Saving Monticello: The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built

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9780743201063: Saving Monticello: The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built
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Recounts the story of Jefferson's beloved estate after his heirs sold it in order to repay his debts, narrating the attempts by the Levy family to renovate the property before a foundation was established for its upkeep.

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About the Author:

Marc Leepson has written features and book reviews for many publications, including The New York Times, Preservation, Smithsonian, The Washington Post, and The Sun (Baltimore) and is a contributor to the Encyclopedia Americana. He lives with his family in Middleburg, Virginia. Additional information can be found at: www.savingmonticello.com

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Stealing Monticello

I am happy no where else and in no other society, and all my wishes end, where I hope my days will end, at Monticello.

Thomas Jefferson, August 12, 1787

Description: Brick, Flemish bond; two stories disguised to look as one; porticos front and rear, with octagonal dome on roof. Plan complicated by additions made to original building by Jefferson after his return from France. Much fine interior woodwork.

Historic American Buildings Survey For Monticello, November 2, 1940

Thomas Jefferson, the original American Renaissance man, began clearing the land atop a small mountaintop to build the house of his dreams in 1768. He was twenty-five years old. The heavily wooded land three miles outside of Charlottesville in Albemarle County, Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains was part of the thousands of acres of land he had inherited in 1764 from his father, Peter Jefferson, a self-made cartographer, surveyor, landowner, and prominent citizen of Albemarle who married into one of the most powerful colonial American families, the Randolphs of Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at Shadwell, his father's Albemarle County plantation. Since childhood Jefferson had dreamed of building a house on top of a nearby 560-foot mountain -- a radical idea at a time when most Virginia plantation homes were built in the low-lying, tobacco-growing Tidewater region. The name he selected for the site was "Monticello," Italian for hillock or small mountain. Jefferson designed the building based on his study of ancient -- particularly Roman -- architecture, and on the ideas of the great Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580).

Construction of Monticello began in 1769. A team of masons, carpenters, and joiners did the work. Some were white; others were Jefferson's slaves (he referred to them as "servants") who lived on the site along what became known as Mulberry Row. Jefferson himself moved to the small mountain in 1770 after Shadwell burned to the ground in a fire.

Some of the bricks and nails the workers used were forged on the mountaintop. The wood and stone used for the cellars and the columns on the East front and the limestone to make mortar came from Jefferson's own extensive estates. The window glass was imported from Europe.

Jefferson spent many years fine tuning the design for the house. In 1796 he tore up his original plans, and created new ones incorporating architectural ideas he was exposed to during the four years (1784-1789) he spent in Paris, first as American trade commissioner, and later as Minister to the Court of Louis XVI. By 1809, at the end of his second term as president when he came home from Washington to live full time at Monticello, the mansion was essentially complete.

The result was a 10,660-square-foot, twenty-room Roman neoclassical building with distinctly Jeffersonian touches. "The influence was Palladian, the immediate example was French, but viewed from any possible position Monticello was Jeffersonian," said longtime Monticello curator James A. Bear, Jr. Jefferson shaped every aspect of the house, inside and out, from the window draperies to the Windsor chairs. Jefferson packed the place with an impressive art collection, a library of books that grew to nearly seven thousand volumes in seven languages, and an enormous amount of household objects and fittings.

Most of the interior furnishings came from France in a shipment of 86 crates of furniture, silverware, glassware, china, wall paper, fabrics, books, portraits and other works of art, and household goods. As Monticello's curator Susan Stein says, during his years in France, Jefferson "shopped for a lifetime."

Included in this shipment of treasures were sixty-three paintings by different artists and seven terra-cotta plaster busts by the foremost French sculptor of the day, Jean-Antoine Houdon. Jefferson's European treasure trove also contained four dozen chairs, two sofas, six mirrors, assorted tables, four marble tabletops, and four full-length mirrors. Jefferson added more to this auspicious collection -- including eighteen chairs, six mirrors, several beds and tables -- from the top craftsmen in Williamsburg, New York, Philadelphia, and London.

Jefferson crammed Monticello's rooms with artwork, sculpture, archeological specimens, musical and scientific instruments, Indian artifacts, and objets d'art of all kinds. He designed features found in few homes in eighteenth-century America: two-story high ceilings, a dome -- the first on an American house -- beds tucked in alcoves, skylights, indoor "privies," extremely narrow staircases. Other one-of-a-kind interior touches included a dumbwaiter to carry wine from the cellar to the dining room and the enormous seven-day great clock framing the door of the entrance hall.

