Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest

Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest

Have you ever felt like your life was just too hectic? Do you want to get away from the world and relax?

If so, then you can imagine how Thomas Jefferson felt as the 3rd President of the United States. Jefferson was a man who enjoyed his privacy.  After decades of public service as a congressman, founding father, diplomat, Governor, Vice President and President, folks from around the world regularly called on him — including a seemingly never ending stream of gawkers and tourists peering in his windows.

Front portico of Poplar Forest
Front portico of Poplar Forest

This made it hard for him to find peace and quiet to pursue his diverse set of interests and be alone with his family. While President he found the time to design a retreat villa at Poplar Forest in what is now Forest VA. Based on the classical designs of European retreat villas and lessons learned from earlier architectural projects like Monticello and the University of Virginia, Poplar Forest is considered to be Jefferson’s apex in terms of design.

3/4 View of the main house at Poplar Forest
3/4 View of the main house at Poplar Forest

Jefferson enjoyed his time at Poplar Forest during the last 20 years of his life where he was able to ‘seek the solitude of a hermit’. The drive up to the mansion gives you a taste of how secluded this house was designed to be, though for the lucky few who visited, that first glimpse of the house at it appeared ahead of them must have been breathtaking. The house also gives an interesting look into the private life of this very public figure.

The restored roofline and building footprint
The restored roof-line and building footprint

During Jefferson’s time the house was largely unknown to the outside world. After his death the house and a portion of the lands were left to his grandson Francis W. Eppes who lived their briefly before moving on to Florida where he went on to a successful political career. Given its semi-remote location, and the fact that the house did not function well as a more modern house much of it has survived and is now a museum.

Octagonal 'Necessary' or 'Privy' with its original intricate roof framing
Octagonal ‘Necessary’ or ‘Privy’ with its original intricate roof framing

The museum and the non profit foundation that backs it have been working on restoring the house to how it looked at the end of Jefferson’s time there. Fire, later owners and weather have all taken their toll over the years, but the craftsmen and scholars who work on it have been doing an excellent job of bringing the house back to its earlier grandeur. With each visit there is always something new to see.

Model of the Jefferson designed flat roof structure above the wing of 'Offices' that funneled water away from the roof and allowed folks to walk on the roof.
Model of the Jefferson designed flat roof structure above the wing of ‘Offices’ that funneled water away from the roof and allowed folks to walk on the roof.

Jefferson loved the idea of having a flat decked roof that one could stroll out onto and refined the details of how to accomplish this several times over the years with varying degrees of sucess. You can see other examples of how he attempted this at Monticello and Montpelier.  The model above shows how the decking sat atop a series of small ridges that were shingles and funneled water out to a series of spouts you can see in the photo below. It will be interesting to see how well it ages.

Wing of 'Offices' which contained a storeroom, kitchen, smoke house, laundry etc
Wing of ‘Offices’ which contained a storeroom, kitchen, smoke house, laundry etc

This wing of ‘offices’ as they were called were designed to house the kitchen, store room, laundry and smoke house all of which served the main house. It also hid the logistics from Jefferson and his guests — he could stroll out on top of this wing and not see the busy servants going about their business below.

Wing of 'Offices' designed to blend into the landscape
Wing of ‘Offices’ designed to blend into the landscape and barely be visible from the front

Beyond the building architecture and historical connections, the home is also notable for its stunning landscape design. From the front of the house the wing of ‘offices’ is barely visible. A combination of trees, mounds, bushes, and other natural elements allowed the house to project a sense of symmetry and scale that made it look like a grand European retreat Villa. Over the years Jefferson continued to refine his vision and expand the site even in the face of mounting debts.

A nice display showing some of the restoration efforts that have been going into the site.
A nice display showing some of the restoration efforts that have been going into the site.

In the basement of the main house is a series of displays that describe the painstaking process the restoration craftsmen have been going through to restore the house over the past 20+ years.

Senior Restoration Craftsman David Clauss with the long joiner's bench he build
Senior Restoration Craftsman David Clauss with the long joiner’s bench he build

I had a great time hanging out with my friend David Clauss who is a Senior Restoration Craftsman for Poplar Forest. Much like Montpelier I love visiting Poplar Forest since much of the restoration work was done recently and is ongoing — so I feel right at home.

Restoration Workshop Sign
Restoration Workshop Sign

Dave was kind enough to also show me around the restoration workshop which is well equipped. Using traditional tools and materials, and the occasional time saving of some power equipment the craftsmen have restored many aspects of the house — from window sash and doors to the massive skylight in the central room and elaborate moldings.

Restoration Workshop
Restoration Workshop

If you’d like to learn more about Poplar Forest you can watch a recent episode of the Woodwright’s Shop where Roy visited Poplar Forest here.

And you can plan your visit on the official page here http://www.poplarforest.org/visit

If you find the time to visit, I highly encourage you to do so. And if you run into David, please tell him I sent you. 😉

-Bill

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