Monticello: A Monument to American Greatness


Monticello, Ultimate Historical Day Trip

Anyone with a feel for history can tell you it’s true: well-preserved historic sites fairly radiate with the spirits of the people who inhabited them years before. it is true of towns, homes, battlefields, schools, farms, and factories.

In Lexington, the spirits of movers and shakers from long ago seem to walk the streets. In Asheville, N.C., the presence of Thomas Wolfe and George Vanderbilt are pervasive. At Antietam, the dead have as much of a grip on the land as the living. And in the Charlottesville-Albemarle County area of Virginia, the essence of one man touches everything from architecture and education to politics and horticulture.

Thomas Jefferson—author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, third president of the United States—is inseparably a part of his beloved Charlottesville and the country estate he masterminded, Monticello. Today, thanks to far-sighted historians and preservationists, Jefferson’s influence may be viewed in all its innovative splendor.

Monticello, which means “little mountain,” has been described as one of the nation’s foremost architectural masterpieces. It is located on a mountaintop in Albemarle County and commands a view of the countryside that, astoundingly, has changed little since Jefferson’s day. It is the only American house on the United Nations’ prestigious World Heritage List of international treasures and is less than an hour’s drive from the Waynesboro-Augusta County area.

 It is, quite possibly, the ultimate day trip.

How Jefferson Decorated Monticello

Monticello Library

Monticello Library

In 1857, at the age of 14, Jefferson inherited a 5,000-acre plantation from his father. The plantation comprised four adjacent farms and the land that Jefferson would, in 1769, select as the site for Monticello. He called it his “essay in architecture,” and Jefferson would work on the mansion for 40 years.

“Architecture is my delight,” Jefferson wrote, “and putting up and pulling down one of my favorite amusements.”

Jefferson’s wide-ranging interests made him an avid collector of sculpture, maps, paintings, prints, Indian artifacts, scientific instruments, and fine furniture—all of which he kept at Monticello.

Visitors were surprised to find that the entrance hall functioned as a museum that contained mastodon bones, a buffalo, elk antlers and a seven-day clock which indicated the day in addition to the hour. Jefferson also displayed Indian relics collected by Lewis and Clark, including a Crow cradle, a Chippewa knife scabbard and a Mandan buffalo robe with a painted battle scene.  

The walls were also hung with an engraving of John Trumball’s “Declaration of Independence,” and 11 copies of Old Master paintings. The floor was painted a “true grass-green” in 1807 at the suggestion of the painter Gilbert Stuart.

Monticello was, according to eyewitnesses, a rather cluttered and eclectic household, and one that accurately conveyed the personality of its creator and owner.

 Monticello was Jefferson’s Retreat from Politics

Although Jefferson was one of the premier statesmen of his day—serving as governor of Virginia, minister to the court of Louis XVI of France, secretary of state, vice president and, ultimately, president of the United States—he apparently disliked politics.

He wrote to his daughter, Martha, in 1800, “Politics is such a torment that I would advise everyone I love not to mix with it.” Monticello was his haven, and he longed to retire there during the most active part of his political career.

When not gallivanting across the world stage, or guiding a new and fragile republic from what was then called Washington City, Jefferson retreated to his mountain home. Here he indulged his passion for “putting up and pulling down,” and gave full vent to keen interests in horticulture and garden design.

When Jefferson died on July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence—he left behind a legacy unequaled in American history. Part of that legacy is Monticello which is preserved with an unflagging dedication to the man who, in large part, was responsible for the birth of the United States.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Safeguards Estate

Monticello Library

Monticello Library

In 1923, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation was instituted to safeguard the estate while opening it to the public. It is responsible for the preservation of the home, tours for more than half a million annual visitors and outreach programs worldwide. The Foundation has received numerous honors, including the first-ever Award for Excellence in the Stewardship of Historic Sites, which was presented by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

It is easy to see why. Monticello’s preservation is meticulous and inspiring. In 1992, for example, the Foundation completed the restoration of the mansion’s roof. Researchers and architects restored Jefferson’s complex and innovative design, materials, and technology while preventing the roof’s perennial leaks.

Other preservation and restoration projects in the house include upgrading Monticello’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system; cleaning and repairing the Entrance Halls Great Clock; maintaining the parlor’s single-acting glass doors; and adding green floor-cloth to the Dome Room to return it to its Jeffersonian-era appearance.

