Here is the life of Thomas Jefferson as seen through the prism of his love affair with his home Monticello. 9 cassettes.
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John McLaughlin is head of the Humanities Division of Clemson University and has contributed to such scholarly journals as Shakespeare Quarterly and Modern Drama. He is also the author of The Housebuilding Experience.
Jefferson and Monticello
1"A Very Long Time Maturing His Projects"SUMMER RAINS had made the roads between Orange and Albemarle counties even more gouged and treacherous than usual. Two carriages had left the Virginia plantation of the Madisons, James and Dolley, at 10:30 in the morning, early enough on a mid-September day in 1802 to make the twenty-eight-mile journey to the home of President Jefferson before nightfall. So slow and tortuous had been the carriage ride, however, that it was now close to dark. From the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains, silhouetted by the almost constant flashes of lightning, came the distant rumbles of an approaching thunderstorm. As the horses slipped and strained on the ascending and mud-rutted road, the carriages pulled to a halt. James Madison, the nation's secretary of state, short, slight, dressed almost entirely in black, emerged from the lead carriage and talked with his driver. Madison then informed the passengers that it was too hazardous to continue. They were less than a mile from their destination, however, so they could safely walk to the Jefferson home through a path in the woods. If they hurried, they could get there before the storm broke.In the two carriages were Dolley Madison, her younger sister Anna Payne, Dr. and Mrs. William Thornton, and Mrs. Thornton'smother, Mrs. Anna Brodeau. Dr. Thornton worked under Madison as director of the newly created Patent Office, and the two men were close friends as well as colleagues. The women quickly decided that the steep climb to the top of the small mountain where the house stood was too difficult for Mrs. Brodeau and that she would stay with the carriages; the servants would carefully walk the horses the rest of the way. After giving instructions to the drivers, the five travelers filed at a quick pace into the forest, a clap of thunder announcing the storm at their heels.The French-born Mrs. Thornton had accompanied her husband to Washington, leaving the cosmopolitan city of Philadelphia for the new capital, little more than a bustling, rapidly growing village at this time. The Thorntons lived in a town house next to the Madisons, and the two wives were intimate friends. Women like Anna Maria Thornton and Dolley Madison, married to talented men of power and influence, quickly made themselves indispensable to the social life of the nation's capital. They were to define and shape the rules of social etiquette suitable for a democracy at such important governmental rituals as the formal dinner, diplomatic reception, private luncheon, public entertainment, and the "at home." They were among the first to assume a title that was to become rich with ambiguity--the Washington Hostess.Anna Maria Thornton was short and slight--she had weighed only 106 pounds, fully dressed, two years earlier when "we all went to the scales1 near the President's house [later to become the White House] to be weighed." In Gilbert Stuart's portrait, 2 painted in 1804, she is shown with large brown eyes and a delicate complexion, her hair fashionably tied up. She wears a low-cut empire gown calculated to accentuate her modest bustline. Organ pipes in the background and a score in her hand allude to her musical talents--she was an accomplished organist and pianist.She and her husband had just concluded a pleasant two-week visit at Montpelier. the Madison house. Like many eighteenth-century men and women, she kept a daily diary, and in it she had recorded the pleasures of her visit. During the week she was to remain at the Jefferson plantation (the entire party was stranded for several days by the almost daily rains), she would note with the eye of a well-traveledtourist and amateur artist her impression of President Thomas Jefferson's unfinished home, Monticello.The party quickly crossed the third "roundabout"--one of four roads that girdle the mountain upon which the house rests. The first roundabout is only a half mile in circumference directly around the house; the other increasingly longer ones circle the mountain at progressively lower elevations. All are interconnected by a series of short roads or paths. By the time the party reached the top of the mountain, Mrs. Thornton could see the house illuminated eerily by lightning; "the exercise of ascending the hill and the warmth of the evening [had] fatigued us much."3 Nevertheless, they had reached shelter, "about a quarter of an hour before it began to rain violently."Mrs. Thornton had been told that Mr. Jefferson's house, like the Madisons', was still in the process of remodeling; indeed, she knew he had been building it, on and off, for many years. But she was unprepared for what she found when, finally reaching the entrance, she was admitted by a servant. Winded, tired, and feeling ill from a harrowing trip, she no doubt thought she would at last step into the furnished comfort, indeed the luxury and ease, of the house of the nation's chief executive--a man of courtly polish and