Monticello sits atop a lofty hill in Albemarle County, Virginia, not far from the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson, its creator and most prominent resident, who spent more than four decades designing, dismantling and reimagining the estate he called his “essay in architecture.” A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, the property is considered a national treasure not only for its beauty and historical significance but also for what it reveals about the third U.S. president, a complex and controversial figure whose political philosophy fundamentally shaped the nation. As Franklin D. Roosevelt once wrote, “More than any historic home in America, Monticello speaks to me as an expression of the personality of its builder.”
Born on April 13, 1743, Thomas Jefferson grew up at Shadwell, one of the largest tobacco plantations in Virginia. At the age of 21, he inherited several thousand acres of land that encompassed the family estate as well as his favorite boyhood haunt: a nearby hilltop called Monticello (Italian for “little mountain”) where he resolved to build his own home. In 1768, a year after the future president was admitted to the Virginia bar, workers broke ground on the site, beginning a decades-long process that would captivate Jefferson, bankrupt his family and produce one of America’s most iconic and historically significant architectural masterpieces.
In those days, it was common for landowners to choose a stock design for their home from an English architectural handbook; a contractor would then oversee the project from start to finish. But this particular landowner was Thomas Jefferson, the quintessential polymath, whose passions ranged from political philosophy, archaeology and linguistics to music, botany, bird watching and pasta making. (At a dinner honoring 49 American Nobel Prize winners, John F. Kennedy famously quipped, “I think that this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”) Remembered for drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson also drafted the blueprints for Monticello’s neoclassical mansion, outbuildings, gardens and grounds. Though he had no formal training, he had read extensively about architecture, particularly that of ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance. Years later, he would become an accomplished architect whose designs included the Virginia state capitol and the main buildings at the University of Virginia.
Monticello was unique not only in its design but also in its use of local resources. At a time when most brick was still imported from England, Jefferson chose to mold and bake his own bricks with clay found on the property. Monticello’s grounds provided most of the lumber, stone and limestone, and even the nails used to construct the buildings were manufactured on site.
The Second Monticello
In 1770, the family house at Shadwell burned down, forcing Jefferson to move into Monticello’s South Pavilion, an outbuilding, until the main house was completed. Two years later, he was joined by his new bride, Martha Wayles Skelton, the 23-year-old widowed daughter of a prominent Virginia lawyer. The couple had six children together, two of whom lived to adulthood, before Martha’s death in 1782. Devastated by the loss of his wife, Jefferson moved to France, where he served as the U.S. ambassador from 1785 to 1789. He was immediately struck by the architecture of the buildings there, particularly a certain Paris home with a U-shaped design, colonnades and a domed roof. Along with a massive trove of art, furniture and books, he returned home with a new vision for the estate. Among other enhancements, he added a central hallway, a mezzanine bedroom floor and an octagonal dome–the first of its kind in the United States.
This “second Monticello” was double the size of its original incarnation, designed to accommodate not only Jefferson’s steady stream of houseguests but also his boundless collections of books, European art, Native American artifacts, natural specimens and mementos from his travels. Monticello was also filled with Jefferson’s unique–and often ingenious–inventions. These included a revolving bookstand, a copying machine, a spherical sundial and a toenail clipper, among dozens of other devices.
In addition to its architecture, Monticello is renowned for its extensive gardens, which Jefferson, an avid horticulturist, designed, tended and painstakingly monitored. Every year that he resided at Monticello, he kept a log of its flora–as well as the insects and diseases that ravaged them–in a diary known as the Garden Book. He grew hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables there, using cultivation techniques that were revolutionary for his time. A connoisseur of European wines, Jefferson also attempted to plant a number of different grape varietals at Monticello; although his vines largely failed to thrive, he developed a reputation as America’s first serious viticulturist.
Monticello the Plantation
Monticello was not just a residence but also a working plantation, home to roughly 130 enslaved African Americans whose duties included tending its gardens and livestock, plowing its fields and working in its on-site textile factory. One of these slaves was Sally Hemings, who as a teenager accompanied Jefferson and his young daughters to Paris and later served as a chambermaid and seamstress at Monticello. For nearly two centuries, it has been speculated that Jefferson and Hemings had as many as six children together. These claims were bolstered by a 1998 DNA study that revealed a genetic link between their respective descendants (although some have argued that Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph, could also have been the father).
While the true nature of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings may never come to light, it would be impossible to tell the story of Monticello without acknowledging the irony of a home whose library shelves overflowed with the great works of the Enlightenment yet were dusted by slaves. This paradox is inherent in the legacy of Jefferson himself, who wrote that all men were created equal yet made no secret of his ambivalence toward the institution of slavery.
Monticello After Jefferson
Known for spending lavishly on books, wine and, above all else, his beloved Monticello, Jefferson left his heirs under a small mountain of debt when he died on July 4, 1826. His daughter, Martha Randolph, was forced to sell the estate, which had already entered the early stages of decay due to years of neglect. In 1836, it was bought by Uriah Levy, a real estate speculator who was the first Jewish American to serve an entire career as a commissioned Navy officer; he and his nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, are largely responsible for its restoration and preservation. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, a nonprofit organization, purchased the property in 1923 and continues to operate it as a museum and educational institution.