I've been there three times. The first time - I think I was about twelve - we stopped on a family road trip over the Blue Ridge Mountains. The second time, shortly after my wife and I were married, coming home from Washington, D.C., I stopped to show her. Then again, years later in returning from a vacation in Williamsburg, the three of us stopped there to show Jonathan. I think he was about seven at the time. I've always been fascinated by it. I even carry a picture of it around with me most of the time. Each time I've seen it, I've seen something new. Each time I've come away marvelling at the ingenuity and taste of the man who built it. Each time I've come to love Thomas Jefferson's Monticello even more. If my Italian is correct, it means "little mountain." Pronounced correctly, with the proper Italian inflection, it's Mont-eh-CHELL-o - much more beautiful and expressive than the standard American pronunciation (as it's spelled).
I've always felt a special kinship with Jefferson. When a man designs and builds his home over much of a lifetime, that house becomes a part of that individual, as much as his wife, his children, even his own face. Just as in the case of all these other elements, the house changes - grows, evolves, and ages with him. Jefferson began this extension of himself as a boy growing up on his father's plantation, Shadwell, in Albemarle County, Virginia near Charlottesville. As a teenage boy, he used to paddle a canoe across the Rivanna River and climb to the top of the hill - his "little mountain," - to shoot partridge. Monticello is unusual in this respect. Most Virginia plantation houses are built in the valley, near river landings, close to the fields and seats of commerce that made them viable. Jefferson instead chose a hilltop site with a beautiful view in all directions. He was 24 in 1767 when he had the land cleared and ordered the building of a brick kiln. By the time he married in 1771, only one small, square building was complete, a combination office, bedroom, and dining room. It was here that he brought his young bride Martha; here, in a blinding snowstorm, they spent their first night of an all-too-short marriage (she died in 1782). The north appendage has since come to be called the "honeymoon cottage" though later it was used as a school room for Jefferson's children and grandchildren.
The Monticello that went up during the next four years is not the one we're familiar with from the back of our pocket change. It was smaller, yet also taller, with a Grecian portico fronting each of its two levels, looking somewhat like a double-decker version of what we know today. Initially, Jefferson had planned two low wings sprawling out on either end of the house; then he came up with the ingenious idea of sinking two basement level arcades containing kitchen, laundry, stables, and other needed household services below ground level (open only to the east), one of which would connect the "honeymoon cottage" to the north and an identical square brick pavilion to the south. This was the house he left in 1785 to serve as special envoy to France. And, though he'd been a talented amateur architect all his life, it was in France that Thomas Jefferson received his real education in the fine art of classical architecture.
In Paris he fell in love, not with a woman, but with a building, the Maison Quaree. Like a smitten lover, he reported spending hours just gazing at it in rapt contemplation. It was in France too that he refined his love and understanding of the work of the Italian architect Palladio. Here also, he reported a love affair with the Hotel de Salm at the Tuileries. And when, in 1789, Jefferson returned to the brand new United States he'd helped fashion, he was a new man - a man of cultured, continental tastes, and an architect who now despaired at the amateurish building endeavours of his youth. He had come to love the long, low, lean lines of Palladian structures. And, in a move which must have been as frightening as it was exciting, he ordered the entire second floor of Monticello demolished and the main level considerably expanded. He'd come to appreciate the single-story look, become fascinated by the Roman Pantheon with its domed, porticoed, cylindrical shape, and grown adept at the visual tricks an architect could play in making a three-story house look as if it were but a single story. During the next year or two, the Monticello we know so well today took shape amid the wonderful pandemonium of a seemingly perpetual construction site.
No detail either inside or outside was too small to escape his notice. We've all heard about his ingenious cannonball clock, his dumb waiter, the two "fronts" his new home featured, but perhaps we're not so familiar with his disdain for grand stairways, his built-in bed and the walk-in closet built over it (accessible via a narrow, hidden set of stairs), the designs he made for his draped window treatments, or the below-the-knee level windows in his upstairs guest rooms (necessitated by his desire to make them look from the outside as if they were part of the main level). Undoubtedly, the octagon-shaped domed room on the second floor is the house's most distinctive feature. Indications are that Jefferson may have intended it as a ballroom, though at the time of his death in 1825, it had never been used for anything other than storage. The house was a classically gracious, grand, comfortable, luxurious, modern home for its time; but also it was a museum, filled with evidence of all the many literary, artistic, and scientific interests that occupied its builder's mind.
In the years immediately following Jefferson's death, his daughter sold the house to pay his considerable debts. It passed through two periods of neglect. At one time it had Victorian style porches built on either end (since removed), and at one point, Jefferson's lawns and gardens were plowed up in an ill-fated attempt by an enterprising owner to establish a silk farm. During the Civil War, the house and its furnishing were seized by the Confederacy and auctioned off. But in each of these crises, Monticello was saved by two generations of the Levy family, who lived there for over 70 years until 1913 when funds were raised by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association for its purchase and restoration as a national monument. Washington, DC has a Pantheon-like marble monument with a towering marble statue of our third president beneath its graceful dome; but it is at Monticello, where he is buried, that Jefferson the man still seems to live and breathe, in a memorial of brick and mortar, less grand perhaps, but much more meaningful to all of us today.