I’ve never been a Thomas Jefferson fan. Where others see complexity, I see selfishness. And the Monticello Behind the Scenes tour just confirmed that opinion.
Monticello, just south of Charlottesville, Virginia, was the primary home of Thomas Jefferson. The land was inherited from his father and Jefferson started building Monticello in 1768, at the age of 25. He worked on it for the rest of his life.
There’s always a huge distinction between public and servant areas in a grand house. Jefferson took that a step farther: there’s a huge distinction between his living space and that of everyone else. The Monticello basic tour covers the rooms on the first floor that were the center of Jefferson’s life: his bedroom, his study, his diningroom, his parlor. They are models of beauty and function. The Behind the Scenes tour gave us a chance to see the rest of the house: drab and less than ideally functional.
We went upstairs via narrow, steep steps hidden in the back of the house. Jefferson thought that stairs were a waste of space and that the standard step size was too low to be efficient. Steep, narrow steps would have been fine for Jefferson, at 6’2.5” — not that he ever had the need to go upstairs. But for people with shorter legs, or women in wide skirts, or slaves hauling laundry up and down, they would have been a nightmare. It was an issue for a couple of people in our tour group and the guide suggested – because it’s not an uncommon problem – that they go down backwards.
In contrast to the open, elegant spaces on the first floor, the upstairs rooms are mostly small, square and unfurnished. I won’t blame Jefferson for the unfurnished part – they’re still working on interior restoration. But I blame him for the windows, which are awkwardly placed because he wanted the house to look, from the outside, like it’s one-story.
Jefferson had a thing for beds recessed into the wall and all the rooms had alcoves to accommodate beds. Unlike his bed, however, which opens to his bedroom and to his study, guest beds were boxed in on three sides. Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, begged him for a regular bed — this when she was 40, running the household for her father, and living at Monticello with her children. After several months of pleading, she wrote, her father relented.
The most Jeffersonian space upstairs, and the only place where we were allowed to take pictures inside the house, was the dome room on the third floor. It didn’t have a specific purpose and was, at various times, a playroom for young Jefferson grandchildren, an apartment for adult Jefferson grandchildren, and storage.
Jefferson’s wife, Martha, lived much of her life in a house that was never completed, with a husband who was rarely home. It’s thought that she had diabetes, exacerbated by pregnancies. She had six children and multiple miscarriages during her 10 year marriage to Jefferson. Only two of her children survived past the age of three. While Jefferson was traveling to Philadelphia in May 1776, to the Second Continental Congress, Martha was having a miscarriage.