- 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
Nearby excavations have added to our understanding of the “office” wing Jefferson added to house a kitchen and other practical rooms. But practicality seems less the key to all this elaborate artifice than does some concept of play, play in its most rarefied form, play both physical and intellectual. His “simple” house contains all that Jefferson learned from classical sources and European observations, borrowings from Palladio’s Italian villas, from stylish French town houses and imposing British country manors. But what he borrowed he also adjusted and changed, giving to everything his own American touch. Always the trick was to bend bricks and boards and tin to his will, to make the material yield to his ideas. That the physical nearly always resisted, springing leaks or catching fire, merely made the contest more interesting and tested the player more fully.
Laying the foundation for such intellectual purity and architectural whimsy sometimes frustrated craftsmen accustomed to a different logic, and so in 1806 the President of the United States left his Executive duties and came for a week to explain the appropriate placement of his special, odd-shaped brick.
Jefferson’s octagon was meant, one suspects, to serve clarity of thought, to strip away any distraction that might deflect intellectual and aesthetic attention. But as the craftsmen who wrestled with the foundation stones well understood, the art that made the simplicity possible was demanding. And when Jefferson brought his granddaughters here to tend their own art and practice French, what they often noted, in bemused complaint, was the leaky roof and skylight, the awkwardness of rooms whose shapes were dictated by geometry rather than by comfort.
For Jefferson kept his retreat uncompromised by setting apart many of the natural functions a home conventionally serves. The bedrooms, for instance, seem more like intermediate passages than places for seclusion and rest. It is a house in which the mind finds its own food and requires little sleep. It is a house that could truly serve only Jefferson and that, as all its succeeding owners would discover, required constant amendment for lesser inhabitants.
Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, and today—these 250 years later—Poplar Forest allows us to reencounter that great spirit. In so doing, we discover a part of ourselves, for all Americans are in a profound way children of Jefferson.