Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, framer and signer of the Declaration of Independence, exemplar of public service, and a man of science and the arts left a legacy of two homes for the public to marvel at: Monticello and a private retreat named Poplar Forest. Of the two residences, the former is perhaps better known and the subject of this review.
Monticello is located just outside Charlottesville, Virginia. The approach to the home is by a gently winding highway and sets the scene for a plantation on the hill. Clearly marked signs direct one into the parking lots at the Visitor Center itself comprised of a museum shop, orientation theater, education center, café type restaurant, restrooms, outdoor seating areas, and shuttle bus station. The journey to Monticello is always upwards it seems but never too arduous for the visitor.
The shuttle bus leaves the visitor area, navigates another winding roadway and five minutes later deposits passengers just outside the East Walk, the main walkway leading to the home. There is a well-polished but comfortable efficiency permeating the visitor tour which suggests that much thought has been given over time to transitioning visitors from arrival to tour. Such well-honed attention to visitor flow makes for a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Disembarking bus passengers are directed to a waiting area near the East Walk, informed when to proceed to the mansion, and met by the docent who is to lead that particular tour. Tours inside the home take perhaps 30 minutes.
On my particular tour, the docent was very personable, moved our group through the home at what seemed like an unhurried pace; infused her delivery with a very interesting combination of historical and anecdotal fact about Jefferson, his family and guests; sprinkled her commentary with a dash here and there of theatrical emphasis in order to make a telling point or two, and left this visitor with a sense of the life of this larger than life American persona rather than a mind-numbing recitation of statements that are all too often forgotten fifteen minutes after departure.
Without attempting to summarize all the aspects of Jefferson’s life and the interesting and innovative features both practical and architectural that embody Monticello, I would just say that the phrase “Renaissance Man” came to mind when touring the home and thinking about Jefferson. His life was not drab by any stretch of the imagination and his inventive faculties; promulgated interest in the letters, arts, public architecture and a myriad of sciences (including horticulture, ethnography, paleontology, archaeology, astronomy to cite some fields of study); and accommodations to a steady stream of friends, guests and dignitaries are quite visible in the manner in which the home is architecturally brought to fruition. In one respect, Monticello was seemingly under constant renovation and remodeling, an aspect of visiting Jefferson which did not escape the notice and later comment by some of his contemporaneous guests.
Once the inside tour concluded, visitors were left with a number of options to complete their visit: wander the grounds, outbuildings and dependencies (those areas set aside for domestic work) to gain more insight into the 18th century plantation way of life; photograph the exterior of the home, grounds and gardens to one’s heart content (interior photography was not permitted); observe an archaeological dig in progress, take one of several other focused tours dealing with for example the slave-force which profitably supported the plantation in a variety of industries or the gardens and horticultural endeavors, meander back by foot to the orientation complex by way of a gravel path passing by the cemetery where Jefferson is buried, or wait for the next shuttle bus making its appointed rounds of the day.
Visitors to Monticello will find the experience professional, relaxed, the grounds and public facilities clean and well maintained, and well worth the investment of time. For aficionados of history, the opportunity to be where Jefferson lived, invented, entertained, and mentally theorized and helped shape the direction of the new nation was very palpable. It’s difficult to understand how anyone could leave this historic site feeling that their visit to Monticello was not in some way enlightening.
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