It took Thomas Jefferson 40 years to finish Monticello because the self-taught architect kept changing his mind. I recently visited the Charlottesville, Virginia, working farm and estate of our 3rd president, the subject of my 4th grade oral report that first made me aware of my fear of public speaking.
He wasn’t so much of an inventor as in innovator, the tour guide said, taking new inventions he had seen abroad and adapting them for his own use. I was struck by Jefferson’s polygraph machine, a strange two-penned invention for making a copy of the written word, and I loved the color of the crimson rose chairs and drapes and the spread on the alcove bed (an architectural space spacing innovation) in the master bedroom. It was the latest in modern at the time, the early 1800’s.
I didn’t expect to see mastodon and wooly mammoth bones and other museum artifacts in the entrance hall. I was impressed by the fact that the home was not particularly lavish but had a simple elegance and included a whole room for drinking tea. The tea room was the coldest room in the house, the tour guide said, pointing out that the fires were not lit in Monticello until the temperature dropped to 55 degrees and that Jefferson was the first to use double pane windows.
I was also struck by the collection of portraits in the sitting room, mostly stodgy-looking men like Issac Newton, who seemed to be looking down with disdain at the image of Mary Madeline, naked and one of the very few portraits of women amongst walls of men.
I wanted to better understand the paradox of Jefferson penning the declaration of “all men are created equal” and having a couple of hundred slaves, some of whom lived out of sight under the walkway terraces or along the gardens on Mulberry Row.
House slaves were also kept out of sight, so as not to disrupt conversation when Jefferson was entertaining, by the use of dumbwaiters, which he had first seen in France and brought back to Monticello. There was also some talk about the many precision clocks in the home, the latest in high-tech at the time.
I never knew what the word “cooper” meant, a maker of containers, before seeing one crafting a wooden barrel bound in metal along the workman’s row. There was also a person making nails, women weaving and making baskets. Jefferson was a pioneer of sustainability, but he was saving money by having the necessities of life made on-site while also losing money because of his interest in finer things in life, such as wine and French cuisine.
We had an afternoon wedding to attend so only had a couple of hours at Monticello. I enjoyed the tour, the gardens, writing with a real quill pen and learning more about the man who studied everything from weather and astronomy to horticulture and paleontology, was an agriculture reformer and a progressive thinker, who kept slaves and fathered children with one (which DNA has more or less proven).