It was not the ideal, sunny crisp fall day I’d hoped for…with clouds hanging low, I knew the spectacular views from the little mountain would be minimal. But, I would be passing through Charlottesville and wanted to stop at one of my favorite history places, Thomas Jefferson’s autobiographical masterpiece, his home Monticello.
I first visited while in elementary school and even then was enraptured by the place. I didn’t know what a renaissance man was exactly, but I knew Jefferson was someone I admired because of his curiosity about the world around him. Anyone who says “I cannot live without books,” gets my attention. He amassed thousands of books over his lifetime, and of course sold about 6,700 of them to start the Library of Congress after the British burned Washington. After that he assembled a “retirement library” of 1,000 books.
The last time I visited, seven years ago, a friend who works there had offered to give me a peek into the dome room. It didn’t happen because he was sick that day. About three years ago Monticello started offering behind the scenes tours – including all four floors of the house and the dome room. Now was my time to see that dome room. I applaud Monticello’s staff for wanting to make unfinished rooms accessible to visitors. Rooms that once were staff offices now offer visitors a peek into the quarters where four generations of Jefferson family members collided with each other and no doubt fought and lived above their famous patriarch. Sleeping space was always at a premium and privacy probably almost nonexistent.
The 90-minute tour allowed our small group of seventeen or so access to the two 22-inch wide staircases on either end of the house. Thirty-seven steps in each one saved space and allowed family members and domestic staff to move around the house. No grand staircase in this place. Jefferson loved architecture and designed the house himself, based on designs by Palladio and other Italian influences, especially Roman influences. Yet, he borrowed French elements as well. The house is a mix of styles, ultimately classical yet unique in America.
His bedroom has skylights and has the look of a Roman temple. A lover of octagons, Jefferson designed octagonal rooms with inset beds to preserve space. Perhaps the quintessential octagon room is the dome room. While the group was not allowed to take photos inside the house, the one exception was the dome room. The crown of the house, this octagonal space features six large round windows and an oculus a the top. Hard to reach, it was not a practical space and most likely used for storage except for when one of his grandsons and his bride briefly lived there. Two granddaughters made a hideaway space in a small space off of the room, above the portico.
The house was a work-in-progress for over forty years, as Jefferson built what is called Monticello 1 and then decided to make changes.
The Monticello staff are currently in the process of restoring the road system of the plantation to better interpret the dynamics of plantation life. And as always, they are experimenting with new ways to tell the stories of Mulberry Row, the industrial heart of the plantation where 140 or so enslaved people worked. A new reproduction slave cabin will help tell new stories.
I walked through the terraced vegetable garden admiring the variety of crops and drawn, as always, to the Garden Pavilion. With its sweeping view of the mountains beyond, it is a sublime spot to read and I can always imagine Jefferson sitting there with a good book learning about agricultural practices.
As I walked back to my car, a light rain started. The lush green of the rolling Piedmont landscape included hints of the fall color to come. I realized I was alone. It was closing hour. If only Jefferson could suddenly appear and tell me a little about the place he loved so dearly.