We picture Monticello when we think of Thomas Jefferson. What does it mean to us today, and how has its meaning shifted over time? As Jefferson-statesman, farmer, scientist, bibliophile, politician, and architect-helped to forge a new country based on new ideals, his plantation in Virginia’s gentle piedmont became his architectural crucible.
The Palladio-inspired Monticello has long occupied a monumental place in the American mind. It “shines alone in this secluded spot,” the Marquis de Chastellux observed on his 1782 visit. We remember our first visits to the mountaintop, recalling the great clock powered by cannonball-like weights in the hall, the dramatic dome, the underground passage, and the white-columned porticos. Much has changed and is changing, all to more accurately reveal the Monticello known by Jefferson rather than the Monticello we carry in our minds, reinforced by the Jefferson nickels in our pockets.
Constant historical study and modern analytical restoration efforts preserve and renew the house and landscape. The great clock still ticks, but a tin-coated stainless steel, shingle-covered dome now replicates the tin-coated rolled-iron shingles first installed on the North Pavilion roof in 1821 and later on the dome itself. The East Portico columns are now sand-painted in harmony with the landscape, Jefferson had them; and the original sand-colored rendering on the West Portico columns will soon be visible again after more than 150 years and twenty coats of white paint. Livelier verdigris has replaced the green-tinged black blinds, and louvered Venetian porches adjoin Jefferson’s private suite.
The dining room glows with chrome yellow-painted walls rather than a post-Jefferson blue, and original Jefferson belongings continue to find their way back home. The kitchen, like the other work spaces in the dependencies below the house, is restored. After thirty years of study, Jefferson’s 1809 mountaintop road scheme will soon be reinstated.
Equally important is the emphasis on a broader historical context, shared on-site and online, of Jefferson’s daughters and grandchildren among the hundreds who lived and worked at Monticello, free and enslaved. John Hemmings, for example, crafted fine furniture, made the arch in Jefferson’s “Book Room,” and likely prepared Jefferson’s coffin. Virginia and Cornelia Randolph, two adult granddaughters, brought old furniture to the West Portico pediment to create a private attic “cuddy” for reading and writing.
Research, restoration, and conversation make history dynamic. The experience of Monticello is now more nuanced and comprehensive. Jefferson is not merely the ancient champion of the rights of man who expressed our noblest ideals; he and Monticello serve as a lens into the early American republic as well as a measure of our present. We still look to Jefferson to understand ourselves and our culture. Monticello has become the place to grapple with the legacy of an imperfect past and to contemplate our highest aspirations. Its ongoing restoration enhances this vital dialogue.
Susan R. Stein
Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia