Thursday, May 27, 2010

Poplar Forest - Jefferson's Retreat

While already in his sixties and serving his second term as president, Thomas Jefferson designed and built a brick octagonal villa in Palladian style at Poplar Forest, a plantation inherited from his wife’s father. Jefferson usually went to Poplar Forest several times a year to oversee plantation production, but a primary reason for these extended stays was to avoid visitors at Monticello, his principal home. Jefferson's original vision for this private retreat was a place to read, think and spend time with his grandchildren after he retired.

Poplar Forest was 90 miles southwest of Monticello and reaching it required a three-day ride by horse and carriage. At the time of construction, Poplar Forest was at the cusp of what was then regarded as wilderness. Most Americans didn’t know what lay west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and for the first few visits Jefferson used a guide to be able to find his inherited estate.

The plantation originally spanned more than 4,800 acres, and in 1806 Jefferson began construction of an eight sided villa atop a gentle hill that afforded a view of the forest and the twin Peaks of Otter. By the time of his death Poplar Forest was a working tobacco and wheat farm with 94 slaves on the property. Two centuries later, the property is now partly surrounded by subdivisions and acreage that the Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest wants to acquire, so that it can restore the area surrounding the home to its original appearance. It has spent $8.5 million to reclaim more than 600 acres since 1984 and hopes to continue to create more open space.

Poplar Forest is believed to be the nation’s first fully octagonal house. Numerous windows allow natural light inside and integrate the interior with the outside landscape, a design feature uncommon of American houses of that era. A 100-foot-long side wing housed a kitchen, storage room and smokehouse, and the wing’s low, flat roof served as an outdoor terrace (photo below).

Anchoring the house is the central dining room, now restored to its former 20-by-20-by-20-foot cubic dimensions. Because it was a windowless space, it was lit by a 16-ft. long narrow skylight. Renovators took out attic space that private owners had added and reinstalled the skylight, which was twice destroyed by hailstones in Jefferson's time.

Four octagonal rooms surround the dining room, including the parlor where Jefferson kept more than 900 books and spent much of his time reading alone or with his grandchildren. That room features floor-to-ceiling, triple-sash windows (when fully raised these windows serve as doors) and opens to a four-columned portico (photo below) overlooking the south lawn, which in Jefferson’s days included a sunken garden he designed in European style. Poplar Forest’s landscape restoration has just begun.

Above photo: Rob Tabor
The northeast and east rooms of the home remain unfinished, allowing visitors to see how Jefferson’s workers framed and constructed the house and how restorers discovered the original home’s “footprint.” The bedchambers contained beds placed in space saving alcoves, echoing Jefferson's bedroom at Monticello. Twin staircases leading to the lower level rooms are housed in bump outs on the east and west sides, so as not to disrupt the symmetry of the interior spaces. Two octagonal "privies" were placed on a horizontal axis with the house, but shielded from view by artificial "hills" planted with trees (watercolor at end of post shows placement).

Above photo by Rob Tabor

Unfortunately, twenty years after Jefferson's death the house fell victim to a disastrous fire, leaving only a burnt-out shell. It was rebuilt, but not according to Jefferson’s designs.

Jefferson struggled with debt in his final years and willed Poplar Forest to grandson Francis Eppes (1801-1881) in order to remove it from his estate. During the last three years of Jefferson's life, his grandson occupied the property and villa. Jefferson died in 1826 thinking Eppes would raise a family at his beloved retreat, but two years later Eppes sold the house and nearly 1,000 acres to a neighbor at about a quarter of the property’s assessed value. Eppes then moved with his wife, baby daughter and slaves to Florida. This is perhaps understandable, since the house at Poplar Forest, designed as one man's private villa retreat, was so idiosyncratic that it was unsuitable for raising a family.

The house, situated southwest of Lynchburg, VA, was dramatically altered by subsequent owners in an effort to fashion it into a workable farmhouse. It remained a private home until 1984. A $6 million, 20-year restoration to return the house to its original floor plan and condition during the time it was occupied by Jefferson is still underway.

The immediate grounds around the house as they appeared in Jefferson's time are shown in this watercolor rendering. A circular drive with a 500 foot diameter surrounds the house, and the south sunken garden ornamental border plantings are evident. Two small tree mounds at the end of the wing axes shield octagonal brick privies. The twin Peaks of Otter are shown in the distant horizon.

Poplar Forest, a National Historic Landmark, is open to the public April through November, Wednesday through Monday (closed every Tuesday and Thanksgiving Day) from 10:00a to 4:00p. Adults $14.00; Seniors (age 60+) and Active Military $12.00; College Students $7.00; Youth 12-18 $6.00; Youth 6-11 $2.00; Under 6 free. Admission includes a guided house tour and self-guided grounds exhibits. 434.525.1806

Google Maps, Mapquest and GPS use 1542 Bateman Bridge Road, Forest, VA.
Poplar Forest is located in Bedford County, approximately 20 miles southwest of Lynchburg.
Driving directions are found on the estate's web site: