Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Mr. Jefferson's Dream House

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Mr. Jefferson's Dream House

Article excerpt

Monticello, the mansion built in Virginia by Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, is a jewel of American neoclassical architecture. In 1987 it was placed on UNESCO'S World Heritage List.

On the first day of 1772, twenty-eight-year-old Tom Jefferson brought his bride, Martha Wayles Skelton, a widow of twenty-three, to Monticello, "Little Mountain" in Italian, their new home. As a carriage could not traverse the route in a snowstorm at night, they had ridden on horseback over the mountain.

Though only the one-room South Pavilion was completed, Tom was eager to welcome Martha to the house he was building for them. While outside the storm raged, Tom build a fire in the hearth and produced a bottle of wine; a black servant prepared a meal for the honeymoon couple. The romantic aura of this firelit snowbound first dinner at Monticello reflects Thomas Jefferson throughout his life.

A correspondent, to whom he had written about his bride, remarked that his description of Martha was "the most Romantic and Poetical that I ever did read." A comment that might also apply to Jefferson's feelings about Monticello. This tall lanky youth with red hair, freckles and grey eyes was a complete man in the Romantic tradition. He towered over other men in height as he would tower over them in intellect and inspiration.

Most planters built their homes on their plantations, on the low-lying Tidewater land where tobacco was the chief cash crop. Jefferson chose a mountain-top in the Blue Ridge, two leagues or six miles (10 km.) from the town of Charlottesville. His classical studies at the College of William and Mary had revealed to him a new architecture for the house he was already planning before his marriage.

In a 4-volume edition of the Renaissance architect, Andreas Palladio, Jefferson found what he wanted. The designs of the Italian master were inspired by the temples and villas of Ancient Rome. Palladio projected one-story structures with double-columned porticoes on each front and a hall that extended the length of the building, while living and dining rooms opened off the central hall.

Local materials were employed in the construction of Monticello. Jefferson burnt bricks in a kiln in the deer park on the southeast side of the mountain, where the deep-red clay was ideal for making bricks. He sawed the planks for the flooring and had limestone quarried for porticoes. He relied on cabinet-makers in Williamsburg for interior furnishings and embellished the estate with orchards and vegetable gardens.

Plantation slaves performed the hard labour of construction as well as working in the tobacco fields. Jefferson had inherited 5,000 acres (2,900 hectares) from his father, Peter Jefferson, and had 150 field hands to cultivate this acreage. The extensive Hemings family acted as maids and house-boys. They were never called slaves, though in fact they were.

The first black slaves were brought to Virginia in 1619. Tobacco soon proved to be the small colony's leading export, and slave labour and tobacco farming became intertwined. By 1790, Virginia's population of 750,000 would be almost equally divided between whites and blacks.

For Jefferson, the slave system was "a firebell in the night". Newly elected to the Virginia legislature at Williamsburg, he proposed a bill to phase out slavery in the colony, but he failed. The planters felt that they could not manage without slaves. Indeed, for Jefferson to try to build his dream house without slave labour would have been almost impossible.


During the War of Independence, two English deserters, skilled craftsmen, boarded at Monticello. Billy and Davy made furnishings for the house and built an elegant phaeton to Jefferson's design. Soon after independence was achieved, Jefferson received a visit from the Marquis de Chastellux, who had served with the French army during the war. …

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