acknowledged taste. She was, however, sorely disappointed. The stately columns and portico that would one day embellish the front of the house were not yet completed, and the large entrance hall was a cavern of raw brick, with boards covering window openings. It was lit by a single lantern, which dimly revealed a ceiling of rough beams and a floor of dangerously unnailed planks thrown loosely over floor joists."Tho' I had been prepared to see an unfinished house," she later recorded in her diary, "still I could not help being much struck with the uncommon appearance ... which the general gloom ... contributed much to increase." The party was led across wobbly planks "into a large room with a small bow [room] separated by an arch, where the company were seated at tea. No light being in the large part of the room, part of the family being seated there, the appearance was irregular and unpleasant." Visitors entering the dining and tea rooms of Monticello today would no doubt be surprised by Mrs. Thornton's description, because both rooms are bright and cheerful, particularly the octagonal tea room, with its arc of windows. Both rooms werenearly completed, approximately as they now appear, but it was a stormy evening, candles had not yet been lit, and the lady was very tired.Mrs. Thornton might also have been struck by the large company of family and friends having tea--about fifteen--but likely not, for Mr. Jefferson was known for his hospitality, and it was not unusual for travelers to drop in for a day or two at the great plantations of Virginia. Accommodations on the road were poor or nonexistent, and travelers often proceeded from house to house, stopping with family, friends, or mere acquaintances. The visitors were no doubt offered a late dinner; Jefferson had written Thornton to "be here half after three,4 our dinner hour," but the travelers had left much too late to have arrived by then.The man who greeted the Thorntons and Madisons would have resembled the figure in the portrait by Rembrandt Peale, painted three years later in 1805. Although it is a "public" portrait, designed to depict its subject as a dignified statesman, an Augustan paterfamilias, it also reveals some of Jefferson's known personal traits. The most striking feature of the portrait is the eyes, which gaze forthrightly at the viewer with a crystalline intelligence. Any attempt to penetrate beyond them to the inner man is reduced to conjecture, for the eyes are reflections rather than portals. The nose is patrician, the mouth firmly set, the facial muscles in perfect tune beneath the skin. His hair has by now turned from red to a sandy grey and is worn collar length. It falls in loose curls around his ears and neck, softening the tight line of his jaw.Augustus Foster,5 secretary of the British legation in Washington at this time, described Jefferson in terms quite different from the Peale portrait: "He was a tall man, with a very red freckled face and gray neglected hair, his manners goodnatured, frank, and rather friendly, though he had somewhat of a cynical expression." Jefferson did not meet strangers easily; he was reserved and distant, often described as cold. His body language was telling: a characteristic pose when standing was with his arms crossed in front of him. Once assured of acceptance, however, he became more open, with a remarkable power to charm and disarm, even those who had come prepared to dislike him. With friends like the Thorntons, he was warm and affable. Hewas most open with his family, particularly his grandchildren, with whom he liked to frolic and play.After introductions--the Thorntons and Madisons knew most of those present--Mrs. Thornton asked to be shown to her bedroom, for by now she was "exhausted and quite unwell." The Thorntons were given one of the second-floor bedrooms on the east, or entrance, side of the house, and as they were shown to their room by a servant, Mrs. Thornton observed a singular anomaly, one that confounds everyone who has ever visited Monticello. "We had to mount a little ladder of a staircase, about two feet wide, and very steep," she noted critically.The staircases of Monticello, which Mrs. Thornton described perfectly, are perhaps the most serious design flaw in the building. Visitors to the mansion today are not permitted to view the second and third floors, largely because the stairs are a clear danger to life and limb. No building code in America would permit such staircases to be constructed, yet Jefferson, one of the most gifted architects the nation has produced, designed and built them. There are two of these staircases, on the north and south wings of the house, and each climbs from the basement to the third floor. They are built into stairwells a scant six feet square, so small that the stair treads are only twenty-four inches wide and the risers dangerously high. Because the staircases turn twice on each floor, the stairway is virtually spiral, with hazardous, narrow, wedge-shaped steps. The stairs are located in the interior of the house and, although Jefferson built small skylights in the roof above them, they are not illuminated by natural light from windows, which means they were often mounted candle in hand. Ascending this staircase with her floor-length dress pulled up to avoid tripping, Mrs. Thornton must have wondered how the house servants ever managed to climb from