Connections: Jefferson’s refuge from a busy world
Posted: November 27, 2012
The cha-ching of Black Friday glissandoed seamlessly over the past weekend into a Cyber Monday of online “lightning deals” that are pouring into email queues across the country.
What will follow is a monthlong extravaganza of commercial excess that, like the sparkly season itself, is both riveting and disturbing.
Sensing the pulse of the coming frenzy (and who can’t feel its insistent throb in the media as early as Halloween these days?), I elected last weekend to prepare by visiting a quieter place known for the opposite extreme.
Thomas Jefferson’s 19th century beau ideal of an escape setting was Poplar Forest, his retreat house in rural Forest, Virginia, about 15 minutes outside Lynchburg.
Unlike his signature architectural achievement, Monticello in Charlottesville, Poplar Forest for many years was not associated with Jefferson except by scholars.
The property, which he inherited from his wife Martha’s father, originally encompassed 4,819 acres. It was in private hands from two years after Jefferson’s death at age 83 in 1826, when his grandson Francis Eppes sold it to a neighbor, until December 1983, when it was purchased by a nonprofit foundation.
The restoration of the octagonal house that Jefferson designed in the likeness of a Roman villa is a painstaking work in progress. A fire in 1845 led to its redesign as a farmhouse, but the original walls and much interior ornamentation escaped damage. Archaeology is under way to restore the grounds.
“I write you from a place 90 miles from Monticello ... which I visit three or four times a year, and stay from a fortnight to a month at a time. I have fixed myself comfortably, keep some books here, bring others occasionally, am in the solitude of a hermit,” Jefferson wrote in 1811 to Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania, a physician, fellow scholar, and a cosigner of the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson inherited the Bedford County plantation in 1773. The name Poplar Forest preceded his ownership, and reflects the large stands of poplar forest that once were here.
The main impression I had of Poplar Forest was the degree to which it resembles Monticello, but on a much smaller scale.
Jefferson used the concept of an alcove bed that forms a kind of interior wall in both places as a space-saving device.
Both houses are light and airy, surrounded by windows, and have a terrace deck with a level below where slaves lived, prepared meals and performed other chores.
In the case of Poplar Forest, the original plan for two such terraces was never fully carried out because Jefferson’s grandson sold the property rather than complete it.
Jefferson began construction on the house at the age of 63, when he was still in the White House.
After his presidency, he used it as a retreat from the hordes of visitors who descended regularly on Charlottesville to meet him and enjoy his hospitality. It was customary to arrive unannounced during that period, and Jefferson’s letters reveal his distaste for the disruptions such visits caused to his reading, writing and agricultural pursuits.
“While at Monticello I am so much engrossed by business or society that I can only write on matters of strong urgency,” he wrote from Poplar Forest, also to Rush. “Here I have leisure, as I have every where the disposition to think of my friends.”
Amid the sturm and drang of the modern Christmas season, it is good to focus on the timeless need for places of peace and contemplation. Would that we all could have a version of Poplar Forest at our disposal when the world is too much with us.