“Here the eye ultimately composes itself; and that way too the road happens actually to lead.”
—Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, “A Notice of Its Mountains?”
Having downloaded Google Earth to my computer, I sit at a bar in Brooklyn and swoop in on Monticello from outer space. I recognize the plantation from two miles up, and can identify the property from its proximity to Charlottesville and by the shape of its surrounding gardens and orchards.
I know the lay of this land about as well as I know anything. A small network of lines spun outward from Monticello would come to hold in its web my childhood home, the schools where I learned to read and write, the parking lots and then the roads on which I learned to drive, the random corners where I first flirted and cut class. As I zoom in, the geometry of the gardens becomes more defined and I can make out the strange one-dimensional roundness of the Blue Ridge Mountains on my laptop screen. The mountaintops look oddly brittle and hard, like clay pots turned face down, as if I banged on them they would shatter and collapse into a pile of broken ceramic and dust.
The forest encroaches in a haphazard way, in contrast to the stark angles of the rectangular garden plots, which appear ordered and measured out as if by a ruler. Contained in these cultivated patches around Monticello are rows of kale and artichoke and cabbage and squash and spinach and carrots and broccoli and cauliflower and eggplant and different varieties of peas. Today, the gardeners plant only crops that would have been harvested in Thomas Jefferson’s time and at Jefferson’s behest. The meticulous notes Jefferson left behind—his script loose, legible—ensure that they’ll always know what to plant, and when.
The land, when it was at its most wild, gave way to this particular sense of order.I maneuver the screen towards the main house and zoom in further. The perspective changes. I am now am looking at the property as if I were approaching it from the ground instead of the sky. On my laptop, it’s a paltry recreation of the view from Jefferson’s mountaintop. The trees appear only as shadows and the scene lacks nearly everything else I know is there. No flowers or tourists; the panorama is lost. But what’s strangest about this image of Monticello is that even from this head-on perspective, the impression of the house on the computer screen remains as it had been from above: the shape of its white roof. From any angle the house appears as a giant and ghostly white footprint—a stamp, a brand—at the top of this so-called “little mountain” that rises up in the center of Virginia.
Five miles away, the University of Virginia’s Rotunda—like Monticello, a model of classical Palladian elements adapted to fit the New World—appears on Google Earth much as the university’s founder’s home does. It anchors the buildings and grounds that surround it; the city of Charlottesville nips at the edges of the school’s Academical Village. The lesson here cannot be misconstrued, not even from the air: These structures have organized this land. The land, when it was at its most wild, gave way to this particular sense of order.
I take the bus down from Brooklyn every few months to visit my parents in Charlottesville. The trip is a monotony of interstate asphalt until the bus emerges from the congestion of the D.C. metro area and crosses over into the Virginia countryside. This is where the North begins to feel distant and the South really seems to begin. I look out my window and see to my right the azure silhouettes of the Blue Ridge Mountains and know that I can’t be more than an hour and fifteen minutes from home. There comes a point around Culpeper on US Route 29 that I begin to recognize the curves and bumps in the road and they become more familiar the closer we get to the Charlottesville city limits. I wonder if I’ve ever known what New York looks like or if I ever will.
The man knew how to work a word the way Madame X knew how to work a black dress.Over the past few years, I’ve developed a ritual of setting aside a day to spend at Monticello when I go home. I’ve been visiting it since I was in kindergarten, but while I was in school, my excursions up the mountain were hardly voluntary. Each year’s field trip was just like the one before, and Jefferson was never more than some guy about whom tour guides waxed boring. The best parts of those trips were going to the gift store to giggle over dishtowels sporting Dolley Madison’s face or crocheted trivet covers featuring memorable Jeffersonian quotes. You could not turn around in that store without hitting a tchotcke with the words, “I cannot live without books,” or “Be polite to all, but intimate with few” printed on it in an antique, flowery font.