Jefferson -- the nation's third president and the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence -- was described by the Marquis de Chastellux in 1782 as a "Musician, Draftsman, Surveyor, Astronomer, Natural Philosopher, Jurist and Statesman." Jefferson was that and much more.

He also studied botany, agriculture, forestry, viticulture, and landscape architecture. Monticello's grounds -- which have been likened to an "ornamental working farm" -- were extremely well planned. Jefferson turned the wild hardwood forest on the mountaintop into a park with broad lawns and flowerbeds, and carved out an ornamental forest he called the Grove. He divided the surrounding three hundred acres into seven fields, each of which he planted in a different crop, rotating the crops annually. They were pleasingly and practically separated with rows of peach trees, numbering in the hundreds.

He selected many more fruit and shade trees, shrubs, and other plants at Main's nursery near Washington and personally laid out the flower beds surrounding the house. He imported seeds from Italy, from the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and from the top nurseries in Virginia, Philadelphia, Washington, and South Carolina. He planted dozens of varieties of fruit trees, including peaches, apples, cherries, apricots, nectarines, quinces, plums, and pears. He cultivated Seville orange trees, which he brought indoors during the winter, and imported olive trees from Italy and southern France.

Jefferson built a thousand-foot-long, three-terraced "kitchen" vegetable garden, with twenty-four beds divided into "Fruits, Roots, and Leaves." There he grew some 250 varieties of vegetables, including beans and corn from seeds brought to him by Lewis and Clark, seventeen kinds of peas, white eggplant, and purple broccoli.

Monticello was "an artistic achievement of the first order," in the words of Jefferson scholar Merrill D. Peterson, but it was a seriously flawed achievement. All was not well when the nation's third president came to live at Monticello full time on March 15, 1809. The debts he had accumulated before becoming president in 1801 still weighed heavily. While Jefferson had managed to pay off many of his pre-Revolutionary debts to British firms out of his not-insignificant $25,000 annual presidential salary, the interest that had accumulated on the remaining debts was crippling.

Jefferson owed his creditors about $11,000 when he bid farewell to Washington, D.C., and headed home. That amount was not troubling to him, even though there was no presidential pension plan. Jefferson believed that he could easily repay what he owed from the income he would earn from his farming operations at Monticello and his other Virginia properties, which included the nearby farms of Shadwell, Tufton, and Lego in Albemarle County and Poplar Forest in Bedford County.

There was reason to be optimistic. Jefferson owned a total of some 10,000 acres, about half of it in Albemarle County and the remainder in nearby Bedford County, including his country retreat at the Poplar Forest plantation. He also owned the 157-acre Natural Bridge to the west in Rockbridge County in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Jefferson had bought that scenic property from King George III for twenty shillings in 1774. The plan was to earn money from travelers who came there to see the spectacular natural rock bridge formation. Jefferson took the first step in that direction in 1803 by building a two-room log cabin on the site. He also owned several building lots, including one in Richmond. He expected to reap further dividends from the two gristmills he owned on the Rivanna River, which he expected to produce more than a thousand dollars in income a year.

But Jefferson's financial problems worsened after he moved to Monticello. His farming operations rarely did anything but lose money due to periodic droughts, crop failures, and depressed crop prices. The mills were poorly managed and their hoped-for revenues never materialized. Jefferson's debts mounted, augmented by growing sums he owed to Charlottesville-area merchants from whom he bought everything from tea and coffee for his household to salt fish and "Negro cloth" for the more than two hundred slaves he owned.

He was also burdened financially by his generous hospitality and family responsibilities. Jefferson's wife Martha had died in 1782, but his adult children, his grandchildren, his sisters and their children, and various other relatives and friends spent long periods of time in residence at Monticello, especially after 1815. By all accounts, Jefferson was hospitable to other visitors as well, some who venerated the man, and others who sought him out for favors. They included artists and writers, traveling merchants, would-be biographers, adventurers, and the just plain curious. The list included noted figures such as Daniel Webster, the Marquis de Lafayette, James Madison, and Jefferson's Albemarle County neighbor, James Monroe. The well-heeled came with horses, servants, and family members. Sometimes he found himself hosting as many as fifty guests at a time.

