Monticello Rhapsody

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.


Karena said...

Dominique, these are certainly facts I had not previously known about Jefferson. Wonderful details!
Art by Karena

david terry said...

In 1984, we took a visiting Yankee friend (from Rhode Island, of all places...come to think of it) up the mountain to see Monticello, which I thought was an inconvenient thing for him to insist upon, given that the whole county was covered in snow. We got up there to find NO ONE there....except the docents (presumably they were helicoptered in). I'd been there many times before, of course....but never when NO ONE else was there. One of my more surreal life-experiences (which is saying something) was spending 45 minutes (this is after waiting for 15 minutes in a room with three docents who wouldn't/couldn't make eye-contact....since TOURS BEGIN ONLY EVERY FIFTEEN MINUTES) with a woman who led the three of us through the rooms....never varying from her script, never allowing us to go forward or backwards on the "tour", proclaiming her script while staring somewhere past our heads towards non-existent people in the back of the room. She'd make sweeping gestures and declare "And Now....if We will ALL move on, we will next be entering the DINING ROOM....". I'd like to think that, since they've finally acknowledged the existence of Ms. Hemmings, they've loosed up a bit in other ways as well.

David Terry

Kerry Steele- Design du Monde said...

Monticello is one of my favorite places to visit. You wouldn't think so knowing that it has been 20 years since I was there last. I was recently in Charlottesville with no time to visit and did not know about the sunny new color of the dining room. Luckily, I am planning to move back to Va in the within the next 12 months and like you will be revisiting all of those childhood field trips including Monticello and Williamsburg. Can't forget some of the more minor spots too.

Reggie Darling said...

Hello Dominique: I came across your blog for the first time this morning via Architect Design, and was charmed and flattered to see that you have a link to Reggie Darling in the blogs you follow section. How nice of you, and I have immediately added yours to mine, as I cannot stop reading your posts! Thank you, and I look forward to reading more. I am longing to see Monticello again, and have been thinking of combining a visit there with one to Montpelier and also Poplar Forest, too. Yours with pleasure, Reggie

Deana Sidney said...

There is nothing as refreshing as new eyes on a classic... thanks for sharing your excitement and your discoveries... I look forward to dining inside a daffodil one day!

An Aesthete's Lament said...

Did you meet Susan Stein? I hope so—she is heaven. Monticello, to me, is the perfect house: elegant, quirky, individual, daring, amateur (in the best possible way), and damned inspiring. For its existence alone I am proud to be a Virginian.

ArchitectDesign™ said...

You pointed out what I love about the house most: it's eccentric charm. This is what a house should be about, its' owner's personality. Jefferson had a private refuge, Poplar Forest, about a 3-4 day distance back in those days (2 hours by car today!), which is even more private and personal. If you haven't been, you must visit. Poplar forest has been slowly restored over the past years in the techniques of the time -fascinating to see!

julie marr said...

Your writing on Monticello is the verbal equivalent to Maira Kalman's visual blog about it, summing up in a completely serendipitous way why the place is so special, important and wonderful.

Helen Young said...

Your blog is wonderful! Been reading for a couple of weeks now. I went to the Univ. of Virginia, so Jefferson made a lasting impression. In 2008 my husband and I went to his 25 college reunion in Charlottesville and I visited Monticello while the guys played golf. It was a memorable day and Monticello was everything I remembered and more.

pve design said...

One of my favorite spots - I adore Mr.Jefferson's gadget geek side.

Gwen Driscoll said...


I went to Monticello for the first, and only, time in my early 20's. I can still see myself walking through it step by step. I haven't ever been so moved. And, most exciting news, my niece just got accepted to UVA in the Masters program for Architecture and Urban Planning. So, I will definitely be making a trip back to visit Mr. Jefferson's masterpiece with my daughter and, of course, visit my niece. Thank you for sharing. Wonderful tribute.


Anonymous said...

Did you take that pix of the rotunda? Good job!
This post reminds me of the piece we did on Williamsburg.
Im loving your blog, its nice to get to know you.

Betty Dabney said...

Montecello will forever remain an architectural classic. Unfortunately, the new visitors' center won't. While it was striving not to detract from the harmony of the main house, it manages to do just that. I'd be interested in others' comments about the visitors' center.

Dominique said...

To all: Susan Stein was ill with a flu, so I didn't meet her but was hoping to do so. All pix by DB unless otherwise indicated, and I sought permission to go back through again to take a few, as my hand was roundly slapped the first time around...and yes, the tours are still organized like the clockwork Jefferson so loved, and no mention was made of Sally Hemings, though we poked a bit to see whether there would be any snapping; none.

Reggie Darling, I still can't get over the dresses your mother and sister were wearing that long ago Easter.

Architectdesign: Yes! A house should be about an owner's personality. And designers have to do more to help owners over their insecurity about expressing theirs, rather than imposing their own--one of the knottiest problems I saw in the industry.

Lamenting aesthete, I so deeply agree about the amateur note, another quality we do not value enough in our over-professionalized world...

Jan Jessup said...

Dear Dominique, I forwarded this post to my friend Helen Cripe, who wrote a PhD thesis on Mr. Jefferson and His Music--and spent 6 weeks at Monticello last year as a research scholar. Helen wrote back:

"It’s always interesting to read what other people think upon seeing Monticello. The dome room is quite spectacular and none of the Jefferson historians seem to know what it was used for. It may have been used as quarters for some of the many guests who stayed there at various times. There is a little room off it, very small, that one of the granddaughters used for her own private retreat from everyone else.

There are more rooms than it looks like on the 2nd and 3rd floors, but since people touring the house are not taken up there, it’s hard to realize just how many people the place can hold. There are also holes cut in the doors of those upstairs rooms to give the cats free access to the rooms at any time – these were working cats, not pets, and their job was to keep the place clear of mice and other varmints – thus the holes in the doors so they could get wherever they needed in order to do their job!"

Anonymous said...

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