A few years ago however, long after I had last called Charlottesville my home, I began to recognize Jefferson as more than just another dead old man. I would hear or read somewhere—on the radio, on television, in the newspaper, or a magazine—something he had said or written and hear his words not in a lifeless voice, but in a vibrant one that seemed to echo among not just the foothills of the Virginia piedmont, but in other places I had lived since leaving Charlottesville as well: New Hampshire, Washington, D.C., Colorado, New York.
“There is no place where your pursuit of knowledge will be so little obstructed by foreign objects, as in your own country,” he wrote and I thought of everyone I knew, myself included, who traveled to exotic places but never to the corners of their own country. “Nature hath implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct, in short, which prompts us irresistibly to feel and to succor their distresses,” he wrote, and I wondered whether my own life choices reflected this or not. “The earth belongs to the living….The soil is the gift of God to the living,” he wrote and I thought about the mountains through the bus window. “It is in the love of one’s family only that heartfelt happiness is known,” he wrote and I thought about my family scattered across the country. And to his daughter, “No body in this world can make me so happy or so miserable as you,” and I thought about all my small successes and transgressions that caused my parents pride and pain.
I knew, too, I was reading these words with rose-colored glasses, that the man knew how to work a word the way Madame X knew how to work a black dress. I knew he didn’t understand that the country could not survive or thrive under the dictates of his American agricultural myth. I knew he reveled in the good life. I knew he owned slaves and that this was unforgivable. I knew that he saw what slavery was doing—and would do—to this country and that he did not do what he could have done to stop it.
But these contradictions created a personality that fascinated me. I guess I wanted to know where I came from: this place where the roads and the hospitals and the gas stations are named for Jefferson, and where the names borne by his descendants—”Randolph” and “Coles”—remain prominent in the white pages of the phone book. On my visits home I began taking day trips to historic sights: Appomattox, the Wilderness, Shadwell, Jamestown, Natural Bridge, Hatton Ferry. I would go to these places, guidebook in hand like the tourist in my own state that I was. Typically, I would visit only once or twice before heeding the call of other destinations. Monticello is a different story. The first couple of times I visited, I went with that guidebook and sense of duty. By my third or fourth up that mountain, the sense of duty had dissolved into a sense of desire. Only on that mountain did I find I had finally left my overwhelming, overscheduled New York life behind entirely. There on that mountain, I wanted to be quiet. I wanted to see the views from the vegetable garden and to know what questions the tourists would ask the docents. I wanted to walk through the orchards and take stock of what was in season. I wanted to see what there was to see. I wanted to go alone and take my time.
I always begin with the house tour. You enter the main hall where instead of portraits of long-dead ancestors and sparkling chandeliers hang cougar skins, large maps of South America, colonial Virginia, the Thirteen Colonies, and Africa, horns and antlers from buffalo and deer, a wall of American Indian spears, arrowheads, and headdress feathers, and the lower jaw bone of an American mastodon resting on a Chippendale table. From there you move into a sitting room with a copy of the Declaration of Independence on the wall, and then onto the library, the original contents of which (6,000 volumes), Jefferson donated to replenish the Library of Congress after the original collection went up in flames in 1815. You pass his reading room, his reading chair, his telescope, his writing desk, his riding boots, and the alcove bed that bridges the space between his study and bedroom. Looking at that bed, you think about the last letter he wrote to his old friend and sometime foe, John Adams. In the letter, he asks Adams to host his grandson in Boston. “Like other young people,” he wrote, “he wishes to be able, in the winter nights of old age, to recount to those around him what he has heard and learnt of the Heroic age preceding his birth, and which of the Argonauts particularly he was in time to have seen.” The letter concludes with a reference to his own health. “Mine is indifferent,” he says, “but not so my friendship and respect for you.”
This is the bed in which Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, his final words being, “Is it the Fourth yet?” Adams died the same day. His last words: “Jefferson still lives” (he didn’t, unbeknownst to Adams). Of all the tidbits of American history that get passed down and around, this may be your favorite. You think of how people often wait to die until they’ve made it to another birthday; you think that what mattered to Jefferson and Adams were not their own birthdays, but the birthday of the country they helped create and how, of all the dying thoughts, this—to you—seems the most selfless.
