, looking out over the lawn, and two long porches called the north and south pavilions. Underneath are the kitchens, store rooms, smokehouse, icehouse and some housing for slaves. It was still chilly up on the mountain, but the sun had come out, and there were more people, so the atmosphere was more enjoyable.

Self-portrait! Nicole, Emily, Erin and I pause to record our trip. Don't we look like Mount Rushmore?

Jefferson's "garden" is a five-hundred foot plot that was carved into the mountain. It lies directly behind Mulberry Row, which is a road that goes next to the house. It is where most of the slave cabins were, as well as cabins for trades, like joinery, blacksmithing, etc. Jefferson built himself a little pavilion on the edge of his garden so he could have a place to read or play the violin at the end of the day, enjoying the best view of the place. I can't imagine what it must have felt like to be living on Mulberry Row and hearing a violin coming out of the twilight.

Finally we walked past the garden and down a short path through the forest to visit Jefferson's gravesite. He's buried next to his wife and daughters, in a graveyard that is still in use by his descendants. I had heard that it was tradition to throw nickels on his grave, and sure enough, the grass was littered with coins. We added our own, wishing that the Great American Experiment would continue uninterrupted.

And we weren't the only ones who felt that way: this card was attached to a bouquet of flowers that had been tied to the gate of the graveyard.

A short walk back to the visitor's center led us past this tree, which was being hugged to death by a parasitic vine. Isn't it beautiful though?

The trip back was two hours again...we were quieter on the way home, happily sighing at the historical overload. "It takes a special breed of geek to be a fangirl for Thomas Jefferson," I commented happily. I enjoyed getting out of Williamsburg for a day, seeing something new in Virginia and learning about our third president. I can see now why Jefferson never wanted to leave home.

No comments: