Great Estates: Ash Lawn-Highland in Charlottesville, Virginia

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

The onset of crisp autumn air can only mean one thing: apple season is finally here, making it a great time to head to the Piedmont region of Virginia, where dozens of varieties of apples are ripe for the picking.  And while you’re there, why not take in a helping of Virginia’s history?  You can do both on Carters Mountain in Charlottesville, home to the Carter Mountain Orchard, Jefferson’s Monticello, and Ash Lawn-Highland, the 535-acre farm estate of fifth US president, James Monroe.

Situated just two miles from Monticello, Ash Lawn-Highland was built between 1793 and 1799 on a site personally selected by Thomas Jefferson for his dear friend and colleague Monroe. The Monroe family lived on the estate for twenty years until financial troubles forced them to sell; while there, they continuously added to the house and grounds, constantly referring to it as their “castle cabin.”  The typical farmhouse extends into a hillside in order to keep the lower-level stone kitchen cool during warm Virginia summers.

In the 1880s, subsequent owners added a two-story Victorian wing to a portion of the house that had been damaged by fire around 1840.  Jay Winston Johns, a preservation enthusiast from Pittsburgh, purchased the property in 1930, and opened it to the public.  The College of William and Mary-Monroe’s alma mater-has been maintaining the property since Johns’s death in 1974.

Although the house appears to be an all-American dwelling from the outside, the interior is furnished with a mixture of French, English, and American furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries.  The Monroes imported many French Empire objects, including a set of chairs recently restored wood and upholstered and an ebonized mantel clock with gold ormolu detailing.  A bust of Napoleon created by the French sculptor Antoine-Denis Chaudet was given to Monroe by Napoleon himself; it remains in the collection today and can be found in the drawing room.  The bedroom features an American high-post mahogany bed with a feather and palm motif, while American pieces throughout the house were clearly inspired by the work of Duncan Phyfe.  A set of hand carved Federal chairs surrounds a Hepplewhite dining table in the dining room.  A children’s room, carpeted in the popular tapestry weave pattern by Aubusson, was added in 1816.

Much of the working plantation remains, including the original smokehouse, an icehouse, a formal garden, a vegetable garden, and fields that were once planted with tobacco, corn, and wheat.  Visitors can also explore reconstructed slave quarters and the overseer’s cottage, which is possibly the oldest structure on the property. On the grounds, which are framed with English boxwood, a large white oak tree—twenty feet in circumference—has provided shade on the lawn since Monroe’s time.

Ash Lawn-Highland is located at 1000 James Monroe Parkway, in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The house museum is open year round from 11 am-5 pm, with extended hours from April-October, 9 am-6 pm.  Admission is $10; discounts are available for seniors, children, and locals. For more information, call (434) 293-8000 or visit