- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2002

By Marc Leepson
Free Press, $25, 303 pages, illus.

In 1782, Maj. Gen. Francois-Jean, Marquis de Chastellux wrote that "[Monticello] resembles none of the [other homes] seen in this country; so that it may be said that Mr. Jefferson is the first American who has consulted the Fine Arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather."
Thomas Jefferson archeologist, botanist, paleontologist, author of the Declaration of Independence, third president of the United States, and founder of the University of Virginia passed away on July 4, 1826. To his family he left, among other items, his beloved mountaintop home, Monticello a creation of his own fertile mind and debt totaling over $107,000.
Still scrambling, five years later, to keep the creditors at bay his heirs in 1831 sold the neoclassical mansion to James Turner Barclay, a Charlottesville, Va. druggist. Unfortunately, the house and grounds were already in a state of decline. And the 24-year-old Barclay, evidently, was unable to reverse the process. "The late residence of Mr. Jefferson," wrote visitor William Barry the following year, "has lost all its interest, save what exists in memory, and that is the sacred deposit of his remains. All is dilapidation and ruin … "
With hindsight it's obvious something had to be done to preserve Jefferson's "essay in architecture," a structure that bears indelible witness to his ingenuity and intellectual curiosity.
Enter Navy Lt. Uriah Philips Levy.
In "Saving Monticello: One Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built," writer Marc Leepson presents a heretofore little-known tale. Americans are familiar with the stories of how Jefferson labored 40-some years over his home "putting up and pulling down" as he called itand (along with John Adams) of his coincidental death, in 1826, on the Fourth of July. Millions, too at the current rate of 600,000 per year visit Monticello and marvel at its wonderful state of preservation, the work of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation which acquired the property in 1923. Few, however, know about the intervening 97 years.
Mr. Leepson's book connects the dots. Drawing on diaries, letters, and public records he recounts the fascinating tale of how two generations of a Jewish-American family, for close to 90 years, preserved and protected the house that Jefferson built.
It's a story with many twists and turns. And an eclectic cast of characters.
Druggist Barclay after the failure of his plan to raise silkworms on the estate sold Monticello to Uriah P. Levy in 1834. Mr. Leepson describes the 42-year-old as "one of the most colorful, controversial officers in the history of the United States Navy."
"He is best known for his fight for the abolition of flogging in the Navy," writes Mr. Leepson, "for his courageous service in the War of 1812, and for his overcoming more than his share of anti-Semitism to attain the Navy's highest rank [that of commodore]. He has won a place of honor in Jewish-American history … "
An ardent admirer of Jefferson, Levy over the course of his ownership put a considerable amount of money earned in New York City real estate investments toward Monticello's repair and maintenance. When he died, in 1862, he left the estate to "the People of the United States."
His intention was that Monticello be converted into an agricultural school for the orphaned sons of U.S. Navy warrant officers. That same year, however, the estate was seized by the Confederate States Government as property belonging to an "alien enemy."
Hard up for cash to maintain the war effort the Confederacy sold Monticello two years later, in 1864. The purchaser was Benjamin Franklin Ficklin, a locally-born thrill seeker whose life reads like fiction. Ficklin had fought in the Mexican War, the Mormon War in 1857, and is credited with thinking up, and establishing the route for, the wildly-adventurous Pony Express. When the Civil War came Ficklin returned to Virginia and fought in the Southern Army, briefly, until he began running the Union naval blockade the profits from which probably netted him the cash to buy Jefferson's home. Because the property had been confiscated illegally, the end of the war found Monticello back in Federal hands.
Or rather in the hands of the New York State Court of Appeals, for its fate was being contested by the heirs of Commodore Levy. Sadly, the issue would remain that way until 1879. In the interim, all matters Monticello were handled for the Levy family by the commodore's younger brother, Jonas. Interestingly, this Northerner had gone over to the Southern side during the war and spent several years in Wilmington, N.C., organizing a blockade-running operation.
While the matter of who owned Monticello remained in litigation, the house and property fell into an awful state of disrepair. "There is scarcely a whole shingle upon [the house]," wrote a visitor during this period. "The windows are broken. Everything is left to the mercy of the pitiless storm. The room in which Jefferson died is darkened; all around it are evidences of desolation and decay."
When the courts finally agreed to sell Monticello at auction the purchaser was Jonas Levy's eldest son Uriah P. Levy's nephew - the ponderously-named Jefferson Monroe Levy. "The man who would own Monticello from 1879 to 1923 was tall, square-jawed, and sternly handsome," notes Mr. Leepson, "with a full mustache and receding hairline." He is usually identified as a lawyer, "[b]ut his main business, from the time he left law school, was real estate and stock speculation. His business dealings earned him large sums of money … "
Once in charge he devoted much of that money, writes Mr. Leepson, "to repairing, renovating, and restoring Jefferson's mansion." In these efforts he succeeded. When, in 1923, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (TJMF) bought the property from Mr. Levy the original structure was largely intact. "The saving grace was that [Levy] had resisted, as had his uncle before him, the common urge of Americans to remodel," wrote Director of Restoration William L. Beiswanger. "For the most part the nephew's efforts were directed toward stabilization of the building and making only those changes necessary for the house to function as a summer residence."
Within the past 15 years, according to Mr. Leepson, the TJMF has made efforts to recognize the Levy contribution. "At two crucial periods in the history of Monticello," reads a plaque near Jefferson's home (alongside the grave of Uriah P. Levy's mother), "the preservation efforts and stewardship of Uriah P. and Jefferson M. Levy successfully maintained the property for future generations."
Thanks to the Levys, we can still appreciate Monticello, the only home in America on the United Nations' prestigious World Heritage List of structures worthy of preservation at all cost. Thanks to Marc Leepson's in-depth research, we can now enjoy this wonderful tale.

Rick Britton is a writer in Charlottesville.

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