We reached out and touched Thomas Jefferson ... at least my wife and I felt we did when we entered his world on a recent driving tour of Virginia's Jefferson country. We discovered that the state where this extraordinary American was born, raised and passed his last years is so rich in structures and landscapes associated with him that he is a presence here still. Seeing his world in three dimensions made him seem even more real to us than did the commendable Ken Burns' television treatment of his life.
It was Burns' two-part series on PBS earlier this year that reawakened our interest in the multifaceted Jefferson, who was not only a politician, statesman and sage, but scientist, musician, gardener, architect and more -- probably the closest to a Renaissance man that the United States has produced. When we learned that we could obtain Jefferson's Virginia Passports from the Virginia Tourism Corp. for discounted admissions to five sites where Jefferson lived and worked, we leaped at the opportunity. The passports -- which cost $57 each and saved us $50 -- arrived with an illustrated guide enumerating not only the places with the strongest Jefferson connections, but also telling us how to get to them by car, what the visiting hours are and whether tours are available.
We drew up our own itinerary, deciding to start in Richmond because Tuckahoe Plantation, Jefferson's home during much of his childhood, lies just minutes from the center of town. With Charlottesville only an hour's drive from Richmond via Interstate 64, it made sense to go there next and visit its twin jewels: Jefferson's splendid home, Monticello, and his Academical Village, his term for the University of Virginia, which he founded and designed. From Charlottesville, we would head for Lynchburg, at the edge of which sits the great man's little-known country retreat and hideaway, Poplar Forest, now undergoing a complete restoration.
Lynchburg would put us within striking distance of Natural Bridge, a geological wonder that Jefferson admired so much that he bought it from King George III in 1774, just two years before the Colonies declared independence.
As the finale of our journey through his life, we chose Colonial Williamsburg, where the young Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary and had some of his first political experiences as a delegate to the House of Burgesses and as governor of the new state of Virginia.
I do not use the word "magical" often when talking about a place, but I will use it to describe Tuckahoe, considered by many architectural historians to be the finest surviving early-18th-century plantation in the United States. We drove through the gate and followed a mile-long, cedar-lined, dirt road to a grassy parking area behind the trees. The white clapboard house with black shutters seemed to lift up on its sea of lawn as we approached.
How must it have looked in 1745 to the boy Jefferson, when he first beheld it in the company of his family? Only 2 or 3 years old at the time, he arrived here on horseback from Shadwell, his birthplace close to Monticello. Jefferson counted this moment as his earliest memory. How wonderful that our first impression should correspond to his.
Tuckahoe is privately owned, and permission to visit the grounds and house must be obtained in advance from the occupants, Tad and Sue Thompson, who live there with their four children and the ghosts of the past. A small brochure highlighting the plantation's landmarks may be plucked from a white box on a post near the parking area. We found Sue Thompson at work in her garden, pulling ivy from a brick wall. A friendly, gracious woman, she urged us to have a look around the grounds and to be sure to visit the schoolhouse where Jefferson received his first lessons between 1748 and 1752.
As we circled the house, we could see that it was much bigger than we had initially thought. In fact, it is really two connected houses laid out like a capital H, with the south side, the original main entrance, overlooking the James River. To the east stands the school building, a one-room, three-window affair.
Sue Thompson was waiting for us on the stoop when we returned from our stroll. She led us from one paneled room to another, each filled with antiques and paintings.
But the room that most impressed us was the one in which the Thompson family dines on formal occasions. It was not the names and dates scratched onto the panes by two centuries of owners and guests that captivated me, but the light streaming through the four tall windows. Jefferson, the product of the European philosophical Enlightenment, loved light as if it were truth itself, and he let it stream into all the buildings he designed.
In downtown Richmond, we would see clear evidence of how Jefferson incorporated light into his architecture, when we visited the Virginia State Capitol, the masterpiece he designed in 1785.
