Visit Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson's other Virginia home

Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest retreat
(Bob Downing, MCT)

FOREST, VA. — — Poplar Forest is Thomas Jefferson's other house.

Everyone knows about Monticello, Jefferson's stunning 33-room home at Charlottesville at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Virginia.


But most people have never heard of Jefferson's simpler octagon-shaped country villa outside Lynchburg, Va. It is officially known as Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest. The house and surrounding plantation are a National Historic Landmark and have been nominated to become a World Heritage Site.

The rebuilt house is an architectural gem and an impressive reminder of Jefferson's genius. Poplar Forest is a restoration in progress with rebuilding, landscaping and archaeological work continuing.


The exterior restoration began in 1993 and was completed in 2009. The interior is still in progress.

Landscaping the site as Jefferson once did got under way in 2010. The tools, supplies and methods being used in that restoration are true to Jefferson's era. More than 200,000 archaeological artifacts have been uncovered.

Poplar Forest is a grand but intimate two-story Piedmont house, small, simple and comfortable. It may be the first eight-sided house in the United States, according to experts.

Jefferson was struck by the symmetry of an octagon-shaped house and how light and airy such buildings were. He added modern interpretation and innovation to classic design.

Jefferson said that Poplar Forest would be "the finest dwelling in the state, except that of Monticello, perhaps preferable to that, as more proportioned to the faculties of a private citizen."

Construction began in 1806 while Jefferson was serving as America's third president. His design was based on the Roman villas of Andrea Palladio, a Renaissance-era architect from the 16th century whom Jefferson studied and admired.

The red-brick building includes four stucco-covered columns at the main entrance, green shutters and white trim.

The house features a cube-shaped, high-ceilinged dining room at the center of the house, a peculiar alcove bed in Jefferson's bedroom (similar to one in Monticello), four elongated octagon-shaped surrounding rooms, a herringbone pattern in the oak floor in the dining room and sunny floor-to-ceiling windows with lots of glass in the south-facing parlor-library.

Other features included a skylight, a library with 1,000 books (Jefferson read in six languages), a deck, a kitchen with several cooking areas and even an indoor privy. There are four chimneys that serve 15 fireplaces.

Initially, the cooking and food storage were in the lower level. In 1814, Jefferson added a 100-foot-long east wing with a kitchen, a smokehouse, a laundry and a storage room.

The family would hang out on the wing's roof at night to observe owls and bats. Jefferson was often accompanied to Poplar Forest by his two surviving daughters and his 12 grandchildren.

Poplar Forest was Jefferson's escape, not an open-to-the-public place like Monticello. It provided, he said, the "solitude of a hermit." He referred to Poplar Forest as "my other home," "the most valuable of my possessions" and an "excellent house."

When his presidency ended in 1809, Jefferson visited his Poplar Forest retreat three or four times a year, staying from two weeks to two months. It took 20 years to complete the house, 1806 to 1826. It was Jefferson's second home from age 66 to 80.

Poplar Forest is 93 miles south of Monticello. Jefferson typically made the trip in three days by carriage or two days by horseback.

Jefferson's overall plan for Poplar Forest blended the architecture of the house and the landscaping of the ground. The man who penned the Declaration of Independence took great pride in landscaping Poplar Forest.

Two mounds near the house were constructed and planted in circles of aspens and willows. A sunken lawn sat outside the study-library with flowers planted along its edges.

English boxwood was planted outside the main entrance. A few stately poplar trees remain from the namesake forest. A double row of paper mulberry trees was planted on the west side of the house. Two oval flower beds and two tree groupings were planted near the house.

A road flanked by the paper mulberry trees encircled the house and five acres of grounds around the house.

The landscaped grounds were within a 61-acre enclosure that Jefferson called the curtilage that featured gardens, orchards and support buildings that separated the house from the plantation.

Records show that the slave community at Poplar Forest ranged from 60 to 100 people during Jefferson's residency. The slaves grew tobacco, corn and wheat. Some goods were shipped to Monticello. Cash crops were shipped down the James River from Lynchburg to Richmond.

Jefferson encouraged hard work through incentives and paid slaves for work that he considered beyond their normal load. He reserved harsh punishment for runaways and acts of rebellion.

The elderly cared for the young. Older children helped with weeding, planting seeds and gathering wheat. Some youths were sent to Monticello to learn trades.

He hired overseers to manage the plantation. They got salaries, shares of the crop and houses. In some cases, enslaved men supervised other slaves. Archaeology has uncovered slave cabins and yards at Poplar Forest that are featured in an on-site exhibit.

Jefferson made his last visit to Poplar Forest in 1823. That's when his grandson, Francis Eppes, moved in. Ill health prevented Jefferson from visiting again, and he died in 1826 at the age of 83.

Jefferson and his wife, Martha, had inherited the Bedford County tobacco plantation of 4,819 acres from her father in 1773.

He managed the property from Monticello, although the family in 1781 spent two months at Poplar Forest, likely in the overseer's house, after escaping British troops. In fact, he had only visited the property four times before he started to build his new home.

After his death, Poplar Forest lost some of its charm as it was converted into a more-typical farmhouse. His grandson sold the house to a neighbor. There was an 1845 fire and a leaky roof.

In 1984, the nonprofit Corporation for Jefferson's Poplar Forest bought the house and 49 acres and saved it from suburban development. Today the property covers 616 acres.

It began detailed research on the building and how it had been constructed. Everything installed post-Jefferson has been removed or will be. The goal has been to do it right with original materials. That included using wood from old hotels and even sunken ships. That work was guided largely by Jefferson's letters: about 1,500 were about Poplar Forest.

In 1992, the corporation began its effort to rebuild Poplar Forest, a project that to date has cost in excess of $15.2 million for purchasing the land at the heart of Jefferson's retreat and beginning the restoration, said President Lynn A. Beebe.

Two interior rooms have been left unfinished to better illustrate early construction methods.


The house includes several Jefferson-designed pieces of furniture, but Poplar Forest is definitely not a house museum.


If you go

Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily from mid-March to mid-December. Admission is $14 for adults, $12 for senior citizens, $6 for children 12 to 18 and $2 for children 6 to 11. Visitors can check out GPS-guided hand-held audio-video units to tour the grounds.

The entrance to Poplar Forest is off state Route 661 south of U.S. 221 and north of U.S. 460 southwest of Lynchburg. The address for GPS use is 1542 Bateman Bridge Road, Forest, Va.

Poplar Forest hosts special events from wine tastings to astronomy nights to Jeffersonian music and archaeology programs throughout the year.

For more information, write to Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest, P.O. Box 419, Forest, VA 24551 or call 434-525-1806. Visit poplarforest.org.