Jefferson’s Blind Spots and Ideals, in Brick and Mortar





— Stand in the garden of Monticello here and look back at the home Thomas Jefferson designed, a view made famous by the United States nickel, and you get some hint of how this founding father thought about the new nation taking shape around him. The building invokes reason, proportion and balance, but you stand on a man-made plateau that seems to hover in space, open to the sweep of clouds and the distant mountains. Veneration for antiquity and revolutionary daring are brought together. The home’s allusions to ancient Greece and Rome and to the Renaissance are poised on the brink of a New World.

It is a strange sensation. And with a new visitors center just down the slope of this “small hill” (the meaning of “Monticello” in Italian), including the requisite amenities of a cafe and shop along with an education center and 5,200 square feet of exhibitions about Jefferson’s ideas and practices, you can start to put this vista in a larger perspective. It helps too if you combine a Monticello visit (which 450,000 people make every year) with a trip to Lynchburg, Va., once a three-day journey by coach, now a mere hour and a half by car.

That is where, in 1806, as Monticello neared completion, Jefferson began to build Poplar Forest, a more private retreat: a modest octagonal home with a skylight-topped central room shaped in a perfect cube. And let us detour here for a moment. Poplar Forest seeks the same stylistic resonances as Monticello, though in a more intimate context, its geometric core and extravagantly tall windows opening onto rolling fields and hills. “When finished,” Jefferson wrote of this building in 1812, “it will be the best dwelling house in the state, except that of Monticello; perhaps preferable to that, as more proportioned to the faculties of a private citizen.”...


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