As American minister to France between 1784 and 1789, he could indulge his taste for the classical and the classically derived buildings of Europe and there fell increasingly under the spell of the Romans, the work of 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio and the new architecture of the French. The monument he most admired, the columned and pedimented Roman temple Maison Carree at Nimes, became the prototype for the Capitol. For the structure's centerpiece, Jefferson commissioned the French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon to carve a marble statue of George Washington standing. Above Washington rises a tall cupola to catch the light and distribute it over his proud figure.
'Essay in architecture'
I never tire of Monticello, the house Jefferson considered his "essay in architecture" and spent 40 years building (and rebuilding) atop a small mountain. (Monticello means "little mountain" in Italian.)
Greeted on the steps of the east portico by a docent, we were ushered into the high-ceilinged reception hall, the so-called Museum, with its seven-day calendar clock, whose weights Jefferson fashioned from cannonballs. The chamber is decorated with objects brought to him from the virtually unknown lands to the west, among them Indian relics, a mounted buffalo head and mastodon bones.
We then moved into the sitting room that had doubled as a schoolroom. Jefferson, who became a widower early in life, took seriously his role as paterfamilias and tended carefully to the education and needs of his two daughters and their numerous offspring. How this room must have echoed with the sounds of children's voices.
Yet right next door was the library, the first room of his private quarters, his sanctum to which he admitted only family and the closest of friends. Here he kept some of the almost 7,000 volumes he had amassed.
The library led directly to the study, or Cabinet, where various scientific instruments, including a telescope and a theodolite for surveying, further revealed the inquiring nature of Jefferson's mind.
His red leather whirligig chair (so-named for its swivel seat) stood drawn up to his writing table, where his polygraph, a device for making copies of his letters, sat.
Though a thick wall partition divided the study from his bedroom, Jefferson -- who was up each day at dawn -- could step directly from the covers to his desk because his bed lay in an open alcove in the wall. The bed bears the same red silk spread that covered it in Jefferson's day.
Monticello is constantly being studied and reinterpreted, and the plantation's slave past continues to undergo archaeological and historical scrutiny. Though a benign master who detested slavery, Jefferson nevertheless owned more than 100 slaves, who labored at both Monticello and Poplar Forest, his second plantation, which he inherited from his wife's father.
Mulberry Row, where some of the Monticello slaves lived within a stone's throw of the Monticello mansion and where some of the young men labored making nails, has been thoroughly investigated. Personal items that have been dug up in the area -- buttons, shoe buckles and other ornaments -- are displayed in a small exhibition area under the house itself and in the Monticello Visitors Center near the official entrance to the estate. They make a touching inventory.
On a 668-by-80-foot-long terrace below Mulberry Row stretched Jefferson's vegetable garden, re-created from his notes and plans and archaeological and botanical research. (He kept meticulous year-by-year journals of his plantings and crops.) Gardening was one of his lifelong passions; he wrote that "no occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth & no culture comparable to that of the garden." Even in his last years, he could boast that "though an old man, I am but a young gardener."
Considered something of a trencherman and known for his preference for French food, Jefferson actually ate less indulgently than many people might suppose.
Indeed, as he noted in 1819: "I have lived temperately, eating little animal food. Vegetables constitute my principal diet."
He was not above a good tipple, however. He regarded wine "as an indispensable for my health," and not only conducted experiments in viticulture, in the hope of creating good Virginia wine using European grape varieties, but kept an excellent wine cellar.
To celebrate his love of wine, we stopped off at the nearby Jefferson Winery. It occupies land that Jefferson provided to Fillipo Mazzei, an Italian viticulturist who brought 16 men over from Italy to assist him with experiments in grape and wine production. Jefferson had been struck by how much the Monticello area reminded him of "the Cote of Burgundy from Chambertin to Montrachet," source of his favorite vintages.
The operation foundered during the American Revolution, however, and though Jefferson would never lose his interest in viticulture (he experimented with 23 kinds of grapes), he eventually abandoned efforts to produce wine of his own.
Monticello lies just outside Charlottesville, the city that grew up around the university Jefferson founded. He considered the planning and building of the university "the hobby of my old age" and "the last service I can render my country."
