Into Monticello

Most any list of things to do before you die, for those in the United States and beyond, is sure to include a stop at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. It was the opportunity to see some fall colors on a hike in Shenandoah that brought us to Virginia. After a long walk to the top of a trail and overlooking the Virginia countryside we encountered some fellow Texans who had visited Monticello the day before. After inquiring as to its closing time, I realized there could be still time for a tour in the day.

Before heading up the mountain, a stop in a log cabin in the National Forest would provide an interesting reference point. The small cabin was occupied around 1890 by a family of tobacco growers. The occupants of the one-room cabin with sleeping spaces in the attic didn’t have many luxuries. Cracks in the floor could allow for the easy invasion by pests, the amount of space was extremely small for what could have been a large family, there were no glass panes in the windows, and luxuries like baths were infrequent at best. It struck me that 1890 was a pretty late date to be living like this. Around the cabin there were signs of modern conveniences like canned corn, and much more was available through a Sears and Roebuck catalog. There were skyscrapers in Chicago in 1890 and many people in cities had indoor gas lights. More than a century old at that point, Monticello was remarkably more convenient than this isolated cabin. Aside from having access to the Sears catalog, life for the common person in the Appalachian mountains hadn’t improved much in a century.

Today we talk about the growing riff between the rich and the poor, but it somehow doesn’t seem it can compare to any period before 1900.

If you ever have the opportunity to visit Monticello, do so. The setting alone is spectacular. The tour guide told us it’s the only residence in the U.S. on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites. Checking the list it also seems to be one of two buildings on the list, the other being Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Jefferson originally owned about 60 percent of the objects on display. Many of the paintings in Monticello are copies, but this doesn’t say much as Jefferson himself collected copies. There is a portrait of Jefferson by Stuart which will soon return to the National Portrait Gallery, it’s co-owner.  Highlights of the collection include over 300 pieces of furniture acquired by Jefferson in Williamsburg, Philadelphia, New York, London, and Paris, or made by Monticello slaves in Monticello’s own joinery plus Chinese ceramics, and French, English, and American silver; and 500 works of art, including sculptures and the terra cotta patinated bust of Jefferson done from life by Jean-Antoine Houdon.

Our tour guide also told us that while Jefferson is thought of as a great inventor, many of the “inventions” put to use in the home were actually adapted from mechanisms he saw in Europe.

The tour lasts only about 35 minutes, but visitors are free to wander the gardens and grounds, plus access the lower level of the house to view a kitchen, wine cellar and more.

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