- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2004

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Four hundred feet above the rooftops of Thomas Jefferson’s manicured estate, John Lanham waits impatiently for the sun to drop behind the Appalachians.

His neighbors soon will emerge from their mountaintop farmhouses to wiggle their toes in the lawn. They will likely have gin and tonics and play a game of Frisbee before the day is over. Everyone will be mesmerized by the sun.

“Look, just look at how much you can see from here,” said Mr. Lanham, 53, still impressed after 15 years of a horizon-to-horizon view. “Intoxicating, isn’t it?”

It’s important to savor the moment — the mountain will return to Jefferson’s Monticello this month. And in the name of historic preservation, the organization that runs the estate wants the residents to leave.

“We’re not in the rental business,” said Dan Jordan, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which spent $15 million for the 330-acre property.

The mountaintop, which Jefferson called “Montalto,” or high mountain, has lured a generation of musicians, students and young professionals with the finest view in the city. One previous resident was Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican. Reached by a private mountain road, the community has the tranquility of a resort town that’s disturbed only by an occasional airplane and the chattering of birds.

About three dozen people live in clusters of converted farmhouses, each marked in front with names such as “Corn Crib” or “Pig Sty” to show what they once were. They call their home Brown’s Mountain after a 20th-century owner.

Most had hoped to stay while the foundation decided what to do with the property. But Monticello has refused, and with the June 24 move-out date approaching, residents can do little more now than take photos of their quaint stone houses and reminisce about community events such as “movie night,” when they would drag a television outside and watch “Casablanca” under a mimosa tree.

“We’d all dress up like Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman,” Mr. Lanham said of the stars on the film. “There were always more Bogarts than Bergmans, unfortunately.”

Montalto was once part of a heavily wooded tract that Jefferson purchased in 1771 while preparing to clear room for Monticello.

The land inspired him. He sketched designs for various observation towers with cupolas and columns and enough space for a study.

Jefferson thought of connecting the mountains with a bridge and building a device to pipe Montalto’s runoff all the way to a pond near his house.

“This is typical of a visionary,” said William Beiswanger, Monticello’s restoration director. “These are ideas that he dreams about … they stimulated his mind.”

None of his sketches actually was built.

Six years after Jefferson died, family members sold the land for $5,100 to pay off some of the former president’s lingering debt. Montalto passed through numerous owners over the years. In the 1950s, it was renamed Brown’s Mountain after the family that bought the mountain and added apartments.

To preservation-minded officials downhill at Monticello, the Brown’s Mountain community has long been an eyesore. The farm buildings poke out from the canopy of trees as a constant reminder of how the world has changed since the 18th century.

“If you’re on the west lawn, this is the thing you see,” Mr. Jordan said.

When Monticello officials learned that the property was going on the market and commercial developers were interested, they quickly offered the owners the asking price.

By the end of the year, Mr. Jordan said, the foundation will decide what to do with the property. The buildings could be torn down and replaced with the kind of trees that grew on the mountain in Jefferson’s time. The foundation also might connect the property to a system of hiking trails Monticello maintains for visitors.

“We also might use the mountaintop for educational purposes, say, a summer camp for kids,” Mr. Jordan said.

Meanwhile, Brown’s Mountain residents are having trouble finding new accommodations they like as much.

“We’ve been a little spoiled,” said Matt Hammond, a 25-year-old elementary school teacher who has lived on Brown’s Mountain with his wife for two years. “The style of living we’ve become accustomed to here is unmatchable.”

“I’ve had the best place to live for eight years,” said Keith Donnelly, a 35-year-old University of Virginia employee who is reluctant to explore Charlottesville’s tight rental market. “It’s all downhill from here.”

Many residents say they’re happy Monticello is taking over the property instead of a commercial developer. Nevertheless, they say, it’s unfair that they aren’t being allowed to get out of their leases early if they find another place, forcing them to pay for two apartments at the same time.

“I do wish Monticello would be a little more generous,” Mr. Lanham said. “We’re suffering from the wake of a very big boat.”

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