Jefferson's Poplar Forest: A Footnote That Stands on Its Own

Jefferson's "other home," known as Poplar Forest, may be his most perfect architectural work.
Jefferson's "other home," known as Poplar Forest, may be his most perfect architectural work. (By Les Schofer)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009

There's a good chance that there are images of two of Thomas Jefferson's houses in your pocket. On the $20 bill is the White House, where he lived from 1801 to 1809, while president of the United States. And on the nickel is Jefferson-designed Monticello, perhaps the most famous historic house in America, where he lived from 1770 until his death in 1826. But there is a third Jefferson house, designed, built and beloved by him, and used in the last decades of his life as a secret getaway from the hubbub of public life. It's not pictured on any coin or bill, and it remains little known to anyone who doesn't esteem Jefferson primarily as an architect.

Poplar Forest, as it's known, may be Jefferson's most perfect architectural work. About 80 miles southwest of Monticello, it was intended as a retreat, or villa, designed after the most perfect Palladian precedents. Like Monticello, it has the Piedmont look, the red brick and white trim, the simple columns and classical porticos. But unlike Monticello, it was meant as a private sanctum, a place to read and write, commune with nature, and live with the closest family members. An invitation there was rarer than a slot on President Obama's BlackBerry list.

Poplar Forest has been in the hands of a private, nonprofit group since it almost fell prey to subdivision development in 1984. Over the years, the Corporation for Jefferson's Poplar Forest has slowly restored the house, returning it to how it looked in the early 19th century. Although the house has been open to the public since 1986, on Wednesday, they held a grand opening for its newly restored East wing, an extension that contained a kitchen and other services that was mostly destroyed sometime after Jefferson's family sold the house in 1828.

Even today, restoration continues, but with the exception of some interior rooms that are being deliberately left unfinished to show the internal structure of the house, and some landscaping and other details, Poplar Forest looks much as it did when Jefferson lived there. It is a brick octagon, subdivided into four smaller octagons, arranged around a perfectly square dining room in the center of the house.

Each space is ordered, light flows in, and from both inside and out (where it sits low and modestly on a gentle incline) the house has a quiet dignity that is captivating. Jefferson's parlor has floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto a back lawn. Sit there with a book during the warmer months, and you might feel yourself floating in some middle place between natural and man-made worlds. Jefferson's bedroom is a miniature version of the famous private wing at Monticello, with the peculiar alcove bed that has always fascinated visitors to his more famous home.

But it is the interior, cubic room, which soars to the full height of the house, that is most breathtaking. Lit by a skylight, its white plaster walls glow, like a Mediterranean garden.

The newly restored wing features a typically Jeffersonian feature: A flat roof, with deck on top, built over his innovative shingled and guttered roof design. It was intended almost as a landscape feature to balance a now-missing row of trees on the opposite side of the house, and connect it with one of two symmetrically placed earthen mounds that Jefferson used to frame the exquisitely balanced house.

Monticello is a pilgrimage site, a machine for teaching history, an obligatory field trip, and very often, a crowded, noisy place. Even to friends, Jefferson would refer to Poplar Forest reticently and enigmatically as "my other home," and it is as lovely and compelling a structure, if not so big or famous. As it comes together, slowly, methodically and under the care of archaeologists, historians and craftsmen, it is emerging as one of Jefferson's supreme accomplishments, no longer a footnote to his other works -- the University of Virginia or the Virginia State Capitol -- but very much their equal, or superior.

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