You think about Jefferson’s wife dying in this house when she was 34 years old and about how he never remarried. You think about that piece of paper on which Martha had written, as she lay dying, the verse: “Times wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. The days and hours of it are flying over our heads like clouds of a windy day never to return more—everything presses on…” And you think of how she was too weak to finish writing, so the words continue in her husband’s handwriting: “…and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make.” You think about his six children, how four of them died before the age of five, and another died during his lifetime. You think, too, of the short flings he had with women in Europe and how they quickly sputtered and faded. And of then of course you think about his slave Sally Hemings and the children he fathered with her after Martha’s death. You think about how the descendents of those children still aren’t allowed into the plantation’s gated graveyard for the private family service held each Fourth of July on the property. But then you think of how it feels to sit up the hill from that cemetery each Fourth of July, baking in the sun of Monticello’s south lawn for the annual naturalization ceremony: It feels good.
The Blue Ridge Mountains shadow you from room to room the way certain portraits in a gallery seem to have eyes.About the view from his bedroom, Jefferson wrote, “there is a mountain there, in the opposite direction of the afternoon’s sun, the valley between which and Monticello is 500 feet deep, I have seen a leg of the rainbow plunge down on the river running through that valley.” After the bedroom comes the dining room with its dumbwaiter, the “gallery of worthies” and an early version of Chutes and Ladders, and the bedroom where James and Dolley Madison would sleep when they made the trek from Montpelier in Culpeper County.
When you’ve been to Monticello as many times as I have, the interior still dazzles but eventually you’ve been on enough tours to know by heart the facts the docents recite as tour groups shuffle through. When this happens, you will begin to daydream the tour away, spending your time inside the house at its windows, surveying the land outside. Making one’s way around the interior of Monticello is the equivalent of making one’s way around the entire summit of the mountain. The Blue Ridge Mountains shadow you from room to room the way certain portraits in a portrait gallery seem to have eyes that track the paths of art lovers. The peaks are here and then over there. They have you surrounded.
Jefferson welcomed not only the Madisons on this property, but magistrates, famers, postmen, and Lewis and Clark both before they had seen everything they were going to see, and after. It was on the lawn out there that, in 1824, General Lafayette visited for the final time, the doddering old general and the doddering old president falling into each other’s arms and tearfully embracing. These mountains have been the backdrop for the mundane and the momentous and it is outside is where, after many visits, the imagination begins to expand. When I visit now I spend most of my time surveying the property’s grounds. It is here that Jefferson’s heart begins to beat so loudly I sometimes think the whole country must hear it banging like a child does on clay pots.
The porches swing out like arms on either side of the main house—one to the northwest; one to the northeast—to embrace the flat, green lawn that extends from the back steps of the residence. The porches are long and narrow, planked walkways intended for short, leisurely strolls rather than quotidian conversation and rocking chairs and mosquito swatting. These porches don’t want you to just sit and enjoy a view; they encourage porch-sitters to look in one direction, then to get up and look in another and then another. These wooden arms each end in five wooden steps, which lead you down into a lawn bordered by a decorative garden of hollyhocks, snapdragons, prickly poppies, strawflower, okra, balsams, zinnias. The flowers give way to the acres of apple orchards and fields, and finally to the deciduous forests that surround Monticello and spill out into the Blue Ridge Mountains, at the eastern edge of which the plantation is perched. It’s as if the design of the porches had been orchestrated to encourage those standing on them to leave them, to step down and out into the world without ever even noticing they had left the safety of the home.
One or some of Jefferson’s 150 slaves planted these trees as the man himself sat in his study philosophizing.But even ambitious Jeffersonian porches can be good for an old-fashioned sitting marathon, and on a clear day that’s what you do. Seven months of the year the view is one of thick foliage. There are 160 varieties of trees on the property, from mulberry to sugar maple to honey locust to white pine to hemlock to pecan and peach trees. Countless examples of these are visible from this particular rest stop. In the spring and summer, you think there could never be so many shades of green. In fall, the colors explode into so many reds and yellows and oranges. In winter, the lack of the leaves is keenly felt, and you can catch sight of the University of Virginia five miles down the mountain.
