Monticello offers an intimate look at the life and ingenuity of Thomas Jefferson.
Photo courtesy: Monticello/Lautman

Every February, I think I’ll mark Presidents Day properly. I’ll take the White House tour, visit the America’s Presidents exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, go to Mount Vernon, where they wish our first president a happy birthday with a surprise party and serve his favorite breakfast of hoecakes while “George” answers questions about his beloved estate.

Presidents Day began as a celebration of George Washington’s Feb. 22 birthday, second in popularity only to the Fourth of July, with parades and parties in his honor. In recent years, though, the holiday has morphed into an opportunity to honor all the presidents.

That’s why I prefer celebrating the holiday by heading for the holy trinity of presidential homes: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Madison’s Montpelier and James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland. The homes are located within a short drive of each other in the rolling foothills near Charlottesville, Va., a comfortable mix of Colonial history, architectural grandeur and sophisticated accommodations.

Visiting in winter means avoiding crowds, and there are plenty of coffeehouses and bed and breakfasts where you can curl up with an 18th-century biography between tours.

Monticello

931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville, Va.
434-984-9822
www.monticello.org
Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. December through February; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March through November.
Admission: $17, November through February; $22, March through October; $8 for children 6-11 year-round; free for those under 6.

Maybe it’s the 18-foot ceilings, the light pouring through triple-paned windows, or the long, scenic walk uphill to reach the house, an epiphany of architecture perched above rolling countryside. Whatever it is, standing in the grand entrance hall of Monticello feels like standing in the Church of Thomas Jefferson.

While others in my tour group peek around doorways at the parlor and bedchamber, I’m transfixed by the Romanesque hall and the wide-ranging collection of objects displayed there. A brightly painted buffalo hide hangs high from the balcony railing, one of many reproductions of Native American gifts collected by Lewis and Clark during the exploration Jefferson sponsored. Nearby are busts and paintings of men he admired—Voltaire and Turgot, Americus Vespucius and John Adams—and engravings of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s ingenuity is on display, too: The enormous clock he invented to tell the day of the week still ticks.

The guide, a font of Jeffersonian quotes and detail, acknowledges the magnificence of the place, then artfully brings Jefferson down to earth. Monticello, she says, was constantly under construction as Jefferson experimented with design. He installed some of the first skylights and built double pocket windows to keep out the cold, but still it came. Jefferson burned 10 cords of wood a month in winter, and wrote to his friends that the ink on the end of his pen was freezing.

Monticello was nothing if not lively, even in winter, when holidays brought myriad guests to what Jefferson called “a merry-go-round of hospitality.” The parlor features the delicate-looking harpsichord they might have played; Jefferson himself entertained friends with his violin. Tables are set for chess or cards. In the dining room is the clever dumbwaiter that brought wine up from the cellar on a pulley. The tables are set for the sumptuous meals for which Monticello became known. Jefferson favored French cuisine, the guide says, and had his cooks trained in Paris.

Almost all of Jefferson’s 11 grandchildren lived here with his daughter and son-in-law, and there were some 140 slaves and freedmen, as well.

More of Monticello’s backstory unfolds at the new, three-story visitor center, a beautifully designed museum of all things Jefferson. It includes a detailed model of the house, profiles of some of the nearly 200 individuals who lived on the plantation and interactive exhibits describing Jefferson’s views on politics, religion and slavery (including his relationship with Sally Hemings, the slave with whom many believe he fathered six children).

In the hands-on “discovery room,” visitors can pretend to be a slave girl learning to weave, write with Jefferson’s copy machine (which traces the writer’s movements with a second pen), try on Colonial-style garb or hammer old-fashioned nails to get into the mind-set of Monticello.

Montpelier

11407 Constitution Highway, Montpelier Station, Va., 28 miles northwest of Charlottesville on Highway 20
540-672-2728
www.montpelier.org
Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. November through March; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. April through October.
Admission: $16; $8 for children 6-14; free for those under 6.

James Madison grew up at Montpelier, and his parents were still living in the house when his vivacious wife, Dolley, joined him there. Although Madison was great friends with Jefferson