- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2002

Like all very busy and celebrated men, Thomas Jefferson president, author of the Declaration of Independence, ambassador to France, plantation owner, skilled architect, builder and horticultural hobbyist sometimes needed to escape from life in the limelight.

Little-known Poplar Forest, a plantation near Lynchburg. Va., where Jefferson built what is thought to be the first octagonal house in the nation, became that much-needed sanctuary, a refuge where the 18th-century Renaissance man could read, write and tend his garden.

The house is smaller and much simpler than Monticello, his primary residence outside Charlottesville, which, despite its great distance from the capital, attracted a stream of more or less welcome guests some of whom never seemed to leave.

"That's why he kept Poplar Forest a secret during his lifetime," estate spokeswoman Karin Sherbin says after mentioning that Jefferson often retreated to a monastery "to recharge his batteries" during his years in France.

Travis McDonald, director of restoration at Poplar Forest, stresses the profoundly different aspects of the two residences. "The historic sound of this house is silence," he notes, whereas Monticello was and continues to be a hub of activity.

Though not nearly as well-known as Monticello, Poplar Forest is no longer a secret, either. Extensive archaeological and restoration work has been continuous throughout the past decade, and the public is invited to visit in groups all year. Individual visitors are welcome from April through November.

The house is sparsely furnished with replica chairs and a dining table from Jefferson's time. The original pieces were sold by Jefferson's grandson, Francis Eppes, who inherited Poplar Forest in the late 1820s after Jefferson's death.

The jewel is the architecture itself: four octagonal rooms surrounding a cubical dining room in the center; huge windows; skylights; and numerous fireplaces. The walls are of exposed brick, and the floors are hardwood without any period floor treatments.

In designing and building Poplar Forest, Jefferson blended architectural styles he had learned about from his travels and personal study.

He was inspired by the 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio and by French contemporary design, including floor-to-ceiling windows that gracefully connect the main rooms and gardens. He also installed at least one indoor toilet, another typically French feature (at a time when most American houses had outdoor privies) and added a skylight above the dining room.

"You could say that this blending of styles represents the first American architecture," Mr. McDonald says.

Jefferson inherited Poplar Forest in 1773 from his father-in-law. It was a 4,812-acre farm with wheat and tobacco as the main crops.

"Jefferson often had financial problems, and this was just a place he thought could bring him some income," Ms. Sherbin notes.

In 1806, he oversaw builders laying the foundation of the octagonal house, and after his presidency ended in 1809, Jefferson visited the retreat three to four times each year.

After its sale by Jefferson's heir, Poplar Forest remained in private hands between 1828 and the mid-1980s. When the last private owner, Dr. James Johnson, a North Carolina physician, stipulated that the house and remaining 50-acre property be restored by a museum or other nonprofit organization, a group of preservation-minded individuals formed the nonprofit Corporation of Poplar Forest, which then purchased the estate for a little less than $1 million in 1984.(An additional 450 acres has been acquired since then.)

After an initial period of fund raising, restoration and archaeological work at Poplar Forest began in 1989. Since then, the archaeological team has gathered thousands of artifacts, ranging from 18th-century toothbrushes to fine British porcelain.

The work isn't finished yet.

In 2002, Mr. McDonald and archaeologist Heather Olson hope to restore the east wing, which juts about 200 feet from the otherwise symmetrical main building. They also plan to research exactly what Jefferson grew in his gardens and discover more about the slave quarters.

Not much is known about the many slaves Jefferson owned. Two slave-quarter sites have been found, but there should be more.

"We know that [the slaves] were allowed to raise their own vegetables, poultry and pigs," Ms. Olson says, "but we've also found gunpowder. They weren't allowed to have firearms, but evidently they did."

In the gardens, pollen analyses indicate that Jefferson had an affinity for lilacs, roses, altheas and, of course, poplars, for which the plantation was named long before Jefferson owned it. The exact location of the plants has not yet been determined.

"Slow [restoration] is good. Not only do we get it right, but people can follow the process," Mr. McDonald says. "Visitors have said they really enjoy that."

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