Homes of the Founding Fathers

Not all immigrants are lucky enough to have blood relatives in their adopted countries, and my niece and I are very aware of keeping the connection alive, even though we live far apart in Maryland and Tennessee. This weekend, we met up near Charlottesville, VA, where we stayed in a wood panelled cottage on a farm close to Monticello.

The fame of  Monticello preceded it.  I had heard how Thomas Jefferson had created a perfectly proportioned home that is reflected in the beautiful Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin in Washington.  But until I actually saw it I couldn’t imagine just how perfect he made it.  It is an exquisitely proportioned, sublimely elegant structure – one that he tore down and rebuilt four times to get the right effect! 

We spent the better part of Saturday there, and had the great good fortune to have a wonderful, knowledgeable and amicable guide called Bob to take us through the house. 

Jefferson built Monticello on a levelled off hill on his family’s estate (the name means “Little Mountain” in Italian) and the plan is in the shape of a cross.  The East Portico, Hall, Parlor and West Portico form the spine of the cross, with a sitting room, book room, green house, and Jefferson’s cabinet (study) and chamber on the South side, and, perfectly balanced, two bedrooms, the dining room and a tea room on the North side. 

We entered through the full length glass doors (floor to ceiling glass doors and huge windows throughout make the whole building incredibly light and airy) into the entrance hall.  This was where guests would wait (sometimes hours) for an audience with Jefferson, and he wanted to make it possible for them to pass their time constructively, so he established a mini museum there.  During his Presidency he presided over the Louisiana Purchase, buying up the middle swath of the continent from France, and he then sent Lewis and Clark to see what had been bought.  Many artifacts (including Native American) from that expedition are in this front reception room, along with maps. 

From there we went into a sitting room (on the South side) that his daughter used when she took up the duties of hostess to Jefferson.  There is an original oil portrait of Jefferson over the mantelshelf in this room.  Then we passed into his book room.  He avidly collected books and, when the Library of Congress had a fire, he donated his collection to them (after they had debated whether they wanted quite such an eclectic collection!) He then went on to collect as many again during the remainder of his life.  Adjacent to the library, at the back of the house,  is his “Cabinet” or study, which is linked to his bedroom by an alcove housing his bed, where he died on July 4th exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which he had written. 

Next comes the parlor, which leads onto the portico at the back of the house.  It’s a beautiful room with musical instruments, gaming tables and remarkable portraits (including three of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke – the men Jefferson thought were the three greatest men the world had ever produced). From there we went through to the dining room, which is the mirror of Jefferson’s chamber on the floor plan, and they both have sky lights – an idea that he brought back from his time in France when he was a diplomat there.  The dining room leads onto the tea room, and then there are two bedrooms at the front of the house, one of which always accommodated James Madison when he came to visit.  Madison’s home (which we visited on Sunday) is comparatively nearby and the two men were great friends, apparently.

After the house tour we explored the cellars

the gardens

the grounds

and Jefferson’s grave.

The Visitor Center and Education Center are extraordinary.  They were recently built, and have been constructed  around a plantation model courtyard.  There are fascinating interactive exhibitions (where you are invited to “Touch!”), a movie theatre, cafeteria and discovery rooms.  Here is DB exploring Jefferson’s copying machine, which would produce a copy as he was writing the original.

In the evening we explored the historic downtown pedestrian mall in Charlottesville, which has been fairly recently restored and renovated.  We ended up having dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant.  Gradually I became aware of some talk about a belly-dancer and it made me a bit nervous, since we had with us a 7-year-old girl, a 6-year-old boy and a babe not quite 2.  Anyway, the belly-dancer duly arrived, and the 6-year-old eyed her out of the corner of his eye with veiled interest, the 7-year-old seemed quite fascinated – and the 2-year-old really got into it .  The owner of the restaurant provided some drumming accompaniment, and this little girl was just groovin’, man!  She was jiggling in time, throwing her head back, gyrating her shoulders and throwing her hair around as she had seen the belly-dancer do.  The dancer was very sweet and danced right to her, eventually even inviting her to dance with her.

So that was a hilarious ending to a marvellous day.

On Sunday DB and I decided to stop by James Madison’s home, Montpelier, on the way home.  Unlike Jefferson with Monticello, Madison was born at Montpelier, lived there at regular intervals throughout his life and died there just a few days shy of Independence Day in 1836. 

Montpelier has recently undergone an architectural renovation to restore it to how it would have been when Madison retired there after his Presidency.  They are now in the process of meticulously tracking down the pictures and furnishings that would have been there at that time.  It was intriguing to see the work in progress as opposed to the completed project at Monticello.  The fascinating thing is that Montpelier started out as a comparatively modest farm-house built by Madison’s grandfather; then was made into a duplex so that Madison could live there with his wife in one half and his father and mother could continue to live in the other half.  Later, wings and colonades were added (and this is how it is now) then there were many other additions to enlarge the house, but which took away from the symmetrical proportions. We took a tour of the house and also went upstairs to the study where Madison worked on the Constitution, for which he was pretty much solely responsible.  Like Jefferson, he could read and write seven languages, and he studied every Republic and Democracy to try to forge the document for the new United States.  That sense of standing right in the spot where history is made is so extraordinary.

After the house tour, we walked through the gardens

and visited Madison’s gravesite.

I had known James Madison’s name before, but I’d not been aware of how vital he was in formulating the Constitution, so I was fascinated to learn more about him.

Altogether,the weekend was a perfect way for my niece and me to celebrate our respective Spring breaks.

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