Monticello, a gloriously eccentric homestead, settled atop of a 850-foot -high peak was once the home of the enigmatic Thomas Jefferson. The third president of the United States spent more than four decades designing, dismantling and reimagining the estate he called his “essay in architecture.”
Observing the house from the outside one may think that sure, it’s a beautiful home, but what is all the fuss about?
What you need to grasp and fully appreciate is all the fascinating little details that can only be absorbed by taking a few trips to the home, a home filled with glorious flaws, quirkiness, yet brilliance. A home that was always a“work in progress”.
Jefferson was a true renaissance man and Monticello is the living embodiment of that. Each room tells it’s own tale, each item in the room a talking point. Franklin D. Roosevelt once wrote, “More than any historic home in America, Monticello speaks to me as an expression of the personality of its builder.” Indeed.
The Great Clock
The Entrance Hall clock-face indicates the hours and minutes on a larger dial, and the seconds on a smaller one. The clock is powered by two sets of cannon-ball-like weights (eighteen pounds each), which drive its ticking and the striking of a gong on the roof. The weights are strung on ropes that descend in the corners of the room on either side of the clock, through holes in the floor to the cellar below. Jefferson placed labels next to the path of the running weights to indicate the days of the week. The clock was wound every Sunday with a cranklike key.
Wines from all over the world were consumed at Monticello. Jefferson and his guests consumed around 400 bottles per year. Wine was served in the formal English manner, following dessert after the table cloth was removed. The cellar is just below the Dining Room and the dumbwaiter carried the wine straight up for serving.
The luscious garden laid out on Mulberry Row is a botanical showpiece, an experimental tract of land of ornamental and useful plants from around the world.
For decades, the 1,000-foot-long garden was neglected and coated by layers of dirt. It was only known through Jefferson’s writings until archaeologists began excavating in the 1970s. With Peter Hatch leading the charge, the land has since been revitilized into a thriving tribute to Jefferson’s own experimental garden.
Jefferson’s garden was a living laboratory for a lifelong tinkerer and borderline obsessive record keeper. Jefferson was, in many ways, a crop scientist. He somehow found spare time to meticulously document his many trials and errors, growing over 300 varieties of more than 90 different plants. These included sesame, chickpeas, tomatoes, eggplant and sea kale. They’re more commonly available now, but were rare for the region at the time.
Numerous things failed in the garden. His journal entries from 1809 show thats carrots, beets, okra, cauliflower, tarragon and Chinese melons all fell short . Jefferson cites Windsor Beans as “killed by bug” and notes on Aug. 21: “From the 7th of Apr. to this day, excessive drought and cold. Now a good rain.”
When you visit Monticello, take your time and try not to breeze through everything. It took me a few trips to really absorb what the place was about. He designed every detail of Monticello as a talking point and enjoyed hosting people. So, when you go, take it easy, stroll around the gardens, take in the view and really pay attention to the details.
Tips for Your Visit
Tickets are $25 for adults. Children 12-18 are $16.
- Go early fall when the leaves are changing yet the garden is still lavish.
- Plan to arrive at least 30 minutes prior to your house tour reservation. It takes approximately 30 minutes to collect tickets and ride the Monticello shuttle bus from the ticketing area to the house itself. Because Monticello uses timed ticketing to expedite the house tour process, you face a significant delay if you miss your tour time.
- Try to get the behind the scene tour experience. This is typically only offered twice a day (sometimes more) so book in advance. It’s more expensive but worth it. Cost $55
- Before you take the house tour, see the 15-minute introductory film Thomas Jefferson’s World. The film runs every 20 minutes, so plan accordingly.