The domestic manager of the sprawling household during Jefferson's post-presidency retirement was his eldest daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, whom Jefferson called "Patsy." Martha had joined the household in 1809, with her children and her husband, Col. Thomas Mann Randolph -- a notoriously inept businessman who was constantly in financial straits. There she continued her role as hostess and female household head that she had begun in Washington.

Jefferson's financial situation deteriorated further after the War of 1812. His expenses continued to outstrip his income and he was forced to take on additional loans, while continuing to make interest payments. In 1815, his farming operations were particularly hard hit by a severe drought. That spring, Jefferson turned the management of his Albemarle County farms over to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, his eldest and favorite grandson. By all accounts Jeff Randolph was trustworthy and extremely competent in business matters, especially compared to his dissolute father.

But even with the good management of his grandson, Jefferson's financial woes continued. He experienced some relief in 1815 when Congress, after a spirited debate and by a small majority, agreed to buy his library of 6,487 books for $23,950. Jefferson had offered the books -- the largest personal collection in the country -- to the nation in September soon after he learned that British troops had burned the congressional library in Washington a month earlier. Because of his generous offer to expand the library, Jefferson has been known as the father of the Library of Congress, which had started in 1800 and had consisted of some three thousand volumes before the disastrous fire. A Library of Congress exhibit on Jefferson in 2000 included a re-creation of the library Jefferson sold to the nation in 1815. It filled twenty twelve-foot-high bookcases.

This large congressional cash infusion did little to stem Jefferson's fiscal woes. He continued to lay out lavish sums to maintain his large household. With his farms and mills providing little or no relief Jefferson was forced to borrow further and his debts mounted.

In January 1826, five months before his death, the eighty-two-year-old Jefferson came up with a plan that he believed would pay off all his debts: a state lottery. In part, the lottery idea was a reaction to his failed effort to sell off large parcels of land at a time when land prices were severely depressed. When he proposed the idea to the Virginia legislature in Richmond, Jefferson received a lukewarm reception, although several legislators floated a plan to provide him an $80,000 interest-free loan.

After the Virginia legislature's debate over the lottery made the newspapers, Jefferson's financial plight became known throughout the country. He received many letters of support, including one from James Monroe (1758-1831), the nation's fifth president who owned a large amount of land in the state and was in similar land-rich, cash-poor financial difficulties.

The publicity over Jefferson's misfortunes resulted in several unsolicited contributions, including a bank note for $7,500 from a group of admirers in New York.

But Jefferson pinned his hopes on the lottery. He let it be known that if the lottery did not work, he was prepared to sell Monticello and his mills and move to his property in Bedford County. As he put it in a February 17 letter to Madison: "If refused, I must sell everything here, perhaps considerably in Bedford, move thither with my family, where I have not even a log hut to put my head into."

A lottery bill was passed by the Virginia legislature on February 20, one in which Monticello essentially was the prize. The plan was to sell at least 11,000 lottery tickets at ten dollars each. Under the plan, Jefferson would keep Monticello for the rest of his life, but it would go to the lottery winner after his death. His daughter Martha, the head of the family, was reconciled to losing Monticello after the lottery law was passed.

When Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, no lottery tickets had yet been sold.

...

At his death Jefferson owed his creditors $107,273.63. The largest amount by far was the $60,110 he owed to his grandson and executor of his estate, Jeff Randolph. Twenty thousand dollars of that amount represented a note Jefferson had co-signed for Jeff's late father-in-law, Wilson Cary Nicholas, and the balance was made up of expenses that Jeff Randolph paid while managing his grandfather's agricultural and other business ventures.

Jefferson's assets were not listed in his will. However, during the debate over the Jefferson lottery earlier that year, Monticello and its surrounding acres were valued at $71,000. His properties at Shadwell Mills and in Milton were deemed to be worth $41,500. The publicity over the lottery resulted in two other items in the estate's plus column: $10,000 contributions voted to Martha Randolph by the legislatures of South Carolina and Louisiana.

In his will, Jefferson gave his country retreat, Poplar Forest, to his grandson, Francis Eppes, the son of Jefferson's deceased daughter Maria and her husband (and cousin) John Wayles Eppes. Jefferson bequeathed Monticello and hi...

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