floor to floor, their arms full, without breaking their necks.The staircases would prove to be even more of an enigma to Mrs. Thornton when she learned next day how almost every other part of the house was painstakingly designed for convenience and domestic efficiency. When the President later showed her his drawings of the house, he might have explained, as he did to others, that his staircase design was patterned after those of the fashionable new residences ofParis. During his stay in Paris as minister plenipotentiary to France, from 1784 to 1789, Jefferson made it a point to study continental architecture at every opportunity. Although he admired much of what he saw in France, he was particularly taken by a new style of architecture that abandoned multistoried houses in favor of single-story, horizontal dwellings. The logic was compelling when applied to a nation like America: in a country where real estate was cheap and plentiful, why build expensive three- and four-story buildings, which were originally designed for costly high-density urban land? A single-story house, or a two-story house that gives the appearance of being one-story, eliminates grand staircases "which are expensive,6 and occupy a space which would make a good room in every story." The theory may have been flawless, but Jefferson designed not a single-story dwelling, but one with four stories, if the basement, with its important functional rooms, is included. The four levels of the house were divided roughly into the utilitarian basement level, with its storage areas, warming kitchen, and servant's rooms; the main floor, which included Jefferson's bedroom-library suite, the dining and entertainment rooms, plus several bedrooms; and the second and third levels, which were, except for the dome room, entirely given over to bedrooms. Because the stairways were used mainly by guests, children, and servants, it could be argued that there was no practical need for more spacious stairways; the stairs Jefferson built were adequate enough for temporary visitors, youngsters, and slaves. This assumes, however, that in an eighteenth-century house the stairway was merely functional.In the baronial halls and palaces of Europe, a staircase was much more than an inefficient elevator, a way of lifting a body from one floor to another. A staircase was part of an elaborate ritual of rank. At social functions, where class and status were publicly displayed, the staircase was an important prop. One received guests at the top of a staircase, resplendent and regal, gesturing welcome from olympian heights to those who climbed to be greeted. Conversely, grand entrances were made by descending a staircase, while those below, their faces turned upward, admired and paid homage. Those subservient to power climbed to pay obeisance; those in power received guests from elevated heights and descended to adoration. These ritualisticceremonies of caste and privilege required a suitable theatrical setting; therefore the grand staircase--spacious, ornate, designed with elegance and grace, preferably of marble--became the central fixture around which the entrance halls of the mansions and palaces of Europe were constructed. Such staircases were opulent symbols of the life, blood, and spirit of aristocracy.One could easily predict what Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, with its ringing salutation to the princes of Europe, "all men are created equal"--one could anticipate what his notions about grand staircases would be. In contrast to the palatial staircase, the simple stairway produces domestic democracy; it reduces climbing or descending to a utilitarian nuisance, and demands that meetings of those who are equal before the law be conducted on an egalitarian surface, level ground.While working for more than fifty years on his home--building, altering, remodeling, putting up and tearing down--Jefferson created, as all owner-builders do, a dwelling that mirrored himself. Monticello is the man, and the house is a living testimony to the truth, "I am what I build." It is not unusual, therefore, that the man who has been called one of the most complex and enigmatic personalities this nation has ever produced should build into his home some equally puzzling components. To reduce the staircase from a representation of power to a functional architectural space is one thing, but to further constrict it to a dark, cramped passageway suggests that it was perhaps more deeply symbolic of its owner's difficulties with free access and disclosure.The Thorntons would not, of course, have preoccupied themselves with such speculations, because they lived in a pre-Freudian age where terms such as "retentive personality" were subsumed under two broad psychological states--sanity and madness. In between were vagaries such as "eccentricity" and "whimsicality." In fact, Mrs. Thornton's conclusion about the house, stairs, and bedroom was, "everything has a whimsical and droll appearance." The window in her bedroom appeared strange to her because it was virtually at floor level and was only about four feet square. Instead of opening on a sash, it pivoted on a center pin, somewhat like a modern awning window. She was not to learn until next day that the windows wereplanned to deceive the eye of one who viewed the house from o...
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