One of the gems of Virginia’s historic houses is Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson’s retreat located in the rolling countryside southwest of Lynchburg, Virginia and off the major tourist route. A visit there offers profound insight into the genius of Jefferson. The house was saved from demolition in the 1980s and visitors today can view the ongoing restoration. With painstaking care, the craftsmen and landscape architects are gradually bringing the estate back to its Jeffersonian appearance. A tour of the house reveals an intricate mind. While Monticello is considered Jefferson’s autobiographical masterpiece, one could argue that Poplar Forest, built later in Jefferson’s life, rivals this claim. It tells much of its designer, Jefferson. It seems as though Jefferson pulled out all of stops, including design details that provide a fascinating glimpse into his private world of his retirement years and some say his most creative years. He copied elements of design he saw in France and read about in various design books.
The house’s octagonal shape reveals challenging room configurations. Jefferson loved light and combined various architectural devices to allow much light to stream into the house. I visited for the second time recently, almost ten years after my first visit. The rooms remain largely unfurnished, but the work has come a long way in ten years. The skylights, the cube room, the alcoves in the bedrooms, the mounds in the yard…
It is rare to have the opportunity to watch restoration work and to talk with archeologists and craftsmen and master gardeners. They are at work on a large puzzle, sorting through historical evidence, to put the pieces into place. Future generations will see the finished product, but visitors today see the process. The science of history is clearly on view as the picture begins to become clearer.
I highly recommend a visit to Poplar Forest. While the tour includes information about Jefferson’s life and times and the lives of the entire plantation community, it is the architecture and landscape design that take precedence. You can step onto the terrace deck or peer down the spiral staircase in the bedroom. You can imagine Jefferson and his neighbors discussing the news of the day around the dining room table, under the skylight. If you go, make sure to ask your tour guide about the rat’s nest and the incredible evidence it revealed.
pdf of an article about recent archaeology at Poplar Forest: http://www.poplarforest.org/sites/default/files/PFArchaeologyIMLS.pdf
Have you visited Poplar Forest? Share something about your visit. How would you compare it to Monticello?