Welcome to a captivating journey through Monticello, the iconic estate that stands as a testament to American history and architectural brilliance. Situated on a picturesque summit in the Southwest Mountains of Virginia, Monticello, meaning “little mountain” in Italian, is the former home of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States and a polymath of his time.
In this article, we delve into the fascinating history of Monticello, exploring the life and legacy of its esteemed owner, Thomas Jefferson. Discover the neoclassical design principles and Palladian influences that shaped the architecture of this magnificent estate, along with Jefferson’s innovative ideas for a new nation’s architecture.
As the former home of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello holds a multifaceted legacy that encompasses not only its splendid architecture but also the complex history of slavery that once thrived on its plantation.
Join us as we unravel the enigmatic tapestry of Monticello’s past and present, delving into its unique blend of history, architecture, and intriguing facts.
History of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
Monticello, the primary plantation of Thomas Jefferson, stands as a remarkable testament to the life and vision of one of America’s Founding Fathers and the third president of the United States.
He began designing Monticello after inheriting the land from his father at the age of 14. The plantation, located just outside Charlottesville, Virginia, covered 5,000 acres and was initially cultivated with the labor of African slaves, growing tobacco and mixed crops. Jefferson later shifted to wheat cultivation in response to changing markets.
Designed by Jefferson himself, the main house at Monticello exemplifies neoclassical principles influenced by the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. Throughout his presidency, Jefferson continuously refined the design, incorporating popular late 18th-century European elements and his own innovative ideas.
The home, initially intended as a plantation house, evolved into a unique architectural villa, reflecting Jefferson’s conscious effort to create a distinct new architectural style for the emerging nation.
Work on Monticello, often referred to as “the first Monticello,” commenced in 1768, on the 5,000-acre plantation. Jefferson and his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, moved into the South Pavilion in 1770. Although historians debate the extent of its completion, the house underwent construction and reconstruction using a combination of free workers, indentured servants, and slaves.
After his wife’s passing in 1782, Jefferson departed Monticello in 1784 to serve as the U.S. Minister to France. During his European years, he gained inspiration from classical buildings and contemporary French architecture, laying the groundwork for his home’s remodeling.
In 1794, following his tenure as the first U.S. Secretary of State, Jefferson undertook a comprehensive rebuilding of Monticello, based on the ideas he acquired in Europe. The remodeling spanned most of his presidency, ultimately reaching its general completion by 1809, but Jefferson’s involvement with Monticello continued until his death in 1826.
Jefferson’s alterations to the house included the addition of a center hallway and parallel rooms, effectively doubling its size. He replaced the second full-height story with a mezzanine bedroom floor.
The most striking element of the redesign was the octagonal dome above the west front, replacing a second-story portico. Although praised for its beauty, the dome room saw limited use, possibly due to its climatic conditions and challenging access.
As Jefferson’s attention shifted to his university project in Charlottesville and family issues, Monticello began to show signs of disrepair. His accumulating debts further exacerbated the mansion’s deterioration in the later years of his life. A visitor in 1824 described the estate as somewhat neglected, with the house “going to decay.”
Upon Jefferson’s death on July 4, 1826, his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, inherited Monticello, burdened with debt and financial challenges resulting from her husband’s mental illness. She eventually sold the estate in 1831 to James Turner Barclay, who later sold it to Uriah P. Levy in 1834. Levy, a prominent figure in the United States Navy, greatly admired Jefferson and took it upon himself to repair, restore, and preserve the house.
Subsequent ownership disputes and legal battles finally settled in 1879 when Jefferson Monroe Levy, Uriah Levy’s nephew, acquired Monticello. Like his uncle, Jefferson Levy invested in restoration and preservation efforts, ensuring the property’s survival over nearly a century.
In 1923, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation purchased Monticello from Jefferson Levy, leading to additional restoration under various architects. Today, Monticello operates as a house museum and educational institution, offering visitors a glimpse into Jefferson’s life and legacy.
Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, Monticello stands as a symbol of American history and architectural innovation, a testament to the enduring legacy of one of the nation’s founding figures.
Architecture and interior of Monticello
Jefferson’s Monticello is an architectural masterpiece, designed using neoclassical principles derived from the works of Andrea Palladio, an Italian Renaissance architect. Throughout his presidency, Jefferson continuously refined the design, incorporating popular late 18th-century European elements and infusing it with his own innovative ideas.
