We all need a place. A place to retreat. A place to mull over our innermost thoughts. To put it simply, a place to think. It can be a corner of our hearts, a corner of a room, a space in our house, or a favorite clearing in the woods.
For the lucky few, that space can be a separate house in a different part of the country or the world, or a floating sanctuary on which to explore the navigable waters of the planet. Having had such a space in my life, I can tell you that as you approach it you feel a weight lifted from your shoulders and a recognizable ease of breath and heartbeat.
For Thomas Jefferson that place was called Poplar Forest.
It was the name of a plantation before it also became associated with a house. In 1773, Jefferson inherited 4,819 acres of land in Eastern Bedford County, Virginia along with 11 enslaved men, women, and children. On the outskirts of the then-unincorporated town of Lynchburg, Bedford was 93 miles from Monticello and would have been a wearying three-day trip. Therefore, Jefferson managed the enterprise from afar, relying on overseers to handle the day-to-day operations. The land, cultivated by enslaved labor, provided Jefferson with a steady stream of income.
While he was always most associated with Monticello, his primary architectural project and home in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1781 Poplar Forest literally saved Jefferson’s life. As the British army invaded Virginia, they planned to capture Jefferson at his mountain-top home. He had recently completed his term as Governor and had refused the opportunity to run again. The author of the Declaration of Independence would have been quite a prize, but Jefferson and his family escaped to the home of the overseer at Poplar Forest. There he literally retreated to safe surroundings. There he took the opportunity to compile the material for his one and only book, Notes on the State of Virginia.
It is not just a fact of modern-day tourism that associates Jefferson so closely with Monticello. By his second term as President, the house in Charlottesville saw a constant stream of visitors, from legitimate dignitaries, to jobseekers, to the nosy general public. He said that he was likely to look out his window while eating breakfast only to see a curiosity seeker looking back in.
The public invaded his privacy from without, and his family and friends from within. His daughter Martha, her husband and their 11 children lived there. Overnight guests were many and some who arrived with the intention of a short stay found the accommodations and the kitchen fare to their liking and stayed for weeks. The need to escape was clear and Poplar Forest, his retreat in war became the chosen path for his escape in peace.
But escape was not the only motivation for the construction of a retreat at Poplar Forest.
As noted in the introduction to the Chrysler Museum of Art exhibit, Thomas Jefferson, Architect, while renowned as a politician and statesman, “Thomas Jefferson was also one of the premier architects of the early United States.” Creators create and Jefferson’s ever-active mind was in perpetual motion towards the next project, the next idea, the next building.
Thomas Jefferson was influenced by his love of the concept of the Roman villa retreat. The villa was a country estate, a distance away from the principal residence, a place of tranquility and solitude, a place of pleasure and repose. It was a space in his museum of sculptures yet to be filled, a creation yet to be created.
The idea that a house at Poplar Forest could meet that vision occurred to him during a rainy visit in 1801 while confined to the overseer’s quarters with children and dogs. As summarized in the book, Poplar Forest, A Private Place, author Joan L. Horn states, “Given his need for privacy, his desire for an idyllic place, his love of architecture and landscape design, and his awareness of this place could offer him, it seems, upon reflection, inevitable.”
Construction began in 1806 during Jefferson’s second term in the White House. The advantage of a home in a remote location complicated the task of construction. Jefferson supervised the work from afar, sent many of the materials from Monticello, and either purchased others in Lynchburg or had them shipped there. The brick kiln was on site with Hugh Chisolm in charge. Structural woodwork was primarily the task of brothers John and Ruben Perry, and the materials were from the surrounding forest finished in a local mill.
The most skilled craftsman on the project was Jefferson’s slave John Hemmings. All of the finishing joinery is credited to this loyal and talented artisan. He had learned his trade in the Monticello joinery at the direction of Jefferson. He was Jefferson’s eyes and ears on the Poplar Forest site and his ability to read and write ensured that work was done true to Jefferson’s design. Fifteen of these letters have survived and document both the working and personal relationship between the two men. In many ways, this gem of American architecture was as much Hemmings as it was Jefferson’s.
Thomas Jefferson was largely self-taught in the science and art of architecture. He was particularly influenced by Andrea Palladio’s The Four Books of Architecture.
Again, Joan Horn tells us,
The design of the house at Poplar Forest is highly idealistic in its elegant geometry. Its exterior walls form a perfect, equal-sided octagon. Inside, the space is divided into four elongated octagons surrounding a central square. The simplicity of the floor plan displays Jefferson’s attraction to the precision of mathematics.
The central space in the house forms a perfect cube which measures 20 feet in each direction and is lit by what is thought to be the first skylight installed in a home in America. It is the dramatic and beautiful dining room of the finished house.
