- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2004

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Thomas Jefferson was the quintessential 18th-century man — a revolutionary tempered by reason. Yet a visit to his estate, Monticello, reveals his habits and interests to have been surprisingly similar to those of many 21st-century Americans.

For example, Jefferson wrote almost 20,000 letters and kept detailed meteorological records; you can almost imagine him addicted to e-mail and the Weather Channel. His obsessions with gadgets, home improvement and gardening also seem contemporary.

He returned from France with 86 crates of wallpaper, copper pots, art, books and housewares; he planted more than 200 varieties of grapes in a doomed effort to produce wine; and he literally renovated his house for 40 years. Anybody who has ever overspent at Home Depot or the Sharper Image can relate to that.

Perhaps Jefferson’s modern tastes and hobbies help explain why Monticello is one of the most popular attractions associated with any U.S. president, hosting half a million visitors annually.

If a picture of that domed building with neoclassical columns seems familiar even though you have never been there, look at an ordinary nickel. You probably don’t carry pictures of your own home around, but you do carry a picture of Jefferson’s.

Jefferson’s accomplishments were many — author of the Declaration of Independence, secretary of state, vice president, president, minister to France, governor of Virginia and founder of the University of Virginia. Monticello, though, showcases his talents as architect and scientist. Every aspect of his designs had a purpose, beginning with the entrance hall.

Tour guide Gina Lombardi explains that Jefferson wanted to edify visitors from the moment they walked into his home. Displays in the hall include maps, copies of old master paintings, a model of a pyramid and items collected in the West by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. As president, Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition. Buffalo hides given to the explorers by Indians drape the balcony; antlers they collected are on the wall.

Monticello’s 33 rooms are spread over three stories and a basement. The upper floors, where Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, raised her 11 children, are closed to the public. The first-floor tour of Jefferson’s bedroom, study, library, parlor, tearoom and dining room provides plenty of insights.

A clock he designed sat at the foot of his bed in an era when only one in 10 families owned a timepiece, Miss Lombardi says.

She adds that “most houses in Virginia would not have had even a fraction of the windows” found in Monticello, not to mention its 13 skylights; Jefferson liked natural light.

Miss Lombardi also explains that most of the work at Monticello was performed by slaves, a fact that is difficult to reconcile with images of the man who penned the words “all men are created equal.”

A pamphlet available at Monticello called “Mulberry Row” (named for a lane where slaves lived), notes that Jefferson “held paternalistic views of his human property, feeling responsible for their welfare while doubting their ability to succeed in a free white world.”

Jefferson was long rumored to have taken a slave named Sally Hemings as his mistress. In 1998, DNA tests confirmed that he likely fathered one, if not all, of her children.

Monticello’s house slaves lived and worked in L-shaped wings called “dependencies.” Jefferson designed the dependencies so they were attached to the main building but out of sight and physically separate from the floors occupied by Jefferson and his family.

The dependencies housed the kitchen, smokehouse, icehouse, dairy and stables and were connected to the cellar by an all-weather passageway; their roofs formed the terraces for the main floor.

Jefferson was born in a frontier farm at the foot of Monticello Mountain. He inherited the land, chose the mountaintop for his future home because he liked the view, and began clearing the land in 1768 at age 25. (Monticello — pronounced Monti-CHELL-o — is Italian for little mountain.)

He redesigned the building after returning from France, adding the dome and new rooms and altering the facade to give the illusion of a single story. Renovations continued until 1809.

No Monticello visit is complete without an outdoor tour.

“Few topics tell us more about Jefferson than gardening,” says Peter Hatch, director of Monticello’s gardens and grounds. “He was a scientist, a designer, a family man and a lover of nature.” He had contests with neighbors over who could grow the first peas of spring; he loved planting tulips with his granddaughters; and like many modern Americans, he used gardening to escape work-related stress and as a hobby in retirement.

Jefferson used his gardens as a laboratory, growing hundreds of varieties of vegetables and fruits and keeping meticulous records. “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture,” Jefferson said.

His experiments ranged from Mediterranean figs, almonds and olives to Northeastern sugar maples, which he hoped would increase syrup production, thereby reducing the need for sugar-cane plantations run with slave labor. (Although he owned 600 slaves, he considered slavery an “abomination”; as president, he outlawed the importation of slaves.)

The maple trees, however, produced little sap in Virginia’s heat. Jefferson also had no luck starting a vineyard with European grapes. “Few gardeners failed as much as he did,” Mr. Hatch says.

Lack of results never discouraged him, though. “The failure of one thing,” Jefferson wrote, “is repaired by the success of another.”

In 1985, with the help of modern pesticides, Jefferson’s vineyards were revived. Monticello sells wine made from a grape variety documented by Jefferson.

Jefferson also designed 20 oval flower beds and walkways called roundabouts, then filled them with a mix of European imports such as tulips and native American plants — including specimens provided by Lewis and Clark.

Re-creating those gardens has been difficult. Plants cannot always be identified from Jefferson’s descriptions, and cultivated varieties have changed a lot in 200 years. “We are trying to be as authentic as we can be, but sometimes we compromise,” says Gabriele Rausse, associate director of gardens and grounds.

However, as in Jefferson’s day, forest, farm and flowers still converge at Monticello in waves of green, brown, yellow, purple and red. What’s blooming depends on when you visit but may include poppies, phlox, calendula, columbine, roses, lilies, sweet william, sweet peas, foxglove and larkspur. Heirloom varieties can be purchased in Monticello’s garden shop.

The 1,000-foot-long terraced vegetable garden contains root vegetables, leafy greens, 20 varieties of peas, and tomatoes, which Jefferson grew but which were not widely known in his time. The garden also contains some crops rarely grown today, including sea kale, a winter vegetable that tastes like asparagus. Jefferson also had a “fruitery” where he grew peaches, apples and berries.

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed. Fellow patriot John Adams died the same day; his last words were, “Jefferson survives.”

Actually, Jefferson had died a few hours earlier, but if Monticello is a measure of Jefferson’s immortality, maybe Adams was right.

• • •

Monticello is on Route 53 in Charlottesville, near the intersection of Interstate 64 (Exit 121) and Virginia Route 20, 125 miles from Washington.

Admission — $13 for adults and $6 for children 6 to 11 — includes guided tours of house and grounds. Special tours for families with children are offered until Aug. 15.

Monticello’s hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Christmas from March through October and 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from November through February.

Arrive early to beat the crowds. Allow at least four hours for tours and for exploring the grounds, shops, cemetery and other open areas. Bring a picnic, visit the concession stand, or dine at a nearby Colonial-era tavern, Michie’s, at 683 Thomas Jefferson Parkway; 434/977-1234 or www.michietavern.com; (lunch entrees $14 and up).

To contact Monticello: 434/984-9822 or www.monticello.org.

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