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From Briars to Boxwoods, Ash Lawn-Highland Celebrates the Life and Times of James Monroe

From Briars to Boxwoods, Ash Lawn-Highland Celebrates the Life and Times of James Monroe

Posted Thursday May 1, 2008 07:00 AM EDT


By Hal Smith

James Monroe’s bucolic Ash Lawn-Highland provides a ready welcome for dignitaries, businessmen, and tourists.
(Courtesy of Ash Lawn-Highland )

Atop a gentle rise in Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains sits Ash Lawn-Highland, the former home of James Monroe, America’s fifth president, who lent his name to the Monroe Doctrine and fought with distinction in the Revolution. It is tidy and comfortable, but far from grand. Trees block the view of Thomas Jefferson’s far more stately Monticello—only a mile away—but do not obscure a cluster of tall communications towers on a nearby ridge, ground once encompassed by Monroe’s 3,500-acre plantation. A timber harvest has denuded a hill overlooking the house and it is clear that the estate, now 535 acres, has lost considerable ground over the years.

That visitors can come to Ash Lawn-Highland at all is something of a miracle. If not for the dedication of Carolyn Holmes, who has managed the plantation for Monroe’s alma mater, the College of William and Mary, for more than 30 years, it is doubtful that there would have been a celebration of Monroe’s 250th birthday on April 28. The estate was in serious disrepair in 1975 when the college acquired it as a gift. Critics warned that it could become a white elephant.”

“There were briars growing in the driveway, the boxwoods were massively overgrown and a strong stand of ivy covered most everything,” remembers Holmes. Today Ash Lawn-Highland is self-supporting, even though Monticello, which is much closer to Interstate 64, siphons off most visitors. In addition to about 60,000 visitors annually, Ash Lawn-Highland also draws income from a well-regarded opera festival that offers about 30 outdoor performances each summer. The estate's restored outbuildings are used to teach school children 19th century skills, including weaving and candle-dipping. Behind the house, the domestic slave quarters intrude upon the bucolic setting of flower gardens, pastures, and new spring lambs in a nearby pen. The estate also hosts William and Mary alumni.

As for the towers, Holmes recalls being notified when a communication company proposed adding another structure to the five or six that already existed. When she demurred, an official explained that "we like to cluster them rather than spread them around." This insidious rationale apparently disarmed the cordial and gracious Holmes.

Unlike many other house museums, about 70 percent of Ash Lawn’s furniture, paintings, dinnerware, and various other items were the personal property of the family it honors. One of Monroe’s clocks is wound daily; newspapers from his days remain on the president’s desk. About a third of the books in his library are in French.

On an early spring walk with a docent through the seven-room house, the place was virtually deserted. Here, except for the creaking of wood floors, it is quiet. The table is set with the family’s fine china, just as it was, perhaps, when Washington or Jefferson came to dinner. The dining room is too small for a large table; the Monroes added leaves as the guest list grew. Of all the rooms, this was the center of family life, and its intimacy conveys that real people, not an icon, lived here. And that is probably one of Ash Lawn-Highland’s greatest charms, providing visitors an opportunity to peek intimately into the life of a founding father.

For information about Ash Lawn-Highland, call (434) 293-9539 or go to Admission is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors and $5 for children 6 to 11 years old.

Hal Smith lives near Windsor, New York, and writes about history, travel, and the environment.