Somehow, in the heady rush of camellias and compost, I forgot to write about Monticello--the whole reason I went to Virginia a couple of weeks ago. I was just reminded, with a few minutes to spare before midnight, by my gracious host, architect Tom Goffigon, that today is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. Thanks, Tom. Mas vale tarde que nunca. In honor, I’m going to riff on Jefferson’s house. It made a profound impression on me. And it reminds me to revisit all the field trips I took as a child. Williamsburg will have to be next.
Reams have been written about Monticello, so I won’t pretend to be scholarly. In fact, what so moved me about the house was precisely how idiosyncratic--even eccentric--it was, and how much about the person was revealed in every design decision he made. As with most homes, you must read the writing on the wall. Jefferson’s sensibilities are on display: his inventiveness, first. The weights for the clock, flanking the door in the entrance hall--and the hole cut in the floor so the weight could descend, because the system couldn’t be mounted high enough. The dumbwaiter for individual, and uncorked, bottles of wine. The revolving cupboards to serve food, and the trolleys for dirty dishes. The system for holding two pens at once so that a copy could automatically be made. The system for opening a double door, while only pulling on one handle. The revolving bookstand holding several volumes open at once--so the avid reader could surf for knowledge. Jefferson was the original gadget geek.
That love of knowledge, that engagement with the world, greets visitors when they enter the front hall, which looks more like a gallery in a museum. I didn’t see an umbrella stand, hat rack, center table or boot cubby. Instead I saw maps, bones, horns, weaponry, skins, and sculpture--all manner of things to wonder over, things to remind his visitors that this was the house of a man at home in the world, taking delight in discovery. These are the trophies of the historian. There was room for music, room to enjoy the harpsichord and the cello and the violin he liked to play. And the architectural details! A surfeit of molding danced across the walls, pediments played over the windows.
The dining room is no longer Wedgwood blue. It is now a brilliant chrome yellow--a far more expensive pigment--and true to what Jefferson chose in 1815. It is like sitting inside a daffodil, and I can only imagine the gleam of candles on a wintry night. It should be copied in dining rooms across America.
When Jefferson moved into Monticello, he had been a widower for 27 years. His daughter moved in with him. She had eight children, and would go on to have three more. This is not a large house, surprisingly. How he must have wanted a retreat from that chaos.
He created his own apartment of rooms in one wing. Jefferson fitted his bed into a niche open on both sides, so that he could get up on either side--one way into his dressing area, the other way into his library. No wrong side of the bed in the morning for him. It seemed, too, that he might be able to lie in bed and look sideways up at the stars through a massive skylight--though of course I wasn’t allowed to climb in and try out my theory. Clearly, this was someone who didn’t mind a little lolling about. A conservatory full of plants was also part of his suite of intimate rooms--and he let birds loose in it! I mean, how can you not be smitten by a man who keeps flowers and books and birds near his bed? Jefferson was clearly a discerning and energetic shopper, with an enthusiastic taste for everything from scientific instruments to fine china.
The house is sort of crazy in some significant ways. The stairs leading to the second floor are impossibly narrow and steep, as though they had been shoehorned in. The famous dome, with its gorgeous, deeply set round windows, is nearly inaccessible, but I like to imagine that it would have been an enchanting place to dance, or make love. Why not? I told you, I did not take an academic approach. Instead, I fell in love.