Jefferson's Other Home - Where He Found Stillness and Solace
FOREST, VA. — Imagine how you might feel if your home were bursting at the seams with dozens of visitors, some of them staying for weeks. They all want to talk with you and be entertained, but all you long to do is sit in a quiet corner and lose yourself in a book or write letters to distant friends.
That was Thomas Jefferson's dilemma when he returned to Charlottesville, Va., after completing two terms as president of the United States. Three or four times a year he solved his problem by escaping to the solitude of his second home 90 miles away.
You weren't aware that Jefferson had a home besides Monticello? Neither was I, and I grew up less than 50 miles from it. Poplar Forest is so little known because it's still well off the beaten path, and until 1984 was a private residence.
Then it looked as though the home Jefferson designed and built for his retirement and which he referred to as "the most valuable of my possessions'' might be turned into a restaurant or a bed and breakfast.
So a nonprofit group was formed to rescue this little jewel of a house.
What wasn't widely recognized at the time was that its appearance - especially the interior - wasn't as Jefferson had designed it, mostly because of alterations after a fire in 1845. The decision was made to return the building and grounds to their original condition, research was begun, and Poplar Forest has been undergoing painstaking restoration ever since.
That's part of what makes it so interesting to visitors. I chatted with a mallet-wielding craftsman checking a wooden peg in the mortise-and-tendon joint at the base of a post. I observed workmen straining to lift a 400-pound oak beam. I saw a bone-handled knife and fragments of china that once graced Jefferson's dining table, among many other discoveries being analyzed by archaeologists.
Probably my favorite things are the two outhouses that sit equidistant from each side of the back of the house. No ordinary privies for this Founding Father: These are perfect octagons, built of brick, with domed ceilings, and several lunettes (fanlight windows) to let in the light. You might guess that they're fancy garden features or guardhouses until you peek inside. One of the original seats from Jefferson's time still survives.
He had long been fascinated by octagons and frequently included them in his designs. But the house (and outhouses) at Poplar Forest are the only ones ever built. Begun in 1806 and constructed of bricks made on the property, the six-room home incorporates many of the architectural ideas Jefferson had picked up during his European travels: floor-to-ceiling windows, alcove beds, an indoor privy, and an impressive 16-foot skylight that has just been restored to the heart of the house.
The 32-pane skylight, made of antique heart pine and glass imported from Germany, is the commanding feature of the central room of the house. It provided such excellent light that Jefferson's granddaughter Cornelia used to sketch and draw in the room. Outside, the skylight is part of an unusual and decorative roof with decking that is attractive from a distance and includes an innovative water runoff system.
Whether at Monticello or his rural retreat, Jefferson enjoyed gardening. "No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of a garden,'' he wrote his friend, the artist Charles Willson Peale, from Poplar Forest in 1811.
Of the elaborate villa-style landscaping that he designed for the retreat, the most prominent features that remain today are a sunken south lawn and two huge, grass-covered mounds on either side of the back of the house.
It's assumed, but not known for sure, that the soil for the mounds came from digging out the lawn.
Both these were ideas that Jefferson admired in Europe and adapted for his own purposes. While the mounds shield the outhouses from view inside the house, Poplar Forest historians don't believe that was his purpose. He simply liked symmetry.
Visitors come away from Poplar Forest with a greater understanding of Jefferson the private citizen. He rarely entertained there, had few visitors (although Andrew Jackson stopped by one day), and lived the life of a hermit, if only for two to four weeks at a time. He read books, wrote letters, helped further his granddaughters' education, and found the solitude he longed for but often didn't find at Monticello.
One of the biggest events of the year is the Independence Celebration on July 4, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors enjoy a drum and fife corps, costumed living-history interpreters, demonstrations of numerous Colonial crafts, and - the highlight of the day - the reading of the Declaration of Independence. The only charge is for parking. Amateur archaeologists can register to participate in a summer field school in historical archaeology June 8 to July 12, and in a hands-on restoration school June 16 to 28.
Poplar Forest is in south central Virginia southwest of Lynchburg and east of Forest. From April through November, it's open Wednesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is $1 for students and $5 for adults. For more information, write P.O. Box 419, Forest, VA 24551; phone (804) 525-1806; or visit the Internet site at www.poplarforest.org