A couple of months before his death, Jefferson (who is considered the father of, among so many other things, American forestry), remarked, “Too old to plant trees for my own gratification, I shall do it for posterity.” You imagine him saying this with a handful of seeds in his hand, red clay staining his trousers, his shoes muddy, and a gleam in his elderly eyes. Maybe, for dramatic effect, he paused to lean against this white railing to catch his breath and survey his land. Tired and knees aching, perhaps he gave up digging holes for each seed, eventually just throwing the last handful in need of planting over the railing and into the grass before heading back inside for tea and letter-writing. You wonder where those thrown seeds landed and if they ever took root.
You imagine this, but the fact is that one or some of Jefferson’s 150 slaves planted these trees as the man himself sat in his study philosophizing about the meaning of it all. Little remains of the slaves’ quarters today. Mulberry Row is the lane along which his slaves made everything from bricks to nails to clothing and which would have given Monticello the bustle of a small town when Jefferson was alive. The buildings themselves burnt to the ground long ago so that what’s left are just the crumbling remains of what were once the structures’ foundations, as if bruises on the land itself.
Underneath the porches are what would have been the kitchen and cellars. The rooms have been recreated for the viewing public as museum pieces. You peer into the reimagined kitchen, thinking it would be silent in there until you hear a ghostly recording of plates and silverware and pots being shuffled around and a woman’s voice humming a spiritual. More softly and in the distance of the recording, there is laughter, the clinking of crystal, and a lone violin playing a Baroque tune.
Across the lawn and down the hill from the kitchen and Mulberry Row is Jefferson’s grave, a tall obelisk locked up behind a wrought iron gate. His tombstone proudly neglects to mention his tenure as president. It was composed by the man himself and reads, “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson; Author of the Declaration of American Independence; of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom; And Father of the University of Virginia.” The cornerstone of the school was laid in 1817 and classes began in 1825. He had first voiced the desire to found a university nearly two decades earlier in a letter to a friend in which he had written, “We wish to establish in the upper country of Virginia, and more centrally for the State, a University on a plan so broad and liberal and modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other States to come and drink of the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us.” When the project finally got off the ground, he called it “the hobby of my old age” and it was the first secular institution of higher learning in the country. While it was being built, Jefferson was often too frail to make the trip down the mountain to personally supervise the construction. To compensate, he would peer through a telescope from the porches at Monticello in order to monitor the progress being made by his slaves below. The school officially desegregated in 1950.
In Jefferson’s time the native trees on the top of the mountain would have to have been clear cut in order to allow space for the construction of the plantation. He had to reforest the mountaintop himself. In his lifetime, a great majority of these trees would have been but small saplings, not the towering groves they are today. In Jefferson’s time, the garden had only just begun growing. The foliage here offers a continuous ode to the passing seasons, but the heights to which some of these trees have reached offer an ode to time itself.
The notes Jefferson kept on these gardens could fill libraries. He counted seeds and monitored growth rates and measured rainfall and scrutinized the volumes produced and the effects of growing different crops beside each other. Where others might look at these books and see the mind of a micromanager at work, I see a man whose love of life was intimately tied to his love of this land. I look at this land and think that somehow here, contained within these acres, is both everything—good and bad—that I am, but also everything I want to be.
Turn 180 degrees around from the trees and find the scene captured on the B-side of a nickel. This is the image people know. The house is Jefferson’s interpretation of classical and epitomizes the style now dubbed “Jeffersonian,” the trademarks of which are Palladian details and flourishes attached to a red brick structure sporting white and black trim. The house emerges from new interpretations of old ideas. Three white columns support Monticello’s understated three-story-high rotunda. Slight divergences in details—a window here, a balustrade there—hinder perfect symmetry. Wings with large white-trimmed and black-shuttered windows fan out on either side of the rotunda. The house is neither dull nor ostentatious nor austere, but rather subtle, unexpectedly quirky, and welcoming. These characteristics defined the man who built this house as well as his life, and seem to be traits that have somehow seeped into the soil and now, too, characterize this entire swath of Virginia, known for its manners, taste for the good life, its old money, cerebral inclinations, and eccentricities.
