- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Disapproving myself of transferring the honors and venerations for the birthday of our Republic to any individual, … I have declined letting my birthday be known, and have engaged my family not to communicate it.

President Thomas Jefferson, 1803

CHARLOTTESVILLE , Va. — Thomas Jefferson had a thing about birthdays. He insisted that the nation’s, the Fourth of July, be commemorated instead of his.

In fact the public never discovered the date of his birth, April 13, until after Jefferson died. Once they knew, they made the most of it. At one public celebration — in 1830 at the Indian Queen Tavern in Bladensburg, four years after Jefferson’s death — the more than 150 present raised 24 planned toasts, and nearly as many extemporaneous ones, as they attested to “their love and admiration” for the third president.

Nowadays at Monticello, Jefferson’s mountaintop home just outside Charlottesville, the birthday is observed with a graveside ceremony featuring a presentation, a wreath-laying, and music by a contingent of the Fife and Drum Corps of the Army’s Third Infantry (the “Old Guard”), who will travel down from Fort Myer.

“Until about 20 years ago it was a fairly modest event,” explains Dan Jordan, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the organization that owns and operates Monticello, “but the foundation wanted to do more. We have endeavored to get speakers who have a real Jeffersonian message.”

The speaker at next week’s ceremony is Daniel Meador, emeritus professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. The 11 a.m. birthday celebration is open to the public.

Mountaintop renewal

But every day at Monticello is a celebration of Jefferson’s birth and life. This spring is a particularly good time for Americans to reconnect with the author of the Declaration of Independence by touring his property.

“This is the most exciting time at Monticello,” Mr. Jordan says, “since Jefferson walked the grounds.”

That’s because ongoing restoration (most recently of the kitchen), new displays (among them a case of scientific instruments and an exhibit of artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition) and new tour options have made the historic property and its original master more accessible to visitors.

Today’s Monticello bears little resemblance to the original. The grounds were first owned by Peter Jefferson, the third president’s father. Thomas, born in nearby Shadwell in 1743, inherited the hilltop property, as part of 3,000 acres, at the age of 21. The name he gave to it, Monticello, is Italian for “little mountain.”

In 1768 his slaves began leveling the mountaintop to provide space for the house, its “dependencies” (the estate’s working wings, built into the hillside and separate from the house but connected to its cellar) and the adjacent Mulberry Row (the lane on top of the mountain where 40 to 50 of the slaves lived and worked).

That began a 41-year period of construction and remodeling that along the way, in 1796, saw the house converted from a two-story, eight-room home into a three-story, 21-room villa.

The eventual result was the Monticello of today, the home that for decades has dazzled visitors.

Because Jefferson personally designed Monticello and its surroundings, the entire estate reflects his tastes, his fascinations and his accomplishments.

“It was all about form, and beauty and utility to Jefferson,” says Susan Stein, Monticello’s Gilder curator, a position named for Richard Gilder of New York, a member of the foundation’s board of trustees.

“What he did here that was so clever was suppress the work buildings, the buildings that everyplace else would have been scattered about the landscape willy-nilly, interfering with the beauty. He submerged them into the hillside.”

View from the top

Jefferson topped his hidden dependencies with wooden terraces, like boardwalks, great for strolling and sightseeing. Today, 81-year-old Bill Hemphill from Lynchburg, Va., sits on one of the terraces and takes in the view.

“Oh, it’s been at least eight or 10 years since I’ve been here,” he says. “It’s gorgeous, it really is.”

From the west terrace — which sits atop an ice house, a stable, and a carriage house — one can see Charlottesville and the Rotunda at Jefferson’s own University of Virginia. The misty Blue Ridge Mountains provide the backdrop.

The east terrace offers a Piedmont vista, an ocean of forests sliced by a curve of the Rivanna River on its way to the James. Underfoot are slave quarters, a smokehouse, the cook’s room — most likely home to the enslaved Fossett family — and the newly restored kitchen.

A bustling kitchen

Only a few years ago, the kitchen was relatively barren of furnishings and atmosphere. Not so today, and that’s in keeping with what is known of the man. It was said that Jefferson’s kitchen was among the best equipped in the state.

“Jefferson was a fashionable gourmet,” Mr. Jordan says. “He had a cultivated palate. He collected recipes and even had a French chef for a while. He placed a high priority on that part of his life. Now the large kitchen reflects his sophistication.”