French-style floor to ceiling windows, classical entablature, marble fireplace surrounds, and elegant door pediments gave the house a neoclassical interior. Tuscan columns and the roof’s balustrade and Chinese rail finished the beautiful brick exterior with Roman villa detail.
Historian Gary Wills described it this way,
The whole site is Jefferson’s last dramatic marriage of classical art with the American wilderness…a masterpiece of Jefferson’s art and a revelation of his mind.
While elegant, you are immediately struck by the intimate size of the home. The 1,927 square feet of living space was scaled to accommodate the personal needs of Mr. Jefferson. This compares with 11,000 square feet of living space at Monticello. As Jefferson said in a letter to his son-in-law John Wayles Eppes in September of 1812,
When finished, it will be the best dwelling house in the state, except that of Monticello, perhaps preferable to that, as more proportioned to the faculties of a private citizen.
Reading, riding, and, beginning in 1816, enjoying the company of his grandchildren were the activities captured in Jefferson’s contemporary letters to friends and family. Two of Martha Jefferson Randolph’s daughters, Ellen and Cornelia were the most frequent visitors, and it is their correspondence and drawings that best capture the furnishings, habits, and joys of their grandfather at his Bedford retreat.
Jefferson’s other daughter, Maria Jefferson Eppes had died in 1804, and her son Francis received his education at New London Academy just three miles from Poplar Forest. He was also a frequent visitor in those school years and would eventually inherit the plantation from his grandfather.
It was on a spring day in 1823 that Thomas Jefferson departed from his beloved Poplar Forest for the last time. He had visited to assist Francis and (his wife of less than a year) Elizabeth to settle into their new home. It was doubtless an emotional farewell when he stepped into his carriage and bid adieu to the home, the land, and people who built this place and made its land prosper.
Three years later, Thomas Jefferson died at Monticello on July 4, 1826, and Francis inherited Poplar Forest and 1,074 acres of the plantation. The rest was sold to help pay Jefferson’s debts which were sizeable.
Farming the soil depleted by tobacco and suffering several bad weather seasons put Francis on the brink of financial ruin. In 1828 he sold the plantation for a fraction of its worth and moved to Florida.
The plantation passed through a succession of private owners for the next 156 years and survived a devastating house fire in 1845. Owing to its double brick construction, the basic octagonal structure of Poplar Forest survived.
In 1984, with one major gift as a down payment, a group of local residents formed the Corporation for Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest and acquired the house, fifty acres and an adjoining tract where developers had been preparing to build an encroaching residential subdivision. With the financial support of many, Poplar Forest opened to the public on July 4, 1986, the 210th anniversary of American Independence and the 160th anniversary of Mr. Jefferson’s death.
The archeology, hardscape, landscape, and painstaking research and restoration of 40 years has resulted in a masterpiece that awaits your visit. To accommodate that visit, a beautiful entrance parkway was completed and dedicated last year.
This gateway to the early nineteenth century curves through the beloved landscape that Mr. Jefferson observed on foot and on horseback during his years here. It rested his mind from the problems and challenges of the day.
The retreat sprung from Jefferson’s imagination, but his love of this place sprung from his love for the flora and fauna of the land. Literally this land.
So, the parkway is first a new gateway to the land that he loved. The road and the accompanying system of trails provide a welcoming access for the community and a chance to experience the four seasons of the Blue Ridge Region of the Commonwealth. The interpretive signage now provide the visitor with an introduction to both Thomas Jefferson and the people who made this land productive, who literally gave their lives to this place and made it prosper.
The recent completion of the restoration of the house presents another reason for you to visit. Under the direction of Travis C. McDonald, an architectural historian and Jefferson scholar of the first order, craftsmen used local materials, methods, and tools of the 18th century, to carefully re-fulfill the Jefferson vision at Poplar Forest. Crowning the joinery and entablature installation of the last several years, a premier historical painting firm has applied hand-mixed, carefully researched, period paints to the walls and trim of the house. The result is the ability to simultaneously step into the mind and the retreat of Mr. Jefferson.
In 2021, on the day of the dedication of the restored carriage turnaround (made possible by the generosity of the Garden Club of Virginia), Will Reiley of Reiley & Associates used an African Proverb to describe the long history of restoration at Poplar Forest. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Over 40 years many have contributed to what again stands as an architectural jewel of the Blue Ridge. The enslaved hands that gave Mr. Jefferson his lifestyle and built his dream have joined with modern craftsmen and generous donors to recreate home, retreat, and welcoming classroom for all to enjoy.
Please come. We look forward to your visit.
Note: I am proud to serve as a Member of the Board of Directors of the Corporation for Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest and am currently Secretary to the Board.