Situated on a high peak in the Southwest Mountains, the name “Monticello” originates from the Italian phrase meaning “little mountain.”
Originally intended as a plantation house, Monticello evolved into a distinctive villa that showcased Jefferson’s desire to create a new architectural identity for the burgeoning nation. He expanded the structure by adding a center hallway and parallel rooms, significantly increasing its size.
A mezzanine bedroom floor replaced the second full-height story, while two large rooms at the center of the house served as an entrance-hall-museum, displaying Jefferson’s scientific interests, and a music-sitting room.
The most remarkable addition was the octagonal dome above the west front, replacing a second-story portico. Though described as a “noble and beautiful apartment,” the dome room saw limited use due to its challenging access and fluctuating temperatures.
Given the high summertime temperatures in the region, Jefferson took an interest in ancient temperature-control techniques, such as ground-cooled air and heated floors. Monticello’s design incorporated large windows and a central hall to facilitate a cooling air-current through the house. Additionally, the octagonal cupola drew hot air up and out.
In the late 20th century, moderate air conditioning was installed to preserve the house and its contents without making drastic alterations.
Monticello’s interior decoration reflects Jefferson’s personal ideas and ideals. The main entrance, located on the east front through a portico, features a weather vane connected to a wind plate, indicating wind direction.
The entrance hall contains reproductions of items collected by the Lewis and Clark expedition, which Jefferson commissioned to explore the Louisiana Purchase. The floorcloth in the hall was painted “true grass green” to invite the spirit of the outdoors into the house.
The south wing houses Jefferson’s private suite of rooms, including a library with many books from his third library collection. The dining room table was only erected during mealtimes, reflecting Jefferson’s minimalistic approach to furniture to save space. Beds were built into alcoves in thick walls, offering storage space.
An important discovery in recent years was a room identified as Sally Hemings’ quarters adjacent to Jefferson’s bedroom. Part of the Mountaintop Project, it aims to give a more comprehensive account of the lives of both slaves and free families at Monticello.
Overall, Monticello’s architecture and interior design represent Jefferson’s keen intellect, innovative spirit, and personal tastes, making it an enduring symbol of American history and innovation.
The Jeffersonian architecture and its influence
Thomas Jefferson left a profound impact on American architecture through his innovative style known as Jeffersonian architecture. This form of Neo-Classicism and Neo-Palladianism bears his name as it embodies the architectural designs crafted by his brilliant mind.
Jeffersonian architecture encompasses more than just Thomas Jefferson’s renowned home, Monticello. His architectural influence extends to various buildings, including Poplar Forest, the University of Virginia, and homes of friends and political allies, notably Barboursville. Today, over a dozen private residences bear his personal stamp.
Born in colonial Virginia during a time without formal schools of architecture, Jefferson taught himself the profession through books and by studying classical designs. His chief inspiration was Andrea Palladio, whose “Four Books of Architecture” served as Jefferson’s architectural bible. Jeffersonian architecture finds its roots in Palladian principles.
In 1784, Jefferson’s travels to France introduced him to the neoclassical style, which heavily influenced Monticello’s classical revival design. He admired the Pantheon and incorporated elements of its facade into both Monticello and the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. The Hôtel de Salm in Paris also left a lasting impression on his remodeling of Monticello after leaving Washington’s cabinet.
While Jefferson drew inspiration from architects like James Gibbs and French Neo-classical buildings, his style remained distinct, blending Palladian proportions with his own sensibility and the materials available in early republican Virginia.
An intriguing characteristic of Jefferson’s architecture is his fondness for octagons and octagonal forms, which he employed in various designs, including the dome of Monticello and the entire structure of Poplar Forest.
Jefferson’s architectural legacy lives on in the impressive collection of over 600 pages of his drawings and writings housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society, known as the Coolidge Collection.
Key attributes of Jeffersonian architecture include Palladian design with central cores and symmetrical wings, portico-and-pediment primary entries, classical orders and moldings (especially Tuscan), elevated main floors, red brick construction with white painted trim and sand-painted columns, octagons and octagonal forms, Chinese railings, and “suppressed” stairs rather than grand stairways.
Slavery on Monticello plantation
Thomas Jefferson owned over 600 slaves during his adult life. He managed all aspects of the four Monticello farms, leaving detailed instructions to his overseers when he was away. Slaves in the mansion, mill, and nailery reported to one general overseer, and Jefferson hired several overseers, some of whom were considered cruel.
