In another post, I shared my discovery and enjoyment of Virginia wine country – in that post I mentioned how Virginia is for wine lovers. Now it is time to focus on the awesome history that I discovered on that weekend in the Virginia Piedmont – why I think Virginia is for history lovers too!
University of Virginia
The weekend trip was anchored around Charlottesvile, VA, home of the University of Virginia, a fine higher education institution (one of the best public universities in the U.S.) with sometimes a great basketball team. The university was founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, 3rd POTUS and a learned man in his time for sure. The university is the only U.S. university to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That makes it a must-see for its historic and architectural value.
The university campus is very close to downtown Charlottesville and sports many buildings with columns. Many buildings with many columns. Jefferson liked columns. And octagons. UVA’s builders over the centuries may have over-emphasized the importance of columns just a tad too much…
In any case, it is a very nice campus. My favorite part though was the quadrangle or courtyard by the iconic main building on campus – the area known as The Lawn, headed by the Rotunda, inspired and built to half the scale of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy. The buildings around The Lawn have tons of columns… One of the students told us how students apply to get to live in one of the rooms in the courtyard (a privilege) and how professors are also honored when selected to live in a space there. Of course, the professors’ digs are WAY nicer than the students’ but who cares, right?
As nice as the University of Virginia is, it pales next to the majesty of the homestead Thomas Jefferson built for himself: Monticello. Jefferson decided to build this homestead on a hill he knew from his childhood. The hilltop was flattened and over a period of many decades, and Jefferson built his home there. Assignments like Ambassador to France and the Presidency did not stop the progress on Monticello. Jefferson eventually died there, in the beauty of this estate.
We drove over from Charlottesville (Monticello is right on the outskirts of town) early on a Saturday AM to beat any crowds and make the most of our day in the area. We made it just in time for the 9:30AM house tour. A shuttle bus took us up the hill from the visitor center and the tour promptly started. (By the way, the visitor center has a museum and a short movie that should be checked out.)
The tour takes you through the main level of the house. The upper levels (2 more) are not accessible to the public and the basement is open to tour on your own, as are the rest of the grounds.
The house is set up pretty much as it had been during Jefferson’s time even if not all the objects are original. Jefferson died bankrupt and the family’s possessions were sold along the way to raise funds. Jefferson did get to live in that house until his death at an old age with his daughter and her family (Jefferson had widowed a long time before). Seeing his studio with the items of interest to him, his bed between the study and his bedroom, and the other living spaces was very special. It was incredible how this man of the 18th century was so clever in the design of everything in this house. My favorite was the wine “elevator” that would get bottles up from the wine cellar to the dining room. I can imagine how impressed his guests were whenever he pulled that trick!
Jefferson was smart about the layout of every room in the house and under the house. The basement and the side structures were cleverly used to keep out of sight the activities the family did not wish to see from inside the house. But also to take advantage of the coolness of being below ground: like for the kitchen or wine making!
So the home is a special place indeed but the grounds are equally so. Unfortunately, some of the structures that used to be around the grounds are no longer there to fully serve as witness to how life was back then in an estate, including how slaves and other workers lived. But, with the grounds completely open, the views are incredible. Especially on this fall day.
A short walk downhill, you can see from the outside the plot where the family and its descendants tend to be buried. It gives an incredible feeling to stand there and think about our nation’s very short modern history and yet how ancient Jefferson’s times feel.
Monticello is a testament to a great man of his times even if all that he was may not fit our times. Jefferson made the most of what was available in his times and his legacy lives on at Monticello, at the University of Virginia, and in the good ole US of A via that marvel of a document, the Declaration of Independence.