The region immediately around Charlottesville was home to three American Presidents – Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and James Madison (our 3rd, 4th and 5th Presidents) — an impressive record for any city but especially surprising from such a small population (currently just over 100,000). I’ll discuss Monroe and Madison shortly, but initially want to focus on Mr. Jefferson, one of our wisest and most talented Presidents.
Thomas Jefferson‘s writing skills are well known. He authored one of history’s greatest statements of liberty, our Declaration of Independence (if you’ve never read it before, give it a try). Jefferson served in many political offices, most notably as the third President of the United States, but he was also a scientist, avid gardener and landscape designer, plantation (and yes, slave) owner, fanatical reader and book collector, and also a self-educated architect and building designer of unusual ability. Not only did he build a magnificent home – Monticello — on the hills near Charlottesville, he also founded, designed and supervised the building of its world famous University of Virginia.
One of the highlights of our week in Virginia was a visit to Monticello, a stop I’d recommend without reservation to anyone. Monticello is located on the outskirts of Charlottesville, built on a hilltop Jefferson selected for this purpose as a young man. The building of Monticello took place in several phases over a 40 year period and it was Jefferson’s home from 1770 until he died in 1826 (of interest, both he and his colleague John Adams died on that July 4th, exactly 50 years after they had signed the Declaration of Independence). The building of Monticello was always done using architectural plans drafted by Jefferson and often under his direct supervision. Jefferson was heavily influenced by the architecture of Europe, which he studied in detail during his ambassadorship to France, and was especially fond of Roman architecture. Monticello reflects these interests and is the only private home in the United States designated a United Nations World Heritage site.
Your visit to Monticello begins at its lavish Visitor Center, recently built at a cost of over $50,000,000. The Center features a short film of Jefferson’s life that’s worth viewing and the Smith Education Center, a museum filled with artifacts from Jefferson’s life and the microcosm of Monticello, which is worth an hour’s visit. From the visitor center you have the option of walking uphill to the home site or taking a shuttle. Most people take the bus uphill, which drops you off close to the front door of the estate. You will need a timed ticket for a specific home tour and during peak holiday periods it’s good to make reservations well in advance on the Monticello website.
As you enter Jefferson’s home for your guided tour you will be impressed by the spaciousness of the place, by the use of windows and daylight, and by its excellent views of the property, surrounding foothills and distant Blue Ridge Mountains. Jefferson loved to learn and collect and his home reflects these passions. For example, in the entrance hall are artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition (which he commissioned) as well as assorted fossils (rumor has it that one of Jefferson’s motives in sending Lewis and Clark out west to see if they could find any surviving mastodons), maps, paintings, statues and many books. The tour will walk you thru Jefferson’s library, study, bedroom, parlor/living room, dining room and tea room. While genuinely an impressive place, to me Monticello still felt like a home and not a museum. I think you’ll be impressed at the ingenuity and pragmatism exhibited by Jefferson in so many aspects of the design of his home. For example, his clever designs for food and wine dumbwaiters, innovative use of double pane windows, etc. etc. Sadly no photography is allowed inside the mansion.
After the house tour you’re allowed to independently visit the basement and North and South terraces, which housed the stables, kitchens, food, beer and wine storage, cook and some slave quarters, etc. And you can spend all the time you want visiting the beautiful lawn, flowerbeds, vineyards, vegetable garden and orchards. During peak periods tours of the gardens are available. We visited in March and Virginia was recovering from its worst winter in 100 years, so only rare (but beautiful) orchids and daffodils were in bloom. We explored the grounds, including Mulberry Row (where slaves and workmen lived near the mansion) and then walked back to the visitor center. If you’re able, this walk is worth doing for two reasons. The most important would be that it takes you past the family burial plot, including President Jefferson’s grave, which is currently still controlled by Jefferson’s decendents. Jefferson’s epitaph indicates that he wanted to be remembered for three things – writing the Declaration of Independence, the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and being the father of the University of Virginia. Notably absent from his personal notable list of accomplishments was being President of the United States — an omission which blows my mind and speaks legion of Jefferson’s character.
