- Historic Sites
Jefferson’s Second Home
THIS SPRING, THE 250TH ANNIVERSARY OF JEFFERSON’S BIRTH, RESTORATION BEGINS ON POPLAR FOREST, WHICH HE ONCE CALLED “THE BEST DWELLING HOUSE IN THE STATE, EXCEPT THAT OF MONTICELLO.” WHILE THE WORK PROGESSES, THE HOUSE IS OPEN TO THE PUBLIC, AND ITS GHOSTLY EMPTINESS HEIGHTENS THE SENSE IF ITS ORIGINAL OCCUPANT.
April 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 2
Only rarely did Thomas Jefferson speak directly of his second home, Poplar Forest, referring rather to “my property in Bedford” or employing some other casual euphemism. This obliqueness about a place in which he took so much pride was typical, another of the apparent contradictions in the Virginian who looms so large in our culture of contradiction—this highly public man who at the height of his political career built a second home to escape all the people and the attention he had attracted to the first.
Monticello was, in Jefferson’s lifetime, one of two or three intellectual centers of this new nation. Having sold in 1815, at a bargain price, one library to his country—the foundation of the Library of Congress, delivered in eleven wagons from Monticello—Jefferson already had assembled a second library of great volume and variety. He carried on a monumental correspondence, receiving (and having to answer) some twelve hundred letters in one year alone. And visitors representing a vast array of interests and experience thronged the retired President’s official residence, coming to see the great man and to participate in the ongoing intellectual discussion that inevitably swirled around him. “Monticello,” the historian Merrill Peterson has written, “was a country philosophical hall,” and, he might have added, the country was America.
Jefferson was devoted to the life of the mind, that of others as well as his own, and he spent his retirement designing and building the world’s first republican university. The University of Virginia was uniquely his, a reflection in every detail of his tastes and values, but Jefferson never doubted that the school he built in Charlottesville was also America’s university, apparently suspecting no real distinction between his own aspirations and presumptions and those of his country. Just as his library had become the nation’s, so would his university provide, at the very least, a paradigm for higher education in a republic.
Before restoration begins, visitors can look upon the long-hidden sides of bricks efferson once inspected.
The Jefferson of Albemarle County was a beacon that attracted the attention not only of his nation but of the best intellects of Europe as well, and while the old man never shrank from the enormous activity such pre-eminence inevitably generated, he did seek occasional relief. And so he built Poplar Forest, began its construction while still living in the White House, built it in order to get away from Monticello and the public persona it housed as well as from the never-ending stream of guests and curiosity seekers who came to see him.
To travel to Poplar Forest, a plantation a few miles from Lynchburg, Virginia, was no small undertaking. Three days by carriage or wagon, two days on horseback, it seems at first an inconvenient getaway for a man well beyond his middle years. But it had been an important part of Jefferson’s early manhood, the property of his father-in-law, to which, as the British approached Monticello during the Revolution, Jefferson had escaped with his family. And it was here in 1781 that he had done much of the writing of his one book, Notes on the State of Virginia . In 1806 he began building his own retreat at Poplar Forest, sufficiently advancing the project by 1809 to begin using the house and substantially completing construction by 1820.
Though a long ride from Monticello, the house that Jefferson built at Poplar Forest is closely allied with his more famous residence. Within sight of his beloved Blue Ridge Mountains and situated on its own small elevation, it offered the same surveying advantage, the same philosopher’s seat from which the world might be observed. And like Monticello, although on a smaller and less elaborate scale, it celebrates classical forms in architecture, and in mind. Inevitably he assembled a library in this place too, more than six hundred volumes, many in Greek or Latin.