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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
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Historic Sites and Buildings

National Historic Landmark Monticello

Albemarle County, just off Va. 53, about 2 miles southeast of Charlottesville.

"Monticello," Italian for "Little Mountain," is an enduring tribute to the genius and versatility of Thomas Jefferson, who personally designed and supervised erection of the splendid mansion. He resided in it for many years of his long life, his spirit lives on in its architectural perfection and the ingenious devices with which he equipped it, and he is buried nearby. Sitting amid pleasant gardens and lawns on a hilltop, the residence overlooks Charlottesville; the University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded and some of whose buildings he designed; and the green rolling hills of the surrounding countryside. Until his death, at the age of 83 on July 4, 1826, the prominent men of his age made pilgrimages to Monticello. To this day it is visited by the humble, as well as the great—all who admire Jefferson's character and accomplishments.

In 1757 Jefferson's father bequeathed the property, consisting of some 1,053 acres, to him. Eleven years later, while in his early twenties, he began leveling the hilltop, which at the time was considered to be a highly unconventional site for a home, and constructing a road-path system to link all parts of the plantation. In 1770 fire destroyed his modest, nearby residence and birthplace, Shadwell, and he moved to Monticello, where he had already begun building a mansion. The first part of it completed was the small south pavilion (1769-70), which he occupied as a bachelor's quarters until January 1772, when he brought his bride, Martha Wayles Skelton, to share it with him. It is still known as "Honeymoon Cottage."

The first Monticello, vastly different from the present one, was begun in 1770 and basically completed by 1779. Constructed of red brick, and trimmed with white cut stone, it consisted of a central two-story unit, which had a pedimented gable roof, at the sides of which were 1-1/2-story wings whose gabled roofs were perpendicular to the central unit. The chief architectural accent was the main two-story portico, Doric below and Ionic above. Small polygonal bays projected from the ends of the wings. Just after the War for Independence, Jefferson made numerous alterations and major changes.

Monticello (National Park Service.)

The present two-wing structure, built in stages between 1793 and 1809, incorporates the original rooms of the house on the west, or garden-rear, side. The design, modeled on the Hotel de Salm in Paris, reflects Jefferson's shift in architectural preference from Georgian to Roman Revival, elements of both of which are represented. He was almost entirely responsible for starting the Roman Revival movement in the United States.

The mansion consists of 2-1/2 stories over a basement and contains 35 rooms. The dominating exterior features are the Doric-columned east and west porticoes, which feature fanlighted pediments; the central dome just behind the west portico; the balustrade crowning the second floor; the Chinese Chippendale railing on the top level; the set-back upper half story; and four interior chimneys. Behind the east portico the half-windows of the low second story are set near the floor immediately above the lintels of the first-floor windows.

The rooms on the first floor are grouped around the large, two story entrance hall, which is partly surrounded by a balcony connecting the second-story rooms. Chambers of special interest on the lower level include Jefferson's bedroom, in which he died; library; glassed-in piazza; dining room; and the semioctagonal parlor, behind the entrance hall and opening on the west portico. Two steep and narrow staircases, concealed in alcoves off the lateral halls, provide access to the upper levels, including the dome room.

The house is furnished largely with Jefferson belongings, including a replica of the small portable desk on which he probably wrote the Declaration of Independence. The exhibits in the entrance hall are of special interest. Some of the clever devices in the residence are a 7-day calendar-clock and a dumbwaiter. The drawing room contains one of the first parquet floors in the United States. The upper levels are not shown to the public.

Jefferson's directions for the monument at his tomb
Jefferson's directions for the monument at his tomb. (Library of Congress.)

Before Jefferson built Monticello, every plantation had a group of small outbuildings such as the laundry, smokehouse, dairy, stable, weaving house, schoolhouse, and kitchen. Jefferson sought to render these as inconspicuous as possible and increase the efficiency of the facilities they provided by constructing two series of rooms for these purposes dug into the sides of the hill beneath two long L-shaped terraces extending from the house. Below the south terrace, beyond the angle of the ell, are the kitchen, the cook's room servants' rooms, room for smoking meat, and the dairy. At the end of this terrace, on the aboveground level, stands "Honeymoon Cottage."

Under the far side of the north terrace are the stables, carriage house, icehouse, and laundry. Jefferson used the small building terminating this terrace, adjacent to which is the paddock, as an office. An underground passageway—containing storage rooms for wine, beer, cider, and rum—connects the basement of the main house with the series of service rooms along the outer sides of the ells. Jefferson is buried in the family graveyard, which is adjacent to the road leading from the house. Still visible are remains of his "roundabouts," or paths, which were built at various levels on the hillside and were part of the road network.

Upon Jefferson's death in 1826, his daughter Martha inherited Monticello, but was soon forced to sell it, to the first of a series of private owners. In 1923 the newly organized Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation purchased the estate, the following year opened it to the public, and has retained ownership to the present day.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004