Location: Lynchburg, Virginia
Webpage: Private Museum
General Description: In addition to Monticello and other farmland holdings, Thomas Jefferson owned over 4800 acres in central Virginia near Lynchburg which he inherited from his father-in-law, John Wayles in 1773. At the time the farm was operated by overseerers and provided a modest source of income. While serving as President, Thomas Jefferson began plans to construct a country home on the property and in 1805 began work on the first octagonal home in the US. Built in accordance with Palladian principles from Europe, the home consisted of a 20 foot square dining room in the center, bedrooms to the east and west, porticos to the north and south, and a service wing to the east. The design is unique with large windows in each room and a sky light in the center to provide natural light throughout the house all through the day. Thomas Jefferson used this home as a retreat from the rigors of public life in his retirement, making the three day journey from Monticello at least three times a year for periods of a few weeks to months at a time. During most of these trips he was accompanied by some of his grandchildren who recalled the leisurely trips and memorable times at Poplar Forest with their grandfather. Upon his death, the estate was left to his grandson, Francis Eppes. Unfortunately to pay off Thomas Jefferson debts, most of the land had to be sold and Francis only lived on the property for a couple of years before selling it and moving to Florida in 1828. By different owners the house through many alterations until 1845 when all but the exterior bricks were destroyed in a fire. In 1983 it was purchased by a private foundation, along with the 40 acres surrounding Poplar Forest to protect it from urbanization. Since that time the foundation has been rebuilding Poplar Forest according to the extensive plans that survive from Jefferson’s library. Along with archeological research, this effort is continuing through today.
1) The first impression you have of Poplar Forest is from the gravel drive into the property, where you see the octagonal home emerge as your crest the hill. It is a very impressive sight and one I am afraid they may lose as the entrance is to be rerouted in the future.
2) The Visitor Center/gift shop is in a separate building along with offices and workspace for the Foundation. This is also the location of the auditorium where the house tour begins. While you can visit the grounds and the basement of the home (which is a small museum) I would recommend paying the fee for the house tour.
3) The tour guide begins with a brief history of Poplar Forest and Thomas Jefferson’s plans for his octagonal home. From their you are escorted to the home itself where you enter through the front portico. From the front portico you can easily see the original bricks of the building that are slightly darker in color from the bricks that have been replaced to restore the original size of the windows that had been changed to floor length windows by subsequent owners.
4) When you enter the home you are immediately struck with the fact that they are still restoring the interior rooms. There is no furniture, the walls have yet to be painted, and the distinctive cornices in each room are still being produced. The woodwork is completed so you can easily see where Jefferson’s bed will be placed in the center of his bedroom in a style similar to Monticello. There is also a stairway down to the basement where his servant would sleep and also had a small private privy installed for Thomas to use during his visits. The two small rooms on either side of the entryway are believed to be for storage leaving very spacious bedrooms to the east and west.
5) The most amazing room is the central dining room that is a perfect 20 foot square room that is lit by a long skylight in the ceiling. They know that this skylight caused Jefferson with a lot of problems with leaking, that continue today. The back portico to the south overlooks the sunken lawn and once you open the windows becomes essentially an outdoor patio. The bedroom to the east has access to the terrace over the service wing where we understand the grandchildren used as a play area during their visits.
6) The servant wing to the east is a series of four rooms that have seen multiple uses over the years. During Jefferson’s time they were the kitchen, laundry, smokehouse, and the quarters for the slave cook. Over time they were also converted into apartments. Today they have restored the original kitchen, however, they have left the other areas as examples of the changes that occurred over time.
7) The sunken lawn is interesting. Jefferson had the field behind the house leveled and lowered creating berms on either side in the European fashion. He paid his slaves to conduct the digging since they were to do it on their own time after working in the fields or during their Sunday off. The slaves removed the dirt creating two mounds on either side of the house marking the ends of the east wing and what was intended to be a west wing as well. The west wing was never completed and their is archeological evidence of poplar and other ornamental tree and shrubs being planted extending from the house to the mounds.
8) On either side of the mounds, Thomas Jefferson had constructed two brick octagonal privies for the use of the family and guests!! Both of these privies still exist and provide a surprise for visitors today.
9) Following the house tour there was an additional tour that focused on the lives of the slaves during Thomas Jefferson’s time. The tour began with a short presentation on the history of slavery and Thomas Jefferson’s conflicting views on slavery. While he was opposed to the institution of slavery on moral grounds, he was dependent upon slavery on practical grounds. The tour continues to the kitchen and finally to a framework outlining one of the slave quarters they have found on the property. They are still searching for other evidence of the slave communities, but they suspect they were in close proximity to the fields and today are covered by residential homes.