My fascination with Thomas Jefferson and Monticello

November 18th, 2014 12:26 pm

How much do you know about Thomas Jefferson? Indeed, he was the Third U.S. President and his portrait appears on a two dollar bill. But there is so much more to what makes Jefferson such an interesting individual. You wouldn’t guess it but I first learned about his genius in an article on Monticello in Martha Stewart Magazine. It inspired me. He inspired me…for these reasons.

Monticello, his passion

A few of us realize our passion early on. I did and so did Thomas Jefferson. When he turned 21,  Jefferson inherited several thousand acres of mountainous land in the Piedmont region, outside of Charlottesville, Virginia . Part of this inheritance was his boyhood favorite hilltop called Monticello (Italian for “little mountain”).

monticello, jefferson estate, jefferson plantation, views of jefferson plantation

He loved Monticello and it was his lifelong passion. He envisioned living and dying there.

“I am as happy no where else and in no other society,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “and all my wishes end, where I hope my days will end, at Monticello.”

Self-thought architect

Besides being a politician (and a darn good one – he drafted the Declaration of Independence), Jefferson was also a self-thought architect. He redesigned his home called Monticello, several times. Construction on the hilltop estate first started in 1768 and continued for the next 40 years, until 1808. The very first iteration of the estate was simple, inspired by the work of Andres Palladio.

monticello, thomas jefferson estate, house, sketch

Construction on the first Monticello was nearly completed in 1784. But the sudden death of Jefferson’s first wife left him grieving, searching for meaning. The house he built for his family no longer satisfied his vision. After spending some time in France as a US diplomat, getting inspired by Parisian architecture, he redrew Monticello, doubling its size.

monticello, thomas jefferson estate

“Architecture is my delight, and putting up, and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements”.

His love for books

The second Monticello had a lot more room for the family, guests and Jefferson’s favorite…books. I love that we have that in common. Jefferson’s library reached 6500 volumes. In fact, when the British burned down the Capital and the Library of Congress along with it in 1814, Jefferson stepped forward and sold his collection of 6487 titles for $23,950.

jefferson, books, library of congress

My library hovers around 1000 titles. Clearly, I have ways to go. Jefferson’s library was diverse, across many subject and languages. In fact, Jefferson was fluent in six languages (English included), which is also very impressive.

Theater man

Live entertainment, especially live theater has always been a passion of mine. I was excited to find out that downtown Charlottesville is home to a lovely old theater called the Jefferson Theater.

Jefferson Theater sign

Originally built as a bank in 1902, it was sold and reopened as a life performance theater. After major damage caused by fires and numerous changes of ownership, the theater was purchased in 2006 by a group of businessmen interested in bringing the structure back to its original glory. After three years of extensive renovations, the Jefferson Theater was reopened in 2009 and has been one of the major entertainment houses in Charlottesville.

jefferson theater, thomas jefferson, charlottesville, va

His interest in growing food and plants

Monticello was not just a residence. It was also a working plantation with around 130 enslaved African Americans. Jefferson had a passion for gardening and farming. He researched and sourced seeds from all over the world. His gardens were revolutionary for their time. He kept very detailed journals on plants, weather, farming techniques. He was a modern day pioneer. Always curious, always thinking ahead.

Monticello-gardens

We just visited Monticello this fall. I loved the house and the grounds. I appreciated the knowledgeable tour guides and their commitment to sharing a piece of Jefferson’s reality with the visitors.

Monticello-gardens2

monticello, gardens, thomas jefferson estate

We naturally gravitate towards visionary people, brave enough to look past the current times and formulate a bright future for all. People of the 1800s did too. There is so much to learn from Thomas Jefferson, his successes and failures, in both private and public life. He was a person of vision, always looking ahead and never staying still. As he once said:

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”

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