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Jeffersonian journeys:

By By Terry Robe
For the Sunday Gazette-Mail
Built as a perfect octagon, Poplar Forest was President Thomas Jefferson’s private retreat.
President Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Plantation is just four hours from Charleston.
The Monticello gift shop is filled with Thomas Jefferson souvenirs.
This iron auger bit and hammer head were excavated from the Monticello joinery.
Jeffrey Nichols, former executive director of Mark Twain House, in Hartford, Conn., became president and CEO of Poplar Forest in 2012. “The next phase really is to open ourselves up to the world,” he says.

Virginia has no Jefferson County.

It had one from 1780 to 1792, when that county and many others became part of the new state of Kentucky.

Virginia created a second Jefferson County in 1801, but in 1863 it went with the rest of West Virginia.

There’s also a Jefferson Rock in West Virginia, in Harpers Ferry, where the author of the Declaration of Independence stood in 1783 (on a trip home while serving as minister to France).

He later wrote about the spot:

“For the mountains being cloven asunder, she [nature, that is] presents to your eye, through the cleft, a small catch of smooth blue horizon, at an infinite distance in that plain country, inviting you, as it were, from the riot and tumult roaring around to pass through the breach and participate in the calm below.”

Not only as Americans, then, but as West Virginians, there is a certain obligation to celebrate our third president’s 271st birthday.

April 13 is a Sunday this year, so it’s easy to make a weekend of it.

Jefferson’s Monticello plantation and the University of Virginia, both of which he designed, are in Charlottesville, about four hours from Charleston. In 1987, they jointly became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

An amateur architect of genius, Jefferson also designed the Virginia Capitol in Richmond. He kept one equally fascinating building to himself: Poplar Forest, his retreat outside Lynchburg where construction began in 1806.

Coming up the long, single-lane drive to Poplar Forest, the four white columns of the north portico, framed in brick, bring to mind a miniature Monticello.

Both structures were based on villa designs by the 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, well known to Jefferson from books. But unlike its famous Charlottesville sibling, Poplar Forest is a perfect octagon.

Among the features that impress visitors to Monticello is Jefferson’s French-inspired alcove bed, just long enough for someone 6-foot-2. Set in the center of his bedchamber-cabinet (or study), it elegantly boxed him in at the head, the foot and above, giving him left and right options every morning.

Poplar Forest had two similar alcove beds in two bedrooms, mirrorlike, on either side of a central dining room shaped like a cube: 20 feet long, 20 feet wide and 20 feet high.

To keep from ruining the roofline symmetry of four chimneys with a fifth, the flue from the dining room fireplace ran horizontally through the wall to vent into a chimney connected to other fireplaces. This hard-to-clean flue is believed to have caused a disastrous fire in 1845, after ownership had passed from Jefferson’s family.

Since acquiring the much-altered house in 1983, along with 50 of the original 4,819 acres, the nonprofit Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest has been knee-deep in research and restoration.

White walls await paint, paper and moldings (some of the rooms will be left in their brick-and-beam state). Trees have been removed and others planted on the grounds, now covering 1,617 acres. There are orientation and education buildings, and the 1814 “wing of offices” was reconstructed in 2009.

It takes just over an hour to drive from Lynchburg to Charlottesville. In Jefferson’s day, the 90-mile journey between his two plantations took two days or more.

Jefferson spent a few weeks at Poplar Forest three or four times a year, to look after the tobacco and wheat crops that were his main source of income (he lived beyond his means his entire adult life) and to get away from a houseful of grandchildren, social callers and early-19th-century celebrity seekers.

If Jefferson were alive today, he’d need a retreat from the thousands of tourists and schoolchildren that visit Monticello annually. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which took over in 1923, now has facilities to accommodate them — theater, museum, “discovery room,” café and shop — and runs a shuttle bus to the house.

Monticello is Jefferson’s brick-and-mortar autobiography. He started clearing the land on his “little mountain,” building Monticello I (two stories, eight rooms), in his mid-20s. After his return from France came Monticello II (three stories, 21 rooms), an expansion that replaced the second story with a mezzanine floor and an octagonal dome. The entrance hall became a sort of museum, with paintings, maps, busts, antlers, fossilized mastodon bones and American Indian objects acquired by Lewis & Clark (most now on view are reproductions).

The house faces a west lawn — flat as an oval platter — enclosed by L-shaped wings called “dependencies” that open onto the next level down of the hillside.

Stepping outside, you are in a semi-restored landscape of flower, vegetable and botanical gardens and vineyards, surrounded by forests and hills. In between, on the south side, is the mostly vanished Mulberry Row, where many enslaved craftspeople worked.

About 200 enslaved blacks lived at Monticello and Poplar Forest — roughly two-thirds at Monticello — working in the fields and as servants and skilled laborers.

Genetic evidence of sexual relations between Jefferson and enslaved maid Sally Hemings, announced in 1998, got the sometimes heated attention of historians and the public. (During his lifetime, Jefferson was accused of fathering children with Hemings and this is now generally accepted.)

Monticello and Poplar Forest have carried out and incorporated a good deal of research on these enslaved families and on Jefferson’s attitude toward slavery.

His writings on the topic are contradictory in themselves, not to mention with his actions.

Though it looks like a children’s book, graphic artist Maira Kalman’s “Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything” pulls no punches: “If you want to understand this country and its people and what it means to be optimistic and complex and tragic and wrong and courageous, you need to go to Monticello.”

Terry Robe is a free-lance writer on travel and the arts. Email Robe at

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