Today this cornerstone of Monticello’s day-to-day life features a wall of shelves holding dozens of copper pots and pans — like those he sent home from France — facing, along the opposite wall, a long stew stove, a brick-built counter nesting eight separate burners.

Jefferson declared this stew stove “indispensable in a kitchen,” especially one crafting French cuisine, because it gave cooks greater control and more options.

Dominating the room, naturally, is the large fireplace, which restorers will soon fit with a spit jack for slowly turning and roasting meats.

“We’re working on recreating all of the kitchen things Jefferson owned, including coffee grinders, cabbage slicers and knives,” Ms. Stein says. “We’ve been working hard to get actual 18th-century items and we’ve reproduced the tall case clock that sat in the kitchen.”

Isaac Jefferson, a slave whose recollections were recorded in 1847, claimed that “Mr. Jefferson … never went into the kitchen except to wind up that clock.”

Ms. Stein says, “One of the things we want to get across [in the kitchen] is the sense of activity. It was constant.”

Thus the brand new kitchen attraction — a subtle background soundtrack. Listen closely and you can pick out the crackling of the fire, coal being shoveled, the jangling of copper pots, and voices — slave voices.

Jefferson’s slaves

All of Jefferson’s cooks were slaves. Ursula, Isaac Jefferson’s mother, labored in Monticello’s first kitchen, while Suck cooked for Jefferson not just at Monticello but also in Williamsburg and in Richmond, when Jefferson served as governor in 1780 and 1781. Edith Fossett was Monticello’s head cook during Jefferson’s 17-year-long retirement beginning in 1809.

An especially talented slave was James Hemings. He traveled with Jefferson to Paris in 1784, studied the French methods of cooking, and in 1787 became Jefferson’s chef de cuisine. After returning to the United States Hemings was freed by Thomas Jefferson in 1793 on the condition that the slave pass on his cooking skills to his younger brother, Peter.

Peter and James Hemings were the brothers of Sally Hemings, Monticello’s most famous slave and — because of the rumored liaison between her and Thomas Jefferson — its most controversial.

In 1998, after almost two centuries of speculation, a DNA study found a direct genetic link between the descendants of the Jefferson family and the descendants of Eston Hemings, Sally’s youngest child.

According to a report issued by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in January 2000, when one combines this scientific information with all of the circumstantial information, there is a “high probability” that Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings, and “perhaps” all of Sally’s six children.

A riposte issued in April 2001 by a commission of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, a group founded in 2000 in response to the Jefferson Foundation’s report, expressed serious skepticism about the earlier document, with some of its members branding it “almost certainly false.”

Today the Thomas Jefferson Foundation concedes that Jefferson’s paternity of one or more of Sally Hemings’ children “cannot be established with absolute certainty,” and leaves it at this: “The evidence is not definitive, and the complete story may never be known.”

Inner workings

Inside the house there are many new things to see as well. Standing in the library (beside the stately chair used by Jefferson when, as vice president, he presided over the U.S. Senate) is a new large case displaying scientific instruments related to Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

Jefferson was well regarded for his contributions to several realms of science — archaeology, meteorology, and paleontology, among others.

The case features an ivory hydrometer, used to determine a liquid’s specific gravity — it looks like an early American fishing bob with a thermometer attached — and a London-made, brass-framed hygrometer for measuring the moisture content of a gas. Inside the brass housing a delicate strip of whalebone bends according to the relative humidity, thus manipulating a needle across a circular scale.

Also included is a modern-looking device called a scioptic ball, which resembles the front end of a security camera; when mounted in a closed window shutter it projects an outdoor image onto an indoor surface. Here as well is an 18-inch-long brass micrometer that was presented by Jefferson to Franklin and came back to Jefferson after Franklin’s death in 1790. A type of telescope mounting two crystals, its primary purpose is the measurement of small angles.

The new Lewis and Clark exhibit — reproductions of American Indian artifacts sent back by the explorers who opened the West in 1803-1806 — occupies virtually an entire wall in Monticello’s entrance hall.

The weapons on display include vicious-looking clubs with metal blades, as well as bows and arrows organized around several circular shields made from buffalo humps and painted with symbols that came to the original owners in dreams or visions. Also featured are long wood-stemmed pipes decorated with eagle feathers, horsehair and quillwork.

“It’s an exciting time to see Monticello more fully as Jefferson knew it,” says Gary Sandling, Monticello’s new director of interpretation and training, who has been on the job just about a year.