On the grounds, restoration projects over the years have included the recreation of Monticello’s vegetable garden, grove, fruit orchards, and vineyards. The Foundation also created an exhibit showing Jefferson’s plant nursery and replanted mulberry trees lining the slave quarters and industrial buildings.

The road by which most visitors approach Monticello is the Thomas Jefferson Parkway, offering a scenic, protected, 89-acre linear park with an arboretum, hiking and biking trails and open vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Foundation Preserves and Recreates Life at Monticello

Continuous efforts are made to acquire original furnishings in order to recreate Monticello’s interior as it was during Jefferson’s lifetime. These furnishings and devices of convenience invented by Jefferson can be viewed in immaculately preserved areas, such as the Entrance Hall, Jefferson’s Bedroom, Library and North and South Piazza.

Here, visitors can feast their eyes on art, maps, books, scientific instruments, and natural history specimens. Here, too, are the best-known features of Monticello: the dumb-waiters, automatically opening doors and the copying machine with which Jefferson wrote thousands of letters.

Each room is a historical treasure in and of itself. Among the treasures visitors will see:

The Cabinet—Jefferson read, wrote letters and conducted scientific experiments in his study, but the cabinet served as his presidential office during the summers between 1801 and 1808. In July 1803 he received word here of the Louisiana Purchase, which led to the monumental expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

Library—Jefferson, who read seven languages, once wrote to John Adams, “I cannot live without books.” The library housed most of Jefferson’s 7,000 volumes. In 1815 he sold his books to the federal government for $23,950, which took the volumes and used them to form the nucleus of the Library of Congress. Sadly, a fire in 1851 destroyed nearly two-thirds of the 6,487 volumes Congress bought from Jefferson.

Parlor—Jefferson’s large family congregated in the parlor to read, talk and play music and games. His daughter, Mary, married John Eppes in the parlor in 1797. Of the 57 paintings, sculptures and engravings exhibited in the house at the time, 35 portraits dominated the parlor.

Dining Room—Breakfast and dinner were served each day. The dining room of Jefferson’s time featured copies of Old Master paintings and scenes of America’s architectural monuments and natural wonders, such as Natural Bridge (which Jefferson owned).

The Grounds at Monticello

Monticello's West Lawn

Monticello’s West Lawn

For those who love things that grow, Monticello is a paradise. Here Jefferson gave his horticultural interests full sway, creating ornamental and vegetable gardens, two orchards, a vineyard, and an 18-acre ornamental forest.

Jefferson also experimented with more than 25 varieties of vegetables and herbs, many of which are grown today in his 1,000-sq.-ft. garden.

Once again, as it was in Jefferson’s day, the ground of Monticello has become a kind of living laboratory for the study of useful and ornamental plants from around the world. Here visitors can see:

The Flower Garden—Today, numerous biennials and perennials from sweet William to foxgloves come into bloom and are complemented by the flowering of old rose species and hardy annuals.

Mulberry Row—Named for the mulberry trees planted along it, this 1,000-ft.-long road was the center of plantation activity at Monticello from the 1770s to Jefferson’s death in 1826. Original log and wood-frame structures have long since vanished, and only three buildings constructed in stone have survived in part.

The Graveyard—The graveyard was laid out by Jefferson in 1773 and continues to be reserved as the family burial ground for his descendants. His close friend Dabney Carr was the first to be interred there, fulfilling a boyhood pledge that whoever died first would be buried by the other under their favorite oak tree.

Jefferson’s grave is marked by an obelisk bearing the words, “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Founder of the University of Virginia.”

The Vegetable Garden—The restoration of the Monticello vegetable garden began in 1979 with two years of archaeological excavations that attempted to confirm details of the documentary evidence of the location of the entrance gate.

The Vineyard—Jefferson’s 1807 plan for the Northeast vineyard was restored in 1985, and the Southwest vineyard was replanted in 1992. Three hundred bottles of blended wines were made from the harvest of 1988 and the restored vineyards continue to serve as an experimental garden of unusual varieties grown without toxic pesticides.

Jefferson’s Grove—In 1806 Jefferson drew a sketch of the Monticello mountain and designed 18 acres on the northwestern side as the “grove.” Although we don’t know how much of the Grove Jefferson worked and maintained, a project was begun to recreate his concept in 1977.

It’s incredible to have so much history in one house! Come and see for yourself not only the historical significance of Monticello but the timeless beauty that Jefferson created.

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