Jefferson called the house his “essay in architecture” and the phrase seems apt.He reveled in this county, Albemarle County. “I have been planning what I would shew you,” he wrote to a would-be visitor, “a flower here, a tree there; yonder a grove, near it a fountain; on this side a hill, on that a river. Indeed, madam, I know nothing so charming as our own country. The learned say it is a new creation; and I believe them; not for their reasons, but because it is made on an improved plan.”
The more you look at Monticello, the more there is to see. In looking at it and thinking about it, something of the man seems to reveal itself. Jefferson called the house his “essay in architecture” and the phrase seems apt. “Essay” comes from the French word meaning “to try,” and Monticello is nothing if not an exercise in trying. He built and rebuilt the house over the course of 40 years, tearing down here and redesigning there, adding and subtracting and elaborating. Either the picture in his mind was constantly changing, or what he envisioned was always more difficult to realize than he had ever thought. When he died, the back steps had still not been built and survived him as a pile of mud. The place—as Jefferson knew it—was a construction site for the duration of his entire adult life. The vision was a work in progress from the beginning. When Jefferson died he was $107,000 in debt, the equivalent today of between $1,000,000 and $2,000,000. The house fell into disrepair until it was sold in 1836 to Uriah Levy, a Jewish U.S. naval officer, who admired Jefferson’s Statute of Religious Freedom, and in whose family the house remained until 1923 when it was sold to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which opened it to the public.
The western lawn, before it descends down the side of the mountain, is open and exposed to, as Jefferson called it, “the workhouse of nature.” From the lawn is an unobstructed view of Montalto (“High Mountain”) across the way, which rises above Monticello. In the late eighteenth century it was blanketed with native trees, but today is stripped down to the grasses introduced in the nineteenth century when the mountain was clear-cut. The Monticello Foundation purchased the 330-acre Montalto property in 2006 for $15 million (the same price as the entire Louisiana Purchase) out from under blueprints for a Monticello-themed subdivision.
The nickel view is the view from the back of the house. If you approach by way of the front entrance to the house, you will find it almost wholly obscured by trees. Jefferson grew up on his father’s plantation, Shadwell, a few miles below in the valley. The land that is now this land once belonged to the larger Shadwell plantation and, as a boy, Thomas would climb up this mountain to read because he loved the views from here more than from any other place he knew. It’s beneath one of the trees that line the walkway to Monticello’s main entrance that Thomas would settle with a book and study.
Looking out at the surrounding peaks and valleys you can see a countryside—at once wild and domesticated—rolling out into the distance. The scene is quiet, private, removed from people but connected to the land. Jefferson’s father died in 1757, when Thomas was 14, and he inherited the estate, including the land on which Monticello now sits. Remembering this reading spot, he began drawing up plans for the house he would one day build on the site and call home. He knew even then, as a teen, that this was the mountain on which he wanted to grow old. “I am as happy no where else and in no other society,” he wrote of his home, “and all my wishes end, where I hope my days will end, at Monticello. Too many scenes of happiness mingle themselves with all the recollections of my native woods and fields, to suffer them to be supplanted in my affection by any other.”
This view lived inside Jefferson, it marked him like a brand, this man who composed the catechism of our country.
Turning around again to approach the house through the foliage you are kept guessing as to what Monticello actually looks like underneath its slip of leaves. You are never completely sure what you are seeing. Together the two sides of the house—the one obscured and the one exposed—are like an abalone shell, or like a cocktail dress that looks modest from the front, but which has a plunging backline so that when the woman turns around to look out the window the entire room takes notice and gasps, half in shock, half in admiration.
Virginia is divided into five geographical regions: Tidewater, Piedmont, Blue Ridge Mountains and Valley, and Appalachian Plateau. The state reaches its highest point (5,729 feet) at its southwestern edge and the peak of Mount Rogers, and its lowest points along the Atlantic Ocean and its eastern shores. A little elementary math reveals that the average altitude of Virginia and that of the entire country is about the same, hovering in the neighborhood of 2,600 feet above sea level.
