PrologueWhat we are doing, and why we're doing it!
We visited Monticello on a glorious fall day. The trees were in their most vibrant display on a warm sunny day. It was a perfect day to showcase Monticello's magnificent views of the surrounding landscape.
Of all of the Presidential mansions that we have visited, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello is far and away the most interesting estate. The architecture and construction is of a wholly different caliber than we had seen before.
The overall design of the central building possesses a host of features unique to America at the time. The most obvious is the domed roof. Less obvious are the skylights and the way the front facade makes the two main floors of the building look like a single story. Jefferson was delighted and inspired by French architecture during his tenure as Ambassador and brought back to Monticello many ideas to fill his home with natural light, including skylights, glass interior doors and the use of mirrors to reflect light into a room.
The uniqueness of the building extends far beyond it's grand features. A set of double doors inside the foyer has a mechanism that synchronizes the movement of both doors. Move one door, and the other moves in synchrony. Jefferson's spider looking pentograph was an early copy machine, holding a second pen that accurately mimicked the real time writing of Jefferson. It is due to this tool that we have so many authentic versions of his writings. Do you think he came up with this after writing so many, many versions of the Declaration of Independence for all the members of the Constitutional Congress?
The innovation and excellence of the architecture appears to be matched by the quality of it's construction. As with other estates of the time Monticello evolved over time, but it bears no incongruent traces of the alterations. Where other mansions were constructed almost exclusively of wood, most of Monticello is built of brick and stone. It is a wonderful building in both concept and execution. Jefferson actually died terribly in debt (equivalent to over a million dollars) and his home and furnishings were sold at auction. The family that purchased Monticello had deep respect for Jefferson's accomplishments and tried very hard to not only keep the estate intact but buy back many of the furnishings and personal items that had been sold to other parties. To their credit Jefferson's study/bedroom is much the same as it might have been the day he died in his bed July 4th 1826 -- the 50th anniversary of signing the Declaration of Independence.
As an expression of Thomas Jefferson's interest in a variety of subjects, he often displayed a variety of artifacts in the foyer of the main house. Items on display ranged from Indian regalia to fossils to maps. It was interesting to see a map of the North America with large empty areas in the southwest hanging next to a very complete and detailed map of South America. According to the docent, the South American map was a state secret of Spain at the time. Jefferson's acquisition of it apparently involved some skullduggery.
Jefferson's design of the estate encompassed more than just the main house. He also included support buildings on either side of the main house. A well executed set of partially buried passageways connected the kitchen, workshops and storage rooms to the basement of the main house. Having the corridors partially buried concealed them from view and protected them in inclement weather.
The tour of the estate gave detailed information about the role of slaves, and their contribution to the day to day operation of the plantation. Jefferson held many slaves, and apparently had several children with one slave in particular. While the role of slaves at the plantation was discussed, nothing was said about how the man who penned the words "all men are created equal" could reconcile that concept with his ownership of other people.
There is much more to Thomas Jefferson's legacy at Monticello than can be presented here. If you ever have the opportunity to tour Monticello, don't pass it by!