Making house calls to Monticello and the rest of Jeffersonland

April 25, 2016

Visitors walk around during tours at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia, March 14, 2007

Thomas Jefferson would most likely flip his wig over the current state of politics, but it’s safe to assume he’d be pleased with the condition of Charlottesville, Va., which served as both his home and artistic playpen.

Like many Midwesterners, I grew up paying my respects to the third president during road trips to Mount Rushmore, where spectators strain their necks staring up at his six-story-high mug.

But Monticello, the plantation he obsessed over for four decades, along with the rest of this vibrant college town, bring Ol’ Granite Face tumbling down to earth, introducing us to both the good (patriot, architect, gardener, party animal) — and the bad (slave owner, control freak, Mr. Know It All).

Exploring the wide, wild world of Jefferson, while allotting time to sample from the region’s growing number of vineyards, may seem like a daunting task. But it can be managed in just a couple of days, even if you choose, as I did, to arrive from Washington, D.C., by rail, a two-hour-plus journey with limited routes and frequent delays. Fortunately, the Amtrak station is located just off the University of Virginia campus and its buttressing downtown strip, one of the longest and most vibrant pedestrian malls in the country, with a wide range of dining options and late-night jams. The Dave Matthews Band got its start working these bars, a local point of pride or embarrassment, depending on one’s musical tastes.

We ventured slightly off the popular path for the Ivy Inn, a Southern-comfort eatery disguised as high-end dining thanks to the white-tablecloth service and lighting from toy lanterns inspired by the Paul Revere Collection at Pottery Barn. Most entrees at the multistory Colonial inn fall in the $20 to $30 range, leaving room in your budget for the melt-in-your-mouth appetizer of pork belly and grits and the decadent pecan bread pudding punctuated with toffee pieces.

Don’t worry about the extra calories. You’ll burn them off the next day keeping up with Jefferson’s legacy, especially if you make the same near fatal mistake I did.



The best way to acquaint yourself to new surroundings is through Uber, whose drivers often offer running commentary free of charge. In the course of our two-day trip, my traveling companion and I were chauffeured by a pro-weed hippie who laid out the local music scene, a James Madison groupie who tried, in vain, to talk us into a visit to nearby Montpelier, and a woman lamenting both the discontinuation of her favorite fast-food shake and the possibility of a Latin-American president with equal fervor.

Long on color, short on convenience. Several of our drivers ran late, including the one who picked us up at our no-frills hotel where the only historical artifacts on display were part of the complimentary breakfast buffet. That made us 10 minutes late for our Monticello tour, which wouldn’t have been a big deal if we hadn’t shelled out $55 each in advance for the deluxe package.

The delay gave us an opportunity to watch Virginians turn on their storied charm.

Within seconds of arriving at the registration desk, we were shooed into a shuttle that whisked us up the hill to the mansion’s front door, where staffers continued to treat us with the respect and urgency President Barack Obama is granted upon landing at Camp David. We had missed the opening remarks in Entrance Hall, a reception area with much more than dated magazines to bide visitors’ time.

Renee, our amiable guide, was kind enough to circle back to the Palladio-inspired room later in the morning — a nicety that will be harder to come by during the crowded tourist season, which started earlier this month and runs through October — allowing us ample time to draw a connection between the presidential pack rat’s collection of antlers, carved stone heads, maps, marble-top tables and animal bones. Making the game even more difficult: a ludicrous seven-day clock operating on cannonball-sized weights, ropes, a gong and Jefferson’s overestimation of people’s interest in knowing the time.

Reminders that you’re in the presence of American royalty abound with floors painted green to evoke the illusion that you’re in the great outdoors, a lush greenhouse flanked by two Venetian porches, a pianoforte for cocktail recitals and a collection of portraits that rival the amount of selfies in a teenager’s Instagram account.

But the overall impression is that Jefferson was more interested in showing off his innovative mind than his power.

Jefferson eschewed a grand dining center for drop-leaf tables that could be easily taken apart for intimate meals around a fireplace featuring two dumbwaiters that could shoot up wine bottles at the ring of a bell. Guests who tipped back a few too many bottles could easily crash on a seemingly limitless supply of alcove beds, the 18th century version of the futon.