“There’s been a lot of time spent in determining how best to share with the public what Monticello meant to Thomas Jefferson. Our visitors will remember some of the facts, but they’re going to remember especially how this place is communicated.”

Telling the story

The methods of “communicating Monticello” — and thus Jefferson — have recently been multiplied.

Acoustiguides, new since 2005, look like slender black walkie-talkies with numbered push buttons and a digital screen. They offer self-guided tours with further information about the grounds and gardens — commentary from the Monticello experts, soundscapes, sound effects and dramatic readings.

“Stand in front of the nailery — and, of course, push the right button — and you hear hammers, you hear iron striking,” Mr. Sandling says. “On Mulberry Row you hear wagons rolling by.”

Signature tours, Friday after-hours tours that let visitors explore the house at a more leisurely pace, were first presented at Monticello in 2005 and return this year beginning April 21. The 11/2-hour reserved tours include the ground floor of the house, the dependencies below, and a trip to the Dome Room on the third floor. The tours are designed by the guides themselves.

Beginning May 1, Monticello will also offer hourlong, twice-daily shuttle-bus tours of Montalto, or Brown’s Mountain, a mountain southwest of Monticello that the Thomas Jefferson Foundation recently bought in order to preserve the views from the house.

On Monticello’s west lawn — just outside the home’s dome-topped garden entrance, the famous “nickel view” — a small knot of adults and youngsters from Knoxville, Tenn., is enjoying the sunny afternoon. The children are on spring break and this is their first visit to Monticello.

“I liked his inventions. I liked the writing desk,” says Alyse McCamish, 9.

Her father beams.

“I wanted to bring her here,” says Joe McCamish, “because this place impacted me more than any other I ever visited as a child. I remembered this place as being bigger when I was 12 years old. That was 41 years ago.

“It’s important for me that she get to visit the most influential man in American history. No one shaped and formed our country more than this man.”

Would Alyse come back given the chance?

“Definitely,” she says.

Marking Jefferson’s birthday

Thomas Jefferson, whose 263rd birthday is next week, believed Americans should celebrate the Fourth of July rather than the April 13 anniversary of his birth. The commemorations here and at Monticello are thus suitably restrained. Here’s a guide:

• Jefferson Memorial: 900 Ohio Drive SW. Speakers, military honor guard, wreath-laying in a ceremony sponsored by the Washington chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution. Noon April 13. Metro: Smithsonian. 202/426-6841.

• Monticello Cemetery: At Jefferson’s gravesite on the estate grounds. The ceremony will include remarks by Daniel Meador, music by the Army’s Third Infantry Fife and Drum Corps, and a wreath-laying by representatives of local, state and national institutions. 11 a.m. Free. See monticello.org.

Specialty tours cater to interests

Monticello offers myriad ways to tour the house and grounds. Regular tours are included in the price of admission; special tours are extra. Monticello’s daily summer hours are 8 a.m.-5 p.m. through Oct. 31. Admission is $6-$11, with children under 6 free.

Here’s a guide. For more information call 434/984-9822 or see monticello.org.

Regular tours

• House tours: Guided tours of Monticello’s interior begin every 4-5 minutes and last about 30 minutes. Written translations of the house tour are available in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian and Spanish.

• Tours for children and their families: Geared toward children 6-11, these include hands-on objects and a child-friendly focus. On the hour 10 a.m.-3 p.m. daily June 15-Sept. 4. Register at the Ticket Office on arrival.

• Garden tours: Guided 45-minute walking tours visit Monticello’s flower, fruit and vegetable gardens and focus on Jefferson’s interest in gardening. Tours begin on the West Lawn at a quarter past the hour, 9:15 a.m.-4:15 p.m. April 1-Oct. 31.

• Plantation community tours: These 45-minute guided walking tours of Mulberry Row and other plantation-related sites near the mountaintop focus on Monticello’s slave community. Tours begin in front of the Museum Shop on the hour 10 a.m.-3 p.m. April 1-Oct. 31.

Expanded tours

• Acoustiguide audio tours: Self-guided tours of 30 stops around the gardens and grounds. $5 at the Museum Shop.

• Signature tours: Hour-long guided tours include the rooms on the main floor of the house, the third-floor Dome Room and the cellar-level “dependencies”; a visit to Mulberry Row and time to stroll the gardens and grounds. Parking on the mountaintop. 6:30 p.m. every Friday April 21-Sept. 8. Maximum 20 persons. $35 per person by credit card reservation at 434/984-9822.

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