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Jefferson's retirement retreat restored

Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest plantation retreat has unveiled its $6 million, 20-year architectural restoration to the third president's original vision as a private place to read, think and spend time with his grandchildren after he retired.
Image: Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest plantation
Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest plantation retreat in Forest, Va.Steve Helber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest plantation retreat has unveiled its $6 million, 20-year architectural restoration to the third president's original vision as a private place to read, think and spend time with his grandchildren after he retired.

The octagon-shaped neoclasssical home painstakingly designed by Jefferson had been converted to a typical farmhouse some years after Jefferson's grandson sold it in 1828. Now visitors can view it as Jefferson did when he began his sojourns there 200 years ago, after the end of his two-term presidency, visits that would continue until 1823.

"The restoration of the building and grounds is as important to the larger legacy of our complex heritage as any ever undertaken, including those of Monticello and (George Washington's plantation) Mount Vernon," said Jefferson historian Roger G. Kennedy, director emeritus of the National Museum of American History.

Poplar Forest was Jefferson's much-needed secluded getaway from Monticello, his better-known mountaintop home near Charlottesville where friends and admirers continued to visit the writer of the Declaration of Independence and Founding Father after the end of his presidency.

"I have fixed myself comfortably, keep some books here, bring others occasionally, am in the solitude of a hermit, and quite at leisure to attend to my absent friends," Jefferson wrote in 1811 of his Bedford County home to Benjamin Rush, also a Founding Father.

While Jefferson was a congenial host, he still craved his personal time and space. He visited Poplar Forest three to four times a year, staying two weeks to two months at a time at the plantation, a working tobacco and wheat farm with 94 slaves at the time of his death.

"When he was at Monticello, he was always seeking privacy," said Travis McDonald, Poplar Forest's director of architectural restoration. "If Jefferson told people where this place was, people would follow him."

While the two homes are architecturally similar — both were heavily influenced by 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio and built by the same crews — Monticello is more complex and was a public space occupied by family members, servants and visiting friends, while the isolated Poplar Forest provides a portal into the life of Jefferson, the private man.

"Poplar Forest is one man reading and writing," McDonald said as he stood in the home's parlor. "No sound here, unless Jefferson picks up his violin."

That's unless he was playing host to occasional visitors, including two of his granddaughters, Cornelia and Ellen Randolph, who frequently traveled from their home at Monticello for extended stays with their grandfather.

"He was most desirous that we should find congenial occupations, and we had books, drawing materials, embroidery and never felt time heavy on our hands. He interested himself in all we did, thought, or read," Ellen Randolph Coolidge wrote in a letter to a Jefferson biographer in 1856. "He would talk to us about his own youth and early friends, and tell us stories about his former days. He seemed really to take as much pleasure in these conversations with us, as if we had been older, wiser people."

Historians presume that Jefferson chose to build his retirement retreat at Poplar Forest — 90 miles southwest and a three-day ride by horse and carriage from Monticello — over several plantations he owned, perhaps because of its remoteness and location on the cusp of the nation's frontier, McDonald said.

The plantation originally spanned more than 4,800 acres, and in 1806 Jefferson began construction of the home atop a hill with a view of the forest and the twin Peaks of Otter at a time when many Americans didn't know what lay beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Two centuries later, the property now is partly surrounded by subdivisions, land and homes that the Corporation for Jefferson's Poplar Forest wants to gradually acquire so it can restore the area around the home. It has spent $8.5 million to reclaim more than 600 acres since 1984, and hopes to continue to create more open space, according to Lynn Beebe, the nonprofit's president.

Jefferson was intrigued architecturally by octagons because of their symmetry and the light such structures allowed to enter inside. He incorporated the eight-sided figure into portions of Monticello and several other buildings he designed, but Poplar Forest is believed to be the nation's first fully octagonal house.

Numerous windows allow natural light inside and integrate the interior with the outside landscape — a design feature uncommon of American houses of that era. A 100-foot-long wing housed a kitchen, storage room and smokehouse, and the wing's flat roof served an outdoor patio of sorts where Jefferson wrote that he would "sally out with the owls and bats."

Anchoring the house is the dining room, now restored to its former 20-by-20-by-20-foot cubic dimensions. Renovators took out attic space that private owners had added, and reinstalled a 16-foot skylight. The room features a reproduction octagonal table and a dumbwaiter, and the walls are bordered with moldings that alternate the face of Apollo and a bull's skull, which Jefferson's sculptor questioned as being aesthetically improper.

"But in a letter to the sculptor, he says he's going to play with the rules because it's a private house," McDonald said. "He wants to indulge his fancy."

Four octagonal rooms surround the dining room, including the parlor where Jefferson kept more than 900 books and spent much of his time reading alone or with his grandchildren. That room features floor-to-ceiling, triple-sash windows and opens to a four-columned portico overlooking the south lawn, which in Jefferson's days included a sunken garden he designed in the European style. Poplar Forest's landscape restoration will begin sometime this year.

The northeast and east rooms of the home remain unfinished, to allow visitors to see how Jefferson's workers framed and constructed the house and how restorers discovered the original home's "footprint."

Jefferson struggled with debt in his final years, and willed Poplar Forest to grandson Francis Eppes in order to remove it from his estate.

He died in 1826 thinking Eppes would settle down and raise a family at his beloved retreat, but two years later Eppes sold the house and nearly 1,000 acres to a neighbor at about a quarter of the property's assessed value, then moved with his wife, baby daughter and slaves to Florida, McDonald said.

But before that, Poplar Forest certainly was treasured by both Jefferson and his grandchildren, as Ellen Randolph Coolidge recounted in a letter:

"My grandfather was very happy during these sojourns in a comparatively simple and secluded district — far from noise and news — of both of which he got too much at Monticello; and we, his grand-daughters, were very happy too. It was a pleasant change for us, a variety in life and manners. We saw, too, more of our dear grandfather at those times than at any other."