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Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, reflects Jefferson's years in France, where he studied European architecture, both contemporary and ancient
National Park Service photo

Monticello, home of President Thomas Jefferson, is today a National Historic Landmark reflecting the versatility and genius of its creator. Jefferson was born at Shadwell in Goochland (now Albermarle) County, Virginia, in 1743 and graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1762. Ten years later Jefferson married Martha (Wayles) Skelton, the widow of Bathurst Skelton, with whom he had six children although only two lived to adulthood. Jefferson served in the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1769 to 1775, the Virginia House of Delegates from 1776 to 1779, was a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1775-1776 and the chief author of the Declaration of Independence. Elected Governor of Virginia in 1779, he served until 1781. Jefferson was Minister of France from 1785 to 1789, the first Secretary of State of the United States from 1790 to 1793, Vice President to John Adams, and the third President of the United States, elected in 1800 and reelected in 1804. In 1814 Jefferson drafted the bill which resulted in the establishment of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville in 1819. Jefferson played a key role in developing that institution and designed the plans for many of its buildings.

Drawing of Monticello
Photo from the National Historic Landmarks collection

Jefferson began building Monticello, his "Little Mountain," from his own design in 1770 and by 1775 had completed the western part, including a two-tiered portico. Between 1796 and 1809 Jefferson enlarged Monticello, making it an example of classical design adapted to its environment. Jefferson's careful symmetry had a far-reaching influence in developing the Federal style of architecture. Monticello, as it finally took shape during the second building campaign (1793-1809), clearly reflects Jefferson's years in France. The low horizontal appearance of a single story, interlocked in the center by the spherical mass of the dome, is strongly reminiscent of the river front of the Hôtel de Salm in Paris. Jefferson, influenced by the great buildings he had observed in Europe, both modern and ancient, retained the original main room with its octagonal end and portico, and the flanking rooms with their octagonal bays. He eliminated the entrance hall and stairs, and extended the outer walls of the old hall to more then twice their original length. Ultimately, with other additions, the whole house was deepened by more than twice its original area.

The interior of Monticello is distinguished by beautiful woodwork and holds many examples of Jefferson's ingenuity. Jefferson designed dumbwaiters, disappearing beds, a duplicate-writing machine, the forerunner of the one-arm lunch chair, folding doors and other apparatuses, which are still evident at Monticello today. A classical example of American architecture, Monticello contains 35 rooms, including 12 in the basement. The west façade, most familiar to the public, looks out upon a large lawn bordered by a flower garden. Except for absences necessitated by his public service, Jefferson remained here until his death on July 4, 1826.

[photo] It was from Monticello that President Jefferson sent a confidential letter to Congress, asking them to finance a trek up the Missouri River and beyond--to the Pacific Ocean--to explore the American West
National Park Service photo
It was from Monticello, on January 18, 1803, that President Jefferson sent a confidential letter to Congress, asking for $2,500 to finance a trek to the American West--up the Missouri River and beyond to the Pacific Ocean--a journey of discovery that would become the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Meriweather Lewis was a familiar presence in Jefferson's home, being a near neighbor and later the secretary to the President. In 1792, as a teenager, Lewis heard about Jefferson's proposal to the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia to outfit an adventurer to explore the American continent, and he volunteered but was deterred by Jefferson. Ultimately Jefferson chose André Michaux, a French botanist, for the mission, which ran into diplomatic entanglements and was called off. Jefferson recalled that the young Lewis "warmly solicited me to obtain for him the execution of that object." A decade later Jefferson did choose Lewis to lead his expedition.

At Monticello Jefferson created a double-story Entrance Hall in which he planned to display some of Lewis and Clark's exhibits sent back from their journey. This hall held maps of the world, European sculptures and paintings, and examples of items found in the New World. Lewis and Clark sent several boxes and barrels back east in the summer of 1805 containing animal skins, bones, and horns, as well as American Indian objects. These arrived in Washington D.C. in August, while Jefferson was at Monticello were he wrote to Etienne Lemaire on August 17, 1805:

The barrel, boxes, & cases from Baltimore mentioned in your letter contain skins, furs, horns, bones, seeds, vases & some other articles. Being apprehensive that the skins & furs may be suffering I would wish you to take them out, have them well dried & brushed, and then done up close in strong linen to keep the worm-fly out. As I do not know in what packages they ate, it will be necessary for you to open them all & take out the skins & furs, leaving everything else in their cases . . .

Unfortunately, the fate of Jefferson's collection of American Indian objects, which disappeared after his death, remains unknown. Many of Lewis and Clark's items found on their expedition ended up at the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia. Because of Jefferson's pivotal role and personal interest in the expedition, Monticello was chosen to host the first signature event of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in January 2003.

Monticello, a National Historic Landmark, is located in the Virginia Piedmont about two miles southeast of Charlottesville, Virginia, off of State Rte. 53. Open daily 8:00am to 5:00pm March-October, 9:00am to 4:30pm November-February, closed Christmas Day. Tours of the house and gardens available March-October. House tours offered daily; seasonal outdoor tours offered March-October. There is a fee for admission. Call 434-984-9822 or visit the website for further information. Monticello is also a designated World Heritage Site. You can also download (in pdf) the Monticello National Historic Landmark nomination.

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