I'd heard about it for years. Jefferson's home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. A place you have to see, take the kids to. Near Charlottesville. More than two hours away. Well, there's always Mount Vernon.
But several weeks ago came a concurrence of events that probably won't be repeated until the resident 11-year-old is 18: a Friday when we parents didn't work and he didn't have a) school; b) a soccer game; c) a swimming meet; d) and orthodontist appointment.
That such a day approached was known well in advance, and it occasioned much family discussion about how to use it: The boy's first suggestion was King's Dominion. Mine was the Hirshhorn Museum. The compromise on Monticello was hammered out with relatively little pain over dinner and maps of Virginia Thursday night.
Hours later the day of the Big Trip dawned clear and cold. We loaded the wagon with one grown couple, the 11-year-old destined for a day of culture, a two-year-old whose destiny for the day was a matter of some anxiety to all; a jug of coffee, a bag of fruit, and - I'll admit it - several bottles of pop.
We missed the glorious show the trees put on farther south, but the trip down to Charlottesville was still lovely. And not just for the adults: The two-year-old saw enough farms, construction work and junkyards to keep him happy and chatting about horsies and bang-bang cars until half an hour from Charlottesville. The 11-year-old had his own fantasy: Somewhere south of Culpeper, as we passed country stores, broken-down houses and restaurants and seedy antique joints, my husband declared that we had arrived in "the boondocks." The 11-year-old came to life: "The boonies!" he repeated. "Good, Maybe we'll see some rednecks."
Some 90 miles later, in which we never stopped and never saw any certifiable rednecks, we were driving through the University of Virginia campus.
Monticello is roughly 15 minutes west out of Charlottesville. You take the Route 29 by-pass, make a left on Interstate 64, a right on Route 20 south and a left on Route 53, which takes you past the Michie Tavern Museum and on to Monticello.
Climbing up the "little mountain" on a narrow road you think for a moment of the Pyrenees; but Monticello's narrow roads are only one way, and besides, the view is too spectacular to worry. Soon you are at the top in a cleared area, and can look over the valley to the tiny specks of brown and white that minutes ago were Charlottesville. On a clear day you can see Richmond.
You climb in a circular motif, reading facts from a thin guidebook, feeling a shortness of breath from the height, and at last you walk up to the west front door. A man opens the door a crack, like they do at weddings when you arrive too late to be seated. "It'll be just a few minutes," he says.
It was, and soon about 15 of us stood in the entrance hall, two stories high, dominated by the seven-day clock that Mr. Jefferson, as our guide called him, designed. The tour of the house is short, clear and awesome. Monticello was designed by Jefferson from scratch, filled with his inventions and innovations: automatic French doors in the ballroom that swing open and shut if you move only half of the set; dumbwaiters hidden in the dining room fireplaces and connecting to the wine cellar; beds tucked into alcoves; windows that can become doors, narrow unobtrusive stairs to the upper-level bedrooms and dome room. Monticello, which took 25 years to build, is the ultimate monument of American man to his fascination with gadgets.
The European renaissance man contented himself with writing a seminal tract on economics and government, designing a few artistic masterpieces, mastering foreign languages at a young age, and making at least one scientific breakthrough. Jefferson did enough of those things, but he also designed all his own curtains, a music stand for five, a coffee urn, and parquet floors for his ballroom. And he was able to get the floors for $200.
The tour becomes disquieting: Jefferson, even with the help of his slaves (never mentioned on the tour), managed to accomplish too much to be believeable for one man. Your husband, your kids, other people on the tour can't compare.
The sensation grows as we leave the mansion and wander down by the stables (immaculate) and around through the all-weather passageway to the mini-museum, beer room and rum room (rum was used mainly by the slaves, the plaque notes) to the kitchen and wine cellar linked to the dinning room by a network of dumbwaiters and a revolving door with shelves to keep the food warm - all designed by Mr. Jefferson.
Past the gardens, designed by Mr. Jefferson, for five minutes in the family graveyard, below the hilltop Jefferson carved level to create his home. Jefferson is there, as are his descendants. Maintenance men are raking leaves and bagging them.
A line from a brochure comes back: Monticello, more than any other house in the country, is the creation of one man. Thomas Jefferson - the ultimate Harry Homeowner.