A financially strapped Jefferson sold many of his 6,000 books to the government — laying the foundation for the Library of Congress — but a few favorites remain on the shelves in his cozy reading room, including a four-volume set of "Don Quixote" in its original Spanish.

The bedchamber, where Jefferson died, is perhaps the most telling room. I could practically see the old man marveling at the obelisk clock at the foot of his bed when he awoke, climbing up the ladder to his hideaway closet to fetch a fresh shirt and spinning a wheel at his desk that allowed him to read five books simultaneously.

It’s here that members of the "elite" tour get their first perk: a peek inside the private privy where the president would conduct his morning, um, constitutional.

Cool. But did we fork over an extra $30 just to get up close and personal with an early example of indoor plumbing?

Never fear. The upgrade soon justified itself with a trip to the upstairs family quarters, unavailable to "commoners." These rooms, which for too long were being used as office space, show how dedicated Jefferson was to pampering his guests and loved ones, from the boys’ hangout that encouraged both wildlife exploration and horseplay, to the Dome Room, a spacious sun-kissed hall with a hidden clubhouse for his daughters and granddaughters who would, most likely, need an occasional respite from the old man going on about his latest contraption.

Special tours focusing on Jefferson’s relationship with his slaves, most notably Sally Hemings, who was almost certainly his mistress, weren’t available on the March weekday we were there, but you can venture out on your own to their renovated shacks, as well as the vegetable gardens and Jefferson’s surprisingly modest graveyard.

By now it was time for lunch at Michie Tavern, a Colonial-style chicken shack with an earnest staff dressed in traditional garb to ease you through the cafeteria line and bring beer to your picnic bench.

Noting that the local favorite was just a little over a mile away, we decided to hoof it on foot. It may have been the dumbest idea since Benjamin Franklin suggested that the national bird be the turkey. The road between Monticello and Michie doesn’t feature a walking path, or even much of a shoulder, which means we were at the mercy of drivers who would have been less flabbergasted by the sight of two tourists making the short journey by horse and buggy.

Finally, a good Samaritan pulled over and offered us a lift to our destination, saving us a visit to Ye Olde Hospital. After a filling meal with extra helpings of black-eyed peas and beets, we headed to James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland — by Uber.



Poor James Monroe. Despite coming up with the Monroe Doctrine and a two-term presidency coined as the "Era of Good Feelings," his legacy has always existed in the shadow of his more colorful neighbor. Same goes for his home. We had an afternoon tour all to ourselves. Our guide, Josh, while more than competent, was counting down the final hours to his next assignment, expounding on the Wright Brothers at the Dayton Aviation Heritage Museum in Ohio.

So, on a scale of 1 to 10, just how knowledgeable are visitors (when there are some) about Monroe?

"About .5," said Josh, tucking away a copy of David McCullough’s "The Wright Brothers" beneath the front lawn’s 300-year-old white oak tree, so massive it takes 11 kindergartners to join hands around its trunk.

The rest of the estate is not so majestic, unless you’re looking to redesign your condo in Colonial Chic. Almost 90 percent of the furniture, including a green marble-top bureau and the First Couple’s mahogany bed, is original.

The Salt Artisan Market isn’t nearly as historic, but the three-year-old business, located just down the winding road, is the perfect place to fuel up on iced coffee and perfectly seasoned rosemary peanuts. Just steer clear of the imbibed tourists who are known to stumble over from Jefferson Vineyards and spoil the Mayberry-like charms of this converted 1930s gas station.

Our numerous detours kept us from an official visit to Jefferson’s other architectural marvel, the rotunda on the University of Virginia, but we wandered around campus at twilight, pretending to be one of the 50 lucky seniors who earn residency on the pavilions that flank each side of the grassy mall leading up to Jefferson’s masterpiece, currently under renovation.

Students fetching their morning paper or firewood gathered outside their front doors might get accustomed to having Jefferson’s tribute to the Pantheon in their front lawn. If students hadn’t been on spring break this early evening, I would have urged them to occasionally take a pause from studies and frat parties to appreciate their surroundings, as well as venture off site at least once a semester for a Monticello house call.

Just don’t walk there.




Associated Press