After our visit to Monticello we lunched at Michie Tavern, a few miles downhill. They offer a southern-cooking style buffet in their Ordinary (that’s really its name) dining room which was wonderfully delicious and which I’d very much recommend. The fried chicken and stewed tomatoes were incredible. You’ll consume your meal on pewter plates, sitting on small wooden benches beside plain plank tables in this old tavern much as you might have 200 years ago.
After lunch we did a 30 minute tour of the historic tavern, which was interesting but can be skipped if you’re rushed for time. The tavern was built in the late 1700s and moved to the current site in 1927. The tour included a discussion of how a Colonial tavern/inn functioned and was furnished. The tavern has many rare period collectibles, such as maps created by Jefferson’s father. Several older restored buildings are present on the grounds of the tavern, including a mill, blacksmith shop and tobacco drying barn.
Further up the hill, past Monticello, lies Ash Lawn-Highland, the 500+ acre home of PresidentJames Monroe, one of Jefferson’s friends. Monroe was a dedicated public servant and also a man of accomplishment, having negotiated the Louisiana Purchase and formulated the Monroe doctrine. While President he made great efforts to travel the country and connect with its citizens. Jefferson helped Monroe select the homesite and design its landscape. But in comparison to Monticello, Ash-Lawn Highland is a very small and simple home (that now is under the stewardship of the College of William and Mary). A tour of the home is available and takes around a half an hour; its furnishings are lovely and interesting as most belonged to Monroe. But it’s no Monticello. If you’re pressed for time, this one can be passed over. Jefferson Vineyards lies on Monticello Mountain near Ash Lawn-Highland, if you want to taste some wine.
UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
The University of Virginia is a stop in Charlottesville that’s also not to be missed, in my opinion second only to Monticello. Sylvia and I typically enjoy visiting universities and colleges on our travels, so this University was a real treat. President Jefferson was a strong advocate of public education and firmly believe that a well-educated society could effectively govern itself. Much of Jefferson’s “retirement” was involved in the conception, planning, architectural design and building of the University, and he even was involved in developing its curriculum and hiring its faculty. The University is beautiful. The original design incorporated only 2 acres, with the Rotunda (designed after the Pantheon in Rome) at its focal point. The lawn behind the Rotunda frames a series of architecturally beautiful lecture halls (Pavillions) and student dormitories (he believed it was important for students and their faculty to often mingle). Over the years the original 2 acre campus with 120 students has expanded to 3500 acres with almost 20,000 students. Its Art Museum is especially well known. U.of V. is a beautiful complex and the governors of the University have done an excellent job in overseeing that expansion was compatible with Jefferson’s vision. I’m sure Jefferson would be very proud to see it today. (Of interest, one of the University’s most famous students is Edgar Allen Poe)
Charlottesville is a charming college “village” (as they like to call it). It has done a fine job revitalizing its Historic Downtown Pedestrian Mall with assorted shops, cafes, restaurants and theaters that make for an interesting stroll and some window-shopping. Many of the buildings lining the mall are beautifully designed, even elegant. We never had a chance to eat here, but I hear many of the restaurants serve fine cuisine. Himalaya Fusion was recommended but not sampled by us.
THINGS TO DO NEAR CHARLOTTESVILLE
There are many beautiful drives in the state, one of the most interesting being thru the vineyards and farmland between Charlottesville and Orange, a route that President Jefferson often rode by buggy in the early 1800s when he visited his good friend President James Madison at his magnificent estate, Montpelier. We really enjoyed seeing the rolling hills, vineyards and herds of beef. Jefferson also had a plantation retreat at Poplar Forest, North of Charlottesville. Poplar Forest was a private oasis for the retired President when he needed time to get away from his many visitors and statesman duties at Monticello and recharge his mental batteries.
The area is home to many fine vineyards and for those who enjoy wine tours this is an excellent destination. The Monticello Wine Trail passes over 20 vineyards, including some of Virginia’s most famous such as Barboursville vineyards. Remember to drive responsibly if you are prone to stop at each for a sample or two.
I’m sure you’ll enjoy your visit to Charlottesville as much as we did! I have always respected President Jefferson, but was surprised at how much my admiration grew during this visit.