- 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
From such a trove historians have assembled more than a picture of the bricks and wood and hardware that went into the building; they have reconnected the house to the complex skein of relationships of which it was a part. Among the most poignant is the one between Jefferson and the slave/ craftsman to whom he entrusted so much of the responsibility for his home, John Hemmings, who together with his mother and siblings played a major role in Jefferson’s domestic life. It was Hemmings who constantly repaired the roof whose design his master could never perfect and who in later years, writing in a clear hand, reported the needs and costs of this unending enterprise, cataloguing at the same time the peculiar nature of his and Jefferson’s mutual bondage. Less than a year before Jefferson’s dramatic death on Independence Day, 1826, Hemmings wrote about ongoing repairs to roof and windows, then concluded: “I hope by the next to be able to let you know when I shall finich and when to send for me. Dear Sir I hop you well.” The neat irony of the slave’s informing the master about the time to order his return, as well as the inquiry after the old man’s health, suggests the subtle complexities at work in both the relationship of carpenter and architect and that between a particular slave and his owner, the awful contradiction of philosopher/architect, committed to liberty as much as to symmetry, who is able to pursue his own ambitious plans only because of slavery. Hemmings’s letters, like the frequent references to “Phill” (a slave who with a shovel was carving out the landscape Jefferson designed for his estate) in Chisholm’s correspondence, remind the modern visitor of how many people there are to whom Poplar Forest belongs and of how inextricable, finally, its story is from theirs.
The house could truly serve only Jefferson and required constant amendment for later inhabitants.
While researchers documented the past, architectural historians and archeologists excavated the building and grounds. Digging back to what remained of Jefferson’s structure, stripping away the plaster and lath of subsequent generations, they found on the newly exposed brick evidence of what either improving owners or the 1845 fire had removed. “Ghost” marks—the gray outlines of long-departed boards—witnessed to chair rails and original walls, giving away the location of the alcove beds with which the first owner had furnished the two octagonal bedrooms. Charred wooden inserts in the fireplace indicated where a mantel once was hung, just as pegs and blocks around the walls revealed the placement of entablatures and other attachments. The first house had left its marks and slowly, with the painstaking work of those who sought it out, reasserted itself.
In this transitional period before restoration actively begins, before a finished version of the original reappears, visitors enjoy the special privilege of experiencing the naked structure in all its vulnerability, of seeing directly the work of Chisholm’s hand and Hemmings’s, of looking upon the hidden side of bricks that Jefferson once inspected, and, in the simplicity of the building’s uncovered form, of witnessing both the perfection its designer served and, close beside, the indelible stains of his inadequacy.
Something in the grandeur of Poplar Forest’s conception is magnified by its present ghostly state, as though its purity were completed by this barrenness. The house is, as Jefferson described it, “an octagon of 50 f. diameter, of brick, well built,” and for us who are the conventional products of square houses and right-angled living, it is a marvel of slopes and turns. The much-abused roof, forced to accommodate eight walls, radiates out to all the imposing corners it is required to shelter, and the windows, white framed and paned, look out in every direction, as though when visitors break through the secrecy of the narrow winding drive and peer through the surrounding trees, it is they that are the observed and the house that does the observing.
Given the shape of the house, everything is where it ought to be, everything precisely positioned by logic and mathematics. Windows, chimneys, portico, and columns, all are where necessity placed them once the octagonal form was determined. The windows are especially striking, and when the restoration is complete and they have been returned to their original height, they will be all the more so, not alone for their size but for the fact that in an eightsided house they catch the light and breeze from so many different angles. Together with the large and troublesome skylight with which Jefferson illuminated the central room, they open up this tightly contained mathematical structure.
Around the house is a landscape wholly artificial. Two mounds rise, each a story high and some hundred feet to either side of the house, built from the dirt Phill and other slaves excavated from the back lawn when they shoveled out their master’s two-hundred-foot-long and ninety-footwide sunken yard. Archeologists, carefully cutting a trench in one of these artificial hills, are studying stains to learn what and where Jefferson planted on these elevations.