April 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 2
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.