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Monticello Revisited: Ideas To Adapt for your new home!

Monticello Revisited: Ideas To Adapt for your new home!
A quick glance and you think, "Ok, it's classical." Look more cl
Thousand of visitors are drawn to Monticello each year by its Classical styling, the elegant symmetry and proportion that Jefferson applied after carefully studying the principles of Andrea Palladio. But they often return from this “essay in architecture” with a bigger appreciation of how Jefferson personalized his home.   Of course it helps when designing your home to have traveled extensively in Europe, served as president of the United States, executed the Louisiana Purchase, studied science throughout your life, and inherited 5,000 acres of farmland in rural Virginia. Even so, many of the ideas Jefferson applied can be inexpensively imitated.

Consider the simple weather vane on the home’s portico, the first thing most visitors notice after processing the beauty of the façade. Interestingly, it is connected to a compass in the Entrance Hall where visitors cooled their heals until Jefferson was free to meet. The president sited key rooms to face south so that they would be bathed in sunlight. He used a system of 13 skylights to light interior rooms and towers and transoms to stimulate ventilation. He was such an energy miser that he insisted fires not be lit until temperatures inside dipped below 55 degrees. He collected rainwater in four cisterns and brewed beer in the basement. And as a matter of philosophy he economized on circulation space to create more useful living space.

Touring Monticello is a marvelous experience because it’s as though Jefferson still lives there. Tours start in the Entrance Hall (shown above, photo by Robert Lautman, courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation, inc.), which Jefferson designed as a kind of natural history exhibit showcasing his personal collection of maps highlighting the country’s new Western border. While they waited to meet the former president, guests perused an exhibit of Native American artifacts, reproductions from the Lewis & Clark Expedition, busts of big game, and the jaw of an extinct mastodon. The Hall includes a Great clock that evidences the third president’s occasional fallibility. When he moved the clock from Philadelphia, Jefferson underestimated the space needed to show each day of the week along the wall. So he had carpenters put a hole in the floor. Saturday is marked in the basement.

The highlight of tours is the president’s sanctum -- a library, greenhouse (where he grew orange, acacia, and lime trees; it also served as an aviary for his pet mockingbirds), office, and bedroom. The bedroom is situated

(photo by Carol Highsmith, courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.) so that Jefferson could rise with the sun – he recorded the time of sunrise and sunset each day to improve his farming methods. Mirrors maximize light from windows on the opposite side. He kept clothes in a “turning machine,” as his grandson dubbed it -- 48 easily rotated hands that held coats and waistcoats. To save space, he lodged his bed in an alcove between his bedroom and office. Other bedrooms feature alcove beds, a space saving technique he picked up in Europe.

Jefferson spent an inordinate amount of time at his desk and writing machine, where he made detailed notes in this Farm Book and Garden Book and answered voluminous correspondence. He told John Adams that he suffered under a “persecution of letters.” In 1820, he received approximately 1,267, many of them requiring elaborate research to be answered. He wrote many letters with a polygraph, a two-pen machine that provided copies.

The office (photo courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.) offers evidence of Jefferson’s love of gadgets. It’s filled with telescopes, drafting and surveying equipment, and custom-made furniture – including a revolving bookstand and a desk with an adjustable top. Instead of installing a grand stairway in the center of the house, Jefferson put in narrow stairways at either end to save “space that would make a good room.” He designed hallways to be flexible spaces – they were also used as storage areas, workrooms, and occasionally as sleeping quarters. Jefferson seemingly never tired of tinkering with the design of his home. He undertook a major remodeling after he returned from a visit to Europe, creating a mezzanine bedroom floor out of two-story open space in his original design.

At 11,000 square feet, Monticello isn’t small, but Jefferson still intended some rooms to serve more than one purpose. The dining table was only set up at mealtimes, so that the space could be use for receptions. A Tea Room connected to the dining room provided overflow seating for large dinners. Otherwise, double pocket doors kept cold air out of the dining room without limiting sunlight.

The former president applied the latest scientific thinking to the systems within the home. In the late 1790s, he altered the dimensions of the fireplaces to apply the fuel-saving principles of Count Rumford. He believed in innovation. “The dreams of the future are better than the history of the past,” he said. Two pulley-operated dumbwaiters in the dining room, hidden on either side of the fireplace, were used to bring wine from the cool cellar below. Double doors in the Parlor open together when either is moved.

Jefferson emphasized indoor-outdoor connections to extend the living areas of the house. In fact, open-air living spaces on all four sides of the house equal nearly half the living space on the main floor. A series of terraces extending from the house was used for walks after dinner. Family and guests used them to enjoy the garden, the formal landscaping, and mountain views. The terraces led to pavilions, outfitted with shutters and louvers for shade and privacy, where family members could read and converse.  Under the terraces, and largely out of sight, Jefferson designed “dependencies,” the facilities required for domestic operations. These included slave quarters, workrooms, storage (for ice, wine, and beer, among other things), carriage bays, and stalls. A long underground hallway connects the rooms.

Jefferson’s estate includes a garden, orchards, and vineyards, where he experimented with more than 300 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. He focused on his favorite things to eat. He planted as many as 15 varieties of peas each year and grew as many as 38 varieties of peaches.  He wrote his granddaughter in 1815: “We abound in the luxury of the peach.”

For information on touring the house and grounds, contact Monticello.
Boyce Thompson is the author of The New New Home.

[Editor's Note: one of Houseplans.com signature designers, Michael Curtis, has designed a plan (433-11) that is

directly inspired by Monticello, though, at 5,495 sq. ft. it is only half the size. The central rotunda with extending wings echo the original landmark, but Jefferson might be surprised by the modern island kitchen/dining space. -- Dan Gregory]

Monticello Revisited: Ideas To Adapt for your new home! Inspiration

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