Monticello sits practically in the center of the state, on the western edge of the Piedmont and the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge so that in every direction are rolling hills whose altitude increases from east to west. The azure haze for which the mountain chain is named is most apparent in the late afternoon. It’s then that the mountains in the foreground have a dark blue, defined silhouette. The severity of the silhouette softens, as the proximity between the mountain-gazer and the mountains grows greater, to light blue, then gray, then into the sky so you cannot tell sky from mountain or mountain from sky.
It’s the native trees that grow in the area that give the blue hue. Dogwoods, sourwoods, blackgums, hickories, sassafras, maples, and Virginia pines release hydrocarbons that create a natural painter’s palette of blues and grays and violets. The natural haziness of the mountains has been exacerbated in recent years as pollutants from cars and coal-fired power plants have settled into the valleys between the ridges. The beauty of the views along Blue Ridge is thus deceptive and masks the current unhealthiness of this wilderness. The southern Appalachians beginning in this corner of Virginia rank among the areas of poorest air quality in the country. Even in the mountains there is a gulf between truth and beauty.
Jefferson had the apples he chose to eat and the garden was lost.Before cars and coal plants arrived, Jefferson took to these mountains like Adam in the Garden of Eden. A good, conscientious naturalist, he identified, described, and named everything within sight and reach. From his study at Monticello Jefferson documented the natural characteristics of the state from its various coordinates on a map to its altitude to its climate and its plant and animal life. In his travels around the state he catalogued palma Christi, Virginia snake-root, valerian, angelica, Tuckahoe, Indian millet, wild cherry, persimmon, chesnut, hazelnut, whortleberries, dewberries, blackberries, linden, swamp laurel, sassafras, dogwood, holly, evergreen, spindle-tree, elder, flax, juniper, cypress, birch, ash, elm, willow, sweet gum, tobacco, maize, pumpkin, squash, deer, wolf, fox, squirrel, beaver, hedgehog, weasel, mouse, raccoon, opossom, mole, bald eagle, turkey buzzard, blue jay, red-headed woodpecker, kingfisher, hummingbird, little brown duck, summer duck, blue heron, mockingbird, thrush, turtle dove, partridge, robin redbreast, sparrow, wren, finch, swallow. “There is not a sprig of grass,” he wrote to his daughter, “that shoots uninteresting to me.”
But, like Adam, Jefferson had the apples he chose to eat and the garden was lost. We have been striving to regain it ever since. Indeed, this place is not about a house and the life it contained; it is a place about this very act of striving. It is a house that is about a world, old and new. This essay in architecture narrates the act of looking out at that world, about what you can see from here and what you can’t. From this mountaintop you look out onto the countryside—to the country—and looking east on a particularly clear day, you can just make out the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean 100 miles distant.
The Blue Ridge Mountains run from the northern tip of Georgia to the southern tip of Pennsylvania, the bulk of the range blanketing the western acres of North Carolina and Virginia. They began forming 750 million years ago. As a family of aging giants, they are the kind of mountains that have seen it all. They don’t tell you what you don’t know, nor chide you for not knowing it. They—quiet, almost breathing—have all the time in the world.
As near as I can tell, there are almost as many different kinds of mountains as there are different kinds of people. There are mountains that want to kill you, mountains that have won popularity and beauty contests, mountains that appear untouchable, and mountains that pop up in unusual places. There are mountains that protect cities and mountains that threaten them, mountains that sneer in your general direction, and mountains that hide behind other mountains. There are mountains that have drowned and there are mountains that haven’t yet been born.
And then, amidst all of these, there is Monticello. Monticello is the center point from which you reach out, grasping for ideas of state and country in every direction. This place, in body and spirit, is aspirational. It asks you always to look and to see and to listen and to think from a spot where you have not stood before. It is a house alone on a mountaintop with good reason: you never live up to it. You get to the top, only to leave again, to go back down, exhausted. You keep climbing it though, because it is, after all, only a “little mountain.” It shouldn’t be as difficult to master as it is.