- Historic Sites
The Levys Of Monticelo
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
Congress, beset by Civil War problems and finding the will entirely too complicated, turned down the gift. The executors of the will brought suit for their own protection as administrators of the estate, and the case dragged on for years, even becoming a textbook example for study in law schools. In the end the will was set aside. One of Uriah’s nephews, Jefferson Monroe Levy, who had been a child when his uncle died but who by this time was a young lawyer in New York City, bought out the other Levy heirs. In 1879 he became the owner of Monticello.
Like his uncle, the younger Levy was passionately devoted to the memory of Thomas Jefferson. His first act was to fire the caretaker, Joel Wheeler, who had allowed the place to become äshambles. Not only were the house and grounds on the way to ruin, but Wheeler had been picking up a little extra income by allowing groups to use the place for picnics and parties.
Under a new caretaker, Thomas Rhodes, restoration was initiated-a process that was seemingly endless. With the help of Confederate bills of sale, Levy was able to reclaim some of the vanished furnishings; others he had reproduced. To anyone who brought things back voluntarily, he refunded the purchase price. He replaced the Wedgwood plaques on the dining-room mantel, which had been hacked out by souvenir hunters. And once again the beautiful parquet floors were restored.
So far, so good. But other things he did were controversial, iwen tor late Victorian times, Levy’s taste was heavy. Visitors coming up the drive encountered a formidable pair of stone lions, each holding a shield with the letter L engraved upon it. The drawing room acquired tasseled draperies, embroidered in gold with L . Tapestries showing Spanish scenes were flung over the entrance-hall balcony; an oak dining set overwhelmed the dining room; the tea room was crammed with wicker, and in Jefferson’s bedroom, occupied by Mr. Levy, there was a Louis XIV bed on a dais. Jefferson’s bed was removed from its alcove and stored in the attic-f or which Levy was criticized, although he would probably have been criticized even more severely had he slept in it himself. It was almost impossible to live in a national shrine without enraging the bystanders; and, after all, as reasonable people pointed out, the house owed its very survival to its new owner.
Jefferson Monroe Levy was elected a Democratic congressman from New York in 1898, and again in 1912. He was a stately, formal man who enjoyed ceremony. On the Fourth of July he used to have a band come up from Charlottesville to play on the Monticello lawn for a small group of guests. From Jefferson’s music stand he would read aloud the Declaration of Independence, and then he would cause the air to be filled with fireworks which could be seen for miles around.
He was gracious about tourists and usually admitted all comers to the grounds. The house was opened on written request, and University of Virginia professors had a standing invitation. When visitors arrived at the gate, old Eliza, the gatekeeper, rang a bell that sounded all over the “little mountain"; he also collected a fee, which was given to charities in Charlottesville. At times there were several hundred visitors a day. The graveyard, officially the property of Jefferson descendants, to whom Levy granted right of access, now had a new monument and a high fence.
Levy remodeled the second floor, installing dormer windows at each end, and an elaborate tiled bathroom. In 1895 he asked the prestigious architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White to submit plans for enlarging Monticello. When they refused, saying that any addition would ruin Jefferson’s design, Levy gave up the idea.
All in all, the old house was sound again by the turn of the century, and was being lived in, at least in summer. Jefferson Levy never married. He invited his sister, Mrs. Amelia von Mayhoff, to preside as his hostess. With her came her husband and small son; and a brother, Louis Napoleon Levy, brought his wife and four little girls. There were also a governess and nursery maid and a staff of Irish servants from New York. Monticello had become a turn-of-the-century summer home-more Yankee than Southern and more Levy than Jefferson.
And now began the agitation to make Monticello an official national shrine and museum. As transportation by rail improved, the trickle of tourists became a torrent, and the advent of the automobile clearly portended a tourist avalanche. In 1901 Congressman Levy was asked to play host to over 250 members of the St. Louis Jefferson Club, who arrived by special train. There was a luncheon, with speeches, and then club members erected a large memorial, made of Missouri granite, at the northeast end of the house (where it still stands). In 1906 there was an official visit from President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt. T.R. insisted on riding up from Charlottesville on horseback, to the discomfiture of some Secret Service men who were indifferent riders and who followed as best they could, hanging onto their horses precariously. It was a sight that is still remembered in Charlottesville.