Thomas Jefferson is the third President of the United States of America and was the architect and builder of Monticello Plantation. Neither can be separated from the other and are as intertwined as the statesman and nation he helped to create.
Monticello is where architecture and landscape are brought together in harmony. Jefferson had many passions: architecture, politics, mathematics and gardening to name a few.
But gardening was his deepest. “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth and no culture comparable to that of the garden” Jefferson confessed.
An aristocrat and gentleman, Jefferson’s Monticello plantation was originally 5,000 acres located near Charlottesville, Virginia.
The property was built and rebuilt several times over due to Jefferson being a perfectionist, but there were two finished homes, the latter which is now seen today.
Designed for safety and to stay cool in the summer, all chores such as cooking, washing, dairy and others were performed separately from the main house due to the slaves needing work areas as well as the risk of fire.
The number of slaves varied from 52 to 130 over the years. They lived and worked on the plantation in the area called Mulberry Row.
Jefferson designed the house for enlightened conversation at the dinner table.
and designed a library to keep his mind active.
He placed great importance on books and never did free himself from his addiction to purchasing all types, having sold his collection to the Library of Congress in 1815 to pay off debts.
Only a few weeks later after the sale Jefferson wrote a letter to his friend, President John Adams, declaring “I cannot live without books” and promptly began to purchase new books for another library.
Given his attempt to master every branch of knowledge on the tree of life, his farm and garden notebooks recorded all aspects of botany and horticulture, which were the very heart of Monticello.
Jefferson was the classic Renaissance man who strived to find answers to all life’s questions. His love of “putting up and pulling down” was demonstrated by his desire to remodel any and every house he lived in whether rented or owned.
Even before he completed the first Monticello, he began to tear it down to the dismay of his family.
When winter came the new walls were without a roof except the drawing room and Jefferson’s bedroom wing.
Then came a bitter freeze that November that halted any further work. Mrs. William Thornton, a family friend wrote in a letter that the house was still in an “unfinished state, although it commenced twenty seven years ago.”
No other contemporary American came close to his passion for architecture and it was a life-long obsession. It reflects and represents the personality of the owner, a self made designer/builder more than any other house in the country.
Civilized, sensitive and complex are the hallmarks of the house and man, both showing great personality and genius. His speech, agrarian values, table silver, furnishings, domestic staff and aloofness all tell of his aristocrat bearing, yet his genealogy could never be traced beyond his grandfather.
Three years after reaching adulthood, Jefferson received his father’s estate of 5,000 acres and it was the beginning of a declaration of love for Monticello and a quiet life as a country farmer despite the pleasures he discovered living in Paris.
Sited on a mountain top noble and proud, Monticello symbolized America itself, with the Blue Ridge Mountains on the horizon. Lofty goals of studying nature from it’s buildings, gardens, orchards and fields surrounded by wooded hills, valleys, mountains, rivers and plains.
The world’s most famous architect, Andrea Palladio, was the inspiration to Jefferson’s genius.
Palladio was Italian and the villa design was a design of life based on agriculture. Jefferson understood this, but added paths where he could walk and ride horseback to clear his mind and restore his vigor.
Above all, he felt that home was a place where private and family affairs took place. Not only a gathering place for family and “virtuous” friends who shared his intellect and interests, but also to create a sublime state of happiness.
There were problems of course, mainly water. On a mountaintop was not the best location for well water and his notes describe a repeated story. In 1778 he writes “the water is returning into the well at Monticello having now been dry for 13 months”. Om 1791, “the well has failed this year: 1797 “the well has got very low this summer” and 1799, “the well failed this summer”.
Jefferson’s ties to France are clear in the relationship of his creative approach to the interior design. Despite a wife and six children, the house cultivated the mind of a man whose range of interests were music, drawing, geometry, astronomy, philosophy and legislation.
His need for solitude and privacy was in sharp contrast to his continuous remodeling. His genius for invention is shown by his mechanical “knickknacks” including a revolving coat rack, a bed alcove that could be accessed from both sides and portholes for ventilation.
His answer to privacy from servants was to build dumbwaiters that allowed for self serve buffets during meals. A slave noted “When he wanted anything he had nothing to do but turn a crank and the dumbwaiter would bring him water or fruit on a plate”.
The first garden was in 1774 on the terrace just above the orchard that ran 668 feet long and 80 feet wide to feed not only family, but numerous, non-stop guests and slaves. The orchard and outbuildings were designed for self-sufficiency and had to contribute.
Jefferson was a naturalist, but first and foremost a farmer. Monticello must have function, but also pleasure. The house was without precedent in style, yet was perfectly connected to the untamed wilderness beyond. He believed all nature was a garden and the landscape design he created was influenced by his romantic interpretations.
After Jefferson retired from politics in 1809, he began to focus almost entirely on the “decoration” of his vista, what is commonly referred to now as landscape architecture. The stylish curves of Monticello’s paths are referred to in his letters to William Hamilton as an “advantage of shifting the scenes as you advance on your way”.
Seeds for his garden were from all parts of the world and Jefferson summed it up “Botany I rank with the most valuable science. No country gentleman should be without what amuses every step he takes into his field.”
Under the demand for the family table, he was a devoted gardener “but though an old man, I am but a young gardener.” His every activity at Monticello throughout his long, productive life was the care of his plants, trees, orchards, vineyard, gardens, crops and supervision of workers.
Jefferson copied this poem celebrating his ideal self-sufficient, utopian existence:
Happy is he who far from business,
Like the first race of man,
Can till inherited lands with his teams,
Free from all payment of interest,
He who avoids the market and
the proud threshold of mighty citizens…
May recline now under an old tree
And, again on soft meadow,
While the water falls down from the steep banks,
Birds lament in the woods,
And the springs with murmuring veins,
Suggest soft sleep.