Poplar Forest: Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Sanctuary | Lifestyles

“When finished, it will be the best dwelling house in the State, except that of Monticello; perhaps preferable to that, because more proportionate to the faculties of a simple citizen. -Thomas Jefferson

Nearly ten years ago, during a stay in Roanoke, Virginia, we discovered a villa designed, built and enjoyed by Thomas Jefferson during and after his presidency. We had previously visited Monticello, Jefferson’s primary residence near Charlottesville, but had no idea he had designed and built a villa as an occasional escape from the bustle of Monticello and the seemingly endless stream of visitors. The next day we headed an hour east of Roanoke to visit Jefferson’s retreat, Poplar Forest.

Extensive work on the house was underway at the time of our visit. While the exterior appeared to be in good condition, the interior had undergone extensive alterations by subsequent owners after Jefferson’s death and was in an intermediate stage of restoration. We found the Poplar Forest and its history quite interesting and after returning home to South Georgia we talked about returning to the historic villa one day. It wasn’t until last June on a road trip along Blue Ridge Parkway that we were able to reconnect with Jefferson’s retirement.

The isolated 4,819-acre plantation on which Jefferson would build his villa had been inherited by his wife, Martha, upon the death of her father in 1773. At the time, the plantation included 11 slaves and was named for the many poplars in the surrounding forest.

Construction of the one-story villa was started in 1805, at the start of Jefferson’s second presidential term when he sent a Monticello employee to Poplar Forest to begin making bricks. At the time, Jefferson had been a widower for over two decades. Actual construction atop a small hill began the following year with brick walls and a roof frame completed in 1807. Windows, floors, columns, and toilets were completed the following year, and Jefferson began using the house in 1809, before it was completed.

The villa and surrounding landscape, each designed by Jefferson, a self-taught architect who oversaw the construction of Poplar Forest, demonstrate the owner’s preference for symmetry, octagons, and designs experienced during his travels in Europe. The house is an equal-sided octagon with a main floor consisting of four elongated octagonal rooms surrounding a 20-foot cube housing the dining area accented by a large skylight. The entrance to the villa is through the north portico and through a passage leading to the dining room. The south-facing lounge/library is enhanced by sunlight from two large bay windows either side of an exterior glass door. Rooms on the east and west sides of the house served as bedrooms (Jefferson on the west), each divided down the middle with an alcove bed.

A lower level of the villa, visible only from the rear (south) is similar in layout to the ground floor and was used for storage and as living space for slave and free laborers. A service wing projecting from the east side of the house housed a kitchen, laundry room, smoking room and a room probably used for storage. A unique octagonal brick lavatory sits an appropriate distance on either side of the house, requiring occupants to take an uncomfortable walk on cold nights. Jefferson had his own private restroom on the lower level of the villa.

After two terms as president, Jefferson would make the two-to-three-day trip to Poplar Forest three or four times a year for stays of up to two months. The plantation then housed nearly 100 slaves and served as a source of income for Jefferson, mainly from growing tobacco. His last visit was in 1823 when he helped grandson Francis Eppes and the d’Eppes family move into the villa. Jefferson, who would die three years later, planned that Eppes would raise his family in Poplar Forest. However, two years after Jefferson’s death, the grandson sold the plantation and moved to Florida. The house would subsequently suffer a major fire in 1845, go through several owners and undergo extensive alterations before being acquired in 1983 by the Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, a non-profit organization whose goal is to restore and to tell the personal story of Thomas Jefferson. retreat.

We found Poplar Forest considerably more intimate than Jefferson’s Monticello. The Poplar Forest villa is considerably smaller and sees fewer visitors (about a tenth of Monticello’s visitor numbers), resulting in a more personal experience. On our last visit, we were fortunate enough to visit Mary Massie, the facility’s Director of Programs and Education, who has worked at Poplar Forest for over a dozen years. Public tours led by a docent on the first floor last 45 minutes to an hour and are offered four times a day from mid-March to the end of December, depending on docent availability. Other elements of the poplar forest, including extensive exhibits on the lower level of the villa and a slave dwelling site, are accessible for self-guided tours. Visitors can explore the property at their own pace using a cell phone audio tour. Winter weekend tours are offered from mid-January to mid-March.

Our return to Poplar Forest was as rewarding as expected. On the first visit, we explored Jefferson’s Villa in childlike wonder. After returning home from that trip, we talked about what a delightful surprise it would have been to have wandered into the living room to find a living Thomas Jefferson. In our imaginations, Jefferson looked up from the pages of a book with a welcoming smile and asked if we would like a glass of wine. The rest of the afternoon would be spent with the former President and author of the Declaration of Independence captivating us with his experiences in the creation of our country. This didn’t happen on our return visit, of course, but as we walked around the villa, we seemed to feel the spirit of Jefferson in this special place he loved so much.

The organization’s excellent website www.poplarforest.org should answer most questions and includes a list of special events. A link offers a virtual tour of the villa with Mary Massie. A fascinating villa tour via drone is available on YouTube.

David and Kay Scott are the authors of the “Complete Guide to National Park Lodges”. They live in Valdosta, Georgia.

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