I doubt that there is another academic setting quite as serene as this one, with its gardens bordered by Jefferson's one-brick-thick serpentine walls winding to the terraced lawn.
His 10 colonnaded faculty pavilions, six dining halls (though they no longer function as such) and 109 student rooms between recede in two long rows to the magnificent domed Rotunda at the far end, home of the original library. We were happy to see that in keeping with his passion for light, Jefferson gave the Rotunda's dome an oculus, a round skylight, through which the purity of the afternoon sun poured into the large bowl of a room below.
Poplar Forest near Lynchburg offered us an entirely different kind of treat: the chance to see a Jefferson building in the process of being brought back to life. Perhaps it never will be more interesting than it is now, with visitors permitted to watch woodworkers, roofers and masons going about their business using the tools, materials, methods and formulas of Jefferson's day.
Because the interior of the octagonal house burned in 1845 and was rebuilt according to its new owners' fancy, the restorers have had to start over, stripping the interior down to the brick walls, then working from Jefferson's drawings, from descriptions others and the guidance offered by archaeological discoveries and traces of the original construction.
It took Jefferson three days by coach or two on horseback to reach the house, but the journey was worth it for the chance it gave him, several times a year, to escape the visitors who deluged him at Monticello and were threatening to eat him out of house and home. Once a 4,810-acre plantation, where most of Jefferson's cash crops were grown, Poplar Forest now has been reduced to a scant 66 acres, with modern Lynchburg encroaching all around.
From Poplar Forest, we continued to Natural Bridge, less than an hour to the northwest. Considered a wonder of the world by Jefferson and his contemporaries (he referred to it as "one of the sublimest curiosities in nature"), it disappointed us at first sight, if only because the Western United States that Jefferson helped open up through the Louisiana Purchase yielded so many more impressive geological marvels.
But when we put ourselves in his frame of mind and walked under its 215-foot-high arch, we could experience a little of the awe he felt for this limestone curiosity, with the 90-foot span overhead fringed along its fractured edges by trees. In buying it, Jefferson not only protected the bridge and the surrounding 57 acres of forested land from exploitation but also made them available to the public.
City of history
We drove to Williamsburg, once the capital of Virginia, where Jefferson attended college and gained his initial political experience. There are few towns in America I find more interesting historically and architecturally than this one, but Jefferson apparently was not impressed. He deemed Williamsburg's brick houses "brick kilns" and considered its wooden ones "boards plastered with lime."
Whatever Jefferson really thought of Williamsburg, it remains a place where the past lives. The illusion is greatest on a rainy day when there are few visitors; it is then that the re-enactors in
18th-century attire stand out, as though they are the old inhabitants come back from the dead to take up their former routines. This illusion was particularly strong in the large Georgian-style brick house of Jefferson's "most affectionate friend," George Whyte, under whom he studied law. Whyte was devoted to science and no doubt excited Jefferson's interest in the field.
In the mentor's study, various scientific instruments and books lie about, as though the two men had just gotten up to go to the parlor to enjoy the music we heard wafting from there. We went to investigate the source. There, in front of the fireplace, sat two flutists in waistcoats, breeches, white hose and buckled shoes. We took seats and listened to their sweet tune.
If ever we were in Jefferson's world, it was then.
Dale M. Brown, a former editor with Time-Life Books, lives in Alexandria, Va.
When you go...
* Tickets to Jefferson sites: Jefferson's Virginia Passport to nine sites costs $57 for adults and $25 for children ages 6 to 12; children under 6 are free. Passports may be purchased at Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello and Jefferson's Poplar Forest
or by calling toll free 888-293-1776. (A useful trip planner, Jefferson's Virginia, may also be requested at this number.)
For Tuckahoe Plantation, there is a suggested donation of $3 a person for touring the grounds, $7.50 a person for touring the house. For reservations, call 804-784-5736.
* For information: Virginia Division of Tourism, 901 E. Byrd St., 19th Floor, Richmond, Va. 23219; call 804-786-4484
Pub Date: 9/21/97