Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

From the Research Triangle we drove straight north following a series of small highways towards Charlottesville, VA, a city not much unlike Greenville. Also located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Charlottesville is older than Greenville but has a smaller population (established in 1762 and according to the 2010 census the population is 43,475). Home to two U.S. presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, it was Monticello that brought us to Charlottesville on this particular Friday.

Located on a mountaintop 4 miles southeast of the city, Monticello is one of the most-visited historical sites in the region, hosting 500,000 visitors a year. The plantation was the home of our third president, author of the Declaration of Independence, and the founder of the University of Virginia – Thomas Jefferson. Monticello is the only U.S. presidential and private home on the UNESCO World Heritage site list.

Having inherited the land from his father, Jefferson started building Monticello at the age of 26, working on and expanding the home becoming a life-long project. The exterior is instantly recognizable and can be seen reflected in dozens of homes in the area as a brick façade adorned by columns and an octagonal dome. Influenced by Italian Renaissance architecture, it includes traditional 18th century elements as well as multiple elements of Jefferson’s design. Many of these are still on display today, such as the Great Clock in the entrance hall that told not only time but also the day of the week simultaneously to the interior and exterior of the house. With an enormous face so that workers could read it from afar, it also had a gong that could be heard three miles away.

The entrance hall was used by Jefferson to display items of science, the parlor behind it the base for the dome. The room under the dome, with yellow octagonal walls, a green wooden floor and a circular window in each wall functioned as an apartment, but it isn’t included on the house tour due to fire regulations. In fact, there is no photography allowed on the tour (included in the Monticello day pass and house tour which comes with the price tag of $25/adult and $8/child during the months of March to October). If you just want to see the house, tour the grounds and see the basement exhibits you can purchase a day pass (excludes the house tour) for half that. If you do decide to take the house tour, buy your ticket online to select a time convenient to you and ensure the day’s last tour hasn’t sold out, as the 30 minute tour has a maximum of 25 people. Also be sure to get to Monticello a good half an hour before your tour as you’ll need the time to park, walk to the welcome area and take a shuttle up the mountain.

As we arrived later in the day we were able to park close to the Visitor Center where we purchased tickets and hopped on the shuttle bus. There is a trail that climbs the ½ mile up to the house, but we elected to experience that on our way out (downhill!) after exploring the gardens. The shuttle approaches Monticello from the east, the first glimpse of the majestic home being of the East Portico. As there are dozens of online architectural resources that do a great job of describing the interior of the home and its unique features (of which I have no photos), I’ll continue with our experience on the grounds.

We explored the cellar passage under the terraces and house where there were several exhibits on the day-to-day life at Monticello. The beer and wine cellars, all sorts of storage, the kitchen, smokehouse, dairy, stables and all the other spaces needed to keep the home operational were hidden from view, but connected and easily accessible, the walkways on top serving as terraces. The South Pavilion was actually where Jefferson and his wife lived while the first Monticello was under construction, and the North Pavilion now houses a shop where tourists can buy snacks and drinks.

20 oval-shaped flower beds surround the house, and a “flower walk” encircles the West Lawn. A fish pond was used to keep the catch from the river fresh until needed for dinner, and the grove behind the lawn featured some of the 160 species of trees documented as having been planted during Jefferson’s life. It was easy to imagine his grandchildren running across the wide expanse of lawn while watching my own boys at play…

I was pleased with our late-in-the-day visit as by 5pm (the estate closes at 6pm) it had really cleared out other than the tour groups (last one starts at 5:10pm). We had the West Lawn pretty much to ourselves, and the late afternoon light was perfect for viewing the home from the western vantage point.

Several additional tours of the estate are offered including a special “behind the scenes tour” which does include the iconic yellow room; all the tour options are found on the Monticello website, along with the interpreter-led walking tours of the gardens. Thomas Jefferson was an avid gardener and grew many varieties of plants and vegetables. The three main gardens were for flowers, fruits and vegetables, and the garden served as a laboratory of sorts, with 330 varieties of some 99 species of vegetables and herbs grown. Today the garden serves as a preservation seed bank of 19th century vegetable varieties.

When it came time to start heading back we headed south toward his gardens, walking down Mulberry Row where the wooden structures that housed the workers and craftsmen of Monticello were located more than 200 years ago. Further south were the vegetable garden, vineyards and the orchard, and autumn was fully evident here: in the fall crops that were still growing in the garden, in the crunch of leaves underfoot, and in the colors of the vineyard and orchards. Having traversed the length of Mulberry Row we entered the Grove, shortly coming upon the Monticello cemetery.

The cemetery originated in an agreement between Thomas Jefferson and his friend Dabney Carr, that they would be buried under an oak tree on the grounds of Monticello. Carr married Jefferson’s sister, but passed away in 1773 - the first grave on the site. Jefferson was buried there in 1826, the present monument a larger version of the marker he himself designed. The base covers the graves of President Jefferson, his wife, his two daughters and his son-in-law.

Soon enough we were back the Visitor Center. Within this complex are the ticketing pavilion and also a gift shop, a theater, a café and various galleries and educational rooms. A two hour visit is enough for a cursory exploration of Monticello, but in order to fully experience the tour, the grounds and the various resources 4 hours would suffice. Autumn is a beautiful time to visit this historical mountaintop estate, not only because of the seasonal beauty of the estate, but also due to the fantastic fall foliage in the Blue Ridge Mountains. While our tour of Monticello was over, another Virginia adventure awaited us the following day… the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. 


  1. Great photos, and I'd agree that a late-in-the-day visit in the fall was a wise idea. I visited Monticello on a 4th of July weekend--it was mobbed, in addition to being very hot! But it's definitely worth the visit. Jefferson is my 2nd favorite founding father - after Washington, of course. Others might have a differing opinion. :)

    1. What was your opinion on the house tour Dziesma, was it worth it?

    2. It was quite interesting as far as I recall, though probably mostly due to the fact that TJ himself was such an interesting character, and the guide definitely filled us in on his life at Monticello.


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