Jefferson’s Second Home

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But while inextricably bound to Monticello and to Charlottesville, Poplar Forest is nonetheless a place apart, its drive a curved country lane rather than the grand welcoming avenue typical of Southern plantations, the remarkable house obscured by great trees, its own prospect focused on its private grounds and gardens rather than the outer world. Poplar Forest’s restoration coordinator, Travis MacDonald, emphasizes the difference between this place and Jefferson’s other architectural creations when he observes, “Poplar Forest he did wholly for himself.” By way of example, MacDonald refers to an exchange between Jefferson and William Coffee, the sculptor to whom the President had entrusted the construction of figures—a combination of human busts and ox skulls—for the entablatures that would decorate his rooms. Coffee, with great respect, wrote back that there must be some misunderstanding since there was no precedent in antiquity for such a mixture and that even at Monticello human busts and ox skulls had been kept apart. Jefferson responded, graciously, that Coffee was correct in his description of the classical models, then added, “But in my middle room at Poplar Forest I mean to mix the faces and ox-sculls, a fancy I can indulge in my own case, altho in a public work I feel bound to follow authority strictly.” If the University of Virginia was an instructional text in which “authority” was scrupulously observed and even Monticello a kind of public statement where some liberties were not to be taken, Poplar Forest was his own, a red-brick octagon, screened by the trees for which it was named so that its owner’s whimsy might be indulged without danger of misguiding his impressionable countrymen.

 
 

Easily accessible today (the drive from Charlottesville takes no more than ninety minutes), Poplar Forest offers visitors more than simply a house that a President built, although it is that—a spectacular house built by a unique President. This is not just a kind of fixed museum piece, frozen so that we might look in at an unchanged fragment of the early nineteenth century; rather it exemplifies the ongoing effects of history, the continuing consequences of time. Near the end of his life, Jefferson gave the property to his grandson Francis Eppes, who sold it in 1828 and moved to Florida. By 1840 Poplar Forest had become the residence of Emily and Edward Hutter, and it remained in their family for more than a hundred years. In 1845 a fire—the likely consequence of the innovative and not altogether satisfactory flue system Jefferson had designed—greatly damaged the old interior. Equally profound, if less dramatic, changes came as subsequent generations made the place their home.

As a result of its dynamic past, Poplar Forest has a lively present. When the nonprofit Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest purchased the property in 1984, difficult decisions had to be made about restoration. Inside the house that Jefferson built had passed several homes that he had not designed. Electricity and plumbing had been added, ceilings lowered, windows changed, and myriad other adjustments made. Restoration was not merely a matter of peeling back the layers until the original home emerged; fire had destroyed everything but the brick walls. So the work of re covering had to begin with un covering: a historical search through old documents to find the building and grounds Jefferson had in mind and then the physical removal of the house’s later adaptations in order to locate, behind newer walls and ceilings, signs of what his builders had actually made of that imagined habitation.

 

The documentation surely exceeds that for any other private residence in America. Some fifteen hundred letters contribute to our understanding of Poplar Forest—correspondence to and from the suppliers and craftsmen to whom Jefferson had entrusted his plans. One of his principal construction supervisors, Hugh Chisolm, who had also worked on the University of Virginia, wrote a typical letter in July of 1808: “I think proper to inform you how we come on with our work, I have done both of the stairways and one of the necessary, and in the course of this week I will have the other done, we have also run the columns for the South portaco and I think they will, when finished be elegant.… I would be glad to see you hear [sic] if it is not in your power to come soon it would be necessary for you to give me some instructions about the kitchen as I shall be ready for it in eight or ten days from this time.” In addition to the progress reports and requests for further instruction, there were complaints about late deliveries of lumber and roofing, letters from area workmen seeking employment, and notes of blame. “Lastly,” wrote one of the plasterers at Poplar Forest, “I cannot persuade Mr. Griffin to get lime, had there been lime I should have finished if I had to bord myself until it was completed. There is nothing I can do until further orders from you, the center room to plaster and the west room, I remain your devoted and very humble servant.”