A rainy and foggy Tuesday of Thanksgiving week was the perfect reason for a road trip south to check out some very valuable real estate and to hear history in the (re) making.
Many will know that Virginians dominated the early years of America and you can, over the course of a longish day, visit the home places of any number of presidents. Yesterday we popped in to see world-famous Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson and Montpelier, the estate of James and Dolley Madison. They are a study in contrasts as currently presented.
Monticello was seriously socked in by heavy fog so no stunning view of the Blue Ridge, but don’t despair since the lack of an exterior distraction makes the building and its interior, the center of the visual universe.
Were you just to visit Monticello you would, of course, be captivated by the architectural accomplishments and the collection of objects that Jefferson used both for inspiration and instruction. Jefferson famously surrounded himself with books (and wine.) We had a fine guide who worked in several stories of life in the Jefferson house with a man who, over 40 years, was constantly tearing up and rebuilding the place, leaving the entire roof exposed over the winter and placing loose boards down as flooring so that occupants would fall into the basement. It’s a nice house but one leaves unsure if it was worth all the bother.
They have a rather new visitor center that is “Arts and Crafts meets Aspen Ski Lodge” which will have you looking for the hot tub and the chair lift. See the film at the theatre–it’s worth the time. It is frank about Jefferson’s philosophical underpinnings, his literary achievements, his moral failings around slavery and his relationship with Sally Hemings. Great men are complex and rife with human realness that we love to obscure as we seek to make them ever greater.
Oh, and let’s not forget lunch. Michie Tavern is five minutes from Monticello. I’m from West Virginia so my eyes lit up upon learning that it was a buffet with fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, cole slaw, hot biscuits, and for dessert, peach cobbler and vanilla ice cream. Need we say more?
And then off to Montpelier, the lifetime home of James Madison and his effervescent wife and first lady, Dolley. Montpelier is just about 30 miles northeast of Monticello but architecturally, more like a thousand, with an amusing history of its own.
Montpelier was purchased by the DuPont family decades ago and the 6,000 sq ft “original” structure was doubled in size to 12,000 and coated with pink stucco. (Money does not guarantee taste.) The property was willed back to a foundation and the last many years have seen the de-construction of the contemporary “improvements” to once again reveal a structure which is thought to be 85% original.
The house during much of James Madison’s life was actually a duplex where his parents lived on one side and he and Dolley lived on the other. There was no interior connection so visiting the in-laws meant going out on the veranda and knocking on their door. Brilliant.
The renovation, mostly completed just a few years ago, cost millions and the result is amazing. The interior is a series of cozy and comfy rooms that are rather sparsely furnished at this stage. Like the Lincoln Cottage in Washington, DC, the lack of interior furnishings and art somehow lends to the sense of the greatness of the place. And, for those fascinated by the elements of “Golden Era” building construction, they have a room upstairs which exposes walls and floors in order to see the building’s sturdy bones.
Alas, we were regaled with the story of James Madison as the very center and hero of the US Constitutional universe where George Mason and John Jay are no where in sight. We were told that Madison loved to invite guests to dinner so he could indoctrinate them with his opinions and beliefs. I now know how they must have felt, though I left a bit hungry.
A day of history and two great buildings not be missed.