Poplar Forest: Thomas Jefferson’s Country Estate

October 1, 2009
Filed under Destinations

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2301733_poplar_forest_1.jpgAnyone who has studied high school history knows that Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of our country, had a home in Virginia called Monticello. Designed by Jefferson – a student of classical architecture – Monticello has become a major tourist attraction. However, just 80 miles away is another home that Jefferson designed and had built for his personal use.

Known as Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s second home served as a refuge from the almost constant barrage of visitors who made their way to Monticello. During his second term as president, Jefferson started advising craftsmen as they began construction on what he considered his best architectural design. So enamored was Jefferson of Poplar Forest, which was opened to the public on July 4, 1986, he wrote, “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.”

The interior of the “best dwelling house in the state” is accessible via guided tours only, though visitors are invited to enjoy the surrounding area at their leisure. The estate can also provide a map for a walking tour. Poplar Forest is open daily 10am-4pm April through November (closed Thanksgiving Day).

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This year, the estate celebrates a unique anniversary: Jefferson’s first extended stay at Poplar Forest occurred in October 1809 – 200 years ago. “An Evening With the Richmond Symphony” concert on October 3 and the inaugural Poplar Forest Wine Festival, to be held on Nov. 21, are two of the special events.

As might be anticipated, Poplar Forest is an unusual edifice, built in the shape of a perfect octagon. Jefferson was fascinated with the shape because of the symmetry and airy environment it created.

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In the interest of preserving its historical significance, a nonprofit group rescued Poplar Forest for the educational and cultural benefit of the public. One of the first orders of business was to return the home to its original appearance so it could be opened for visitation. This involved gutting the interior and stabilizing the exterior brick walls. Once the structure was sound, the restoration project focused on returning the interior to its original floorplan. Fortunately, the explicit plans that Jefferson sent to those in charge of building Poplar Forest had been saved, providing today’s craftsmen with guidelines for reconstructing the home. 

When approaching the main entrance, it appears to be a single-story structure – though in reality it is not. To accomplish this illusion, Jefferson built on the crown of a hill so that only the top floor is visible from the front. The land slopes around the sides of the house, leading to the rear and revealing the lower floor, which was used primarily for storage. In contrast to the Tuscan columns on the front and rear porticos, Roman arches lead into the lower floor.

The most important feature of the home is the cube room. Situated in the middle of the structure, this room is a perfect cube that measures 20 feet in every direction. A 16-foot skylight provides illumination for the otherwise windowless area. This is where Jefferson, his grandchildren and occasional guests took their meals.

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There is a door in the middle of each wall of the cube room providing access to other areas of the house. To the west is Jefferson’s bedchamber and to the east is another bedchamber that was usually occupied by Ellen and Cornelia, his granddaughters. To the north, a hall leading from the front door to the cube room separates two small storage rooms. To the south is a sunny parlor with floor-to-ceiling windows, a feature Jefferson admired in the homes he visited in France. This is where Jefferson and his granddaughters would gather to study or read books from the estate’s extensive library. Sometimes Jefferson would entertain his grandchildren with stories about his experiences or by playing his violin.

Further evidence of Jefferson’s admiration for European design can be found on the grounds of the estate. Behind the house is a large, sunken lawn. The area was hand dug by servants who moved 36,000 cubic feet of dirt, which was used to create a mound at either end of the house – yet another European concept. These mounds served a dual purpose in that they were used for estate owners and their guests to admire the landscaping and gardens while obscuring the octagonal brick privies.

2301733_poplar_forest_5.jpgOnce outside, visitors see a 100-foot-long structure leading to the east. Jefferson referred to this wing as offices, but the space was probably used for storage, a kitchen, laundry room and smokehouse. He ordered a flat roof on this addition, making it barely visible from the front of the house. Archaeologists continue to study what types of vegetation Jefferson had planted in the acres surrounding the house. His original notes serve as a guide for future landscaping, and some of the original poplar trees still stand in front of the home. 

For 14 years, Poplar Forest provided Jefferson a place where he could, in his words, enjoy the “solitude of a hermit” and be a doting grandfather. He made the three-day trip to the retreat three to four times a year, traveling in a carriage that he designed.

Unlike many of his peers, Jefferson was a quiet man who cherished his solitude. He was not known to speak much in public, and was relieved when his eight years as president came to an end. A visit to Monticello provides the public with a look into the life of Thomas Jefferson, the statesman, but a visit to Poplar Forest provides a look into the life of Thomas Jefferson, private citizen.

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