Jefferson meticulously recorded information about his slaves, plants, animals, and weather in his Farm Book journal. He described in detail the quality and quantity of purchased slave clothing and the names of slaves who received clothing. In a letter, he expressed stress and apprehension regarding his “duty” to provide desirable blankets for his slaves.
Historians noted that Jefferson tried to maintain slave families on his plantations, and he encouraged them to “marry” despite the lack of legal recognition. He occasionally bought and sold slaves to keep families together. Jefferson recorded strategies for employing children, assigning them tasks based on age and gender.
Violence was commonplace on plantations, including Jefferson’s, and some slaves suffered physical punishments. Jefferson instructed his overseers not to whip slaves, but his wishes were often ignored.
The Hemings family played essential roles at Monticello, with Betty Hemings as the matriarch. Four of her daughters served as house slaves, including Sally Hemings, who bore Jefferson six children. Slave cabins were located on Mulberry Row, where African slaves working in the mansion and manufacturing ventures lived.
Archaeological findings indicate changes in the size and layout of slave cabins over time, but researchers disagree on their interpretations. Some slave families lived and labored at Monticello for multiple generations.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History featured six slave families and their descendants in an exhibit on slavery at Monticello. Monticello also opened an outdoor exhibit, Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello, to shed light on the lives of hundreds of slaves who lived and worked there. The exhibits aimed to address the complex legacy of Jefferson as an enslaver and the lives of those held in bondage at Monticello.
The Hemmings Cabin holds a significant place in history as one of the three single-family slave dwellings that once lined Mulberry Row at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. After its reconstruction in 2014, the cabin stands as a tangible connection to the lives of the Hemmings family.
Among the inhabitants of the Hemmings Cabin were Priscilla and John Hemmings. Priscilla was owned by Jefferson’s daughter, Martha Randolph, and played a crucial role in caring for Jefferson’s grandchildren. Meanwhile, John Hemmings earned a reputation as a skilled woodworker and was responsible for running the Joiner’s Shop. They began residing in the cabin in 1809.
Despite John being granted freedom in Jefferson’s will in 1826, Priscilla, unfortunately, remained enslaved. The Hemmings Cabin became a gathering place for the enslaved community on the Monticello property, where they held prayer meetings, providing solace and strength in the midst of adversity.
Through the reconstruction of the Hemmings Cabin, visitors can glimpse into the daily lives and experiences of the Hemmings family and their community. It stands as a testament to their resilience and strength in the face of adversity, as well as a somber reminder of the institution of slavery that was deeply intertwined with Monticello’s history.
Monticello’s influence across America
Monticello holds a special place in American history and has left a lasting impact on architectural designs across the country. The iconic estate was featured in Bob Vila’s A&E Network production, “Guide to Historic Homes of America,” offering viewers a glimpse into its grandeur and historical significance.
In 2014, Prestley Blake created a remarkable replica of Monticello in Somers, Connecticut, measuring 10,000 square feet. This faithful reconstruction allows visitors to experience the architectural marvel even outside Virginia.
The influence of Monticello’s design can be seen in various other buildings. The Naval Academy Jewish Chapel at Annapolis features an entrance pavilion inspired by Monticello’s elegance. Similarly, Chamberlin Hall at Wilbraham & Monson Academy in Massachusetts and Dallas Baptist University boast structures modeled after Monticello, reflecting the enduring appeal of Jeffersonian architecture.
Monticello’s legacy extends beyond educational institutions, as Saint Paul’s Baptist Church in Richmond, Pi Kappa Alpha’s Memorial Headquarters in Memphis, and Perrot Library in Connecticut all draw inspiration from its classical design.
The estate’s recognition doesn’t end there; it has made appearances on U.S. currency and postage stamps. The image of Monticello graced the reverse of the nickel minted since 1938, and its depiction adorned the two-dollar bill until 1966. Even the 1994 commemorative Thomas Jefferson 250th Anniversary silver dollar featured the revered estate.
Beyond its architectural allure, Monticello’s story continues to captivate audiences, inspiring plays like “Jefferson’s Garden,” which delve into the life of its renowned owner.
Monticello remains a symbol of American history, influencing architectural styles and leaving an indelible mark on the nation’s cultural landscape. Whether through reproductions, currency, or the arts, its legacy endures as a testament to the enduring impact of Thomas Jefferson and his iconic home.