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Monticello Facts and History

Updated on May 1, 2013
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Monticello is the Virginia estate of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. The house, designed by Jefferson himself, is a classic example of late-18th-century American architecture. It is pictured on the reverse of the rarely used American two-dollar bill and, since 1939, on the nickel, with Jefferson's image appearing on the obverse. Monticello is situated in central Virginia, in Albemarle county, about 2 miles (3 km) south of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded. The estate is preserved as a national historic landmark.

The Site

Monticello is set on a leveled mountain 857 feet (261 meters) above sea level and 580 feet (177 meters) above ground level. The northeast base of the mountain is steep and rocky and is washed by the Rivanna River. On the southwest the mountain dips some 200 feet (60 meters) before connecting with the higher Carter's Peak. The estate is covered by a dense growth of timber, mainly hardwood deciduous trees.

The view from the summit of Monticello is majestic. To the east stretches a broad plain that Jefferson called his "sea view," because its rivers eventually flow into the Atlantic Ocean. Some 20 miles (30 km) to the west, across a gently rolling valley, tower the commanding crests of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is a breathtaking view, which inspired Jefferson from his childhood.

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The House

The entire residence is one of the finest surviving examples of the Classical Revival style, of which Jefferson was the first exponent. A three-story brick and frame building of 35 rooms (including 12 in the basement), it has the appearance of an Italian villa with a Greek portico and many features of colonial architecture. There are two major entrances, east and west. A Roman dome—inspired by that of the Hôtel de Salm in Paris—commands the west front, which opens onto the extensive gardens of the estate.

The design of the basement is one of the many examples of Jefferson's originality. Colonial estates of the time had groups of outbuildings containing the laundry, carriage house, icehouse, stables, kitchen, smokehouse, and dairy. Jefferson placed these beneath long terraces that flank the house to the north and south, where they are readily accessible but inconspicuous from the outside. Joining the terraces is an all-weather passageway containing the wine room, beer cellar, cider room, rum cellar, and wine cellar, which are also concealed from outer view. Originally the grounds also included living and working quarters for the approximately 150 African American slaves who worked the plantation in Jefferson's day.

Many other features of the structure reveal Jefferson's fecund inventiveness, amounting to what today might be considered gadgetry. He built the country's first automatic door, and the mechanism has not needed repairs in two centuries. A weather vane on the roof is connected with a dial on the ceiling beneath so that it can be read from the inside. Above the main entrance is a large clock with a second face visible from outside. The clock is operated by cannonball weights that are suspended on either side of the triple doorway. On each side of the mantel in the dining room are small, artfully constructed dumbwaiters, which were used to bring up bottles from the wine cellar. He believed that staircases were unattractive architectural features, so he designed inconspicuous staircases only 24 inches (61 cm) wide, resulting in an impression of interior spaciousness. The alcove beds, adapted from European models, are set into recesses in the wall. His own bed was placed in an open alcove between his bedroom and his study, and—according to tradition—could be raised by ropes when not in use.

The family burial place is southwest of the house just beyond the tree-enclosed gardens. Jefferson's tomb is surmounted by an obelisk engraved with the epitaph he composed for himself: "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, & Father of the University of Virginia."

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History of Monticello

On July 19, 1735, Peter Jefferson patented the 1,000-acre (405-hectare) tract south of the Rivanna River and subsequently added 400 acres (162 hectares) for a homesite north of the Rivanna, which he acquired from a friend in exchange for Henry Wetherburn's "biggest bowl of arrack punch" and £50 in Virginia currency. Upon his death in 1757, his son Thomas inherited the property. An entry in Thomas Jefferson's manuscript garden book for Aug. 3, 1767, is the earliest known instance of his applying the name Monticello (Italian for "little mountain") to this property.

The leveling of the mountaintop was begun in 1768. There being no competent architect in the colonies to carry out his ideas, Jefferson studied architecture and drew his own plans, deriving his principal inspiration from the works of the 16th-century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio. The residence was begun in 1769 and developed in intermittent stages. It was not completed until after Jefferson had left the presidency in 1809.

Jefferson began living at Monticello in February 1770, after his paternal home at Shadwell was destroyed by fire. The estate was the scene of many stirring moments. One of the most dramatic occurred in June 1781, when British dragoons dashed up the mountainside to capture Jefferson (then governor of Virginia), who narrowly escaped. In his later years, Jefferson became heavily mired in debt, and it was feared that he might have to end his life in exile from his beloved mountain. But friends assisted him, and he passed his last days there.

Ten years after Jefferson's death Monticello was purchased by a naval officer, Uriah P. Levy. Levy bequeathed it to the nation, but his will was contested and the estate passed to his heirs. One of these, New York Congressman Jefferson M. Levy, bought off the other heirs and restored the estate, which had fallen into disrepair. In 1923 the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation acquired the residence with 640 acres (260 hectares) of land and dedicated it as a national shrine on July 4, 1926, the 100th anniversary of Jefferson's death. The foundation subsequently brought back many of the original furnishings, which had been widely scattered. In 1993, on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Jefferson's birth, an additional 150 objects that he had acquired or made for the house were returned for a special exhibition. The estate, which is maintained by the foundation as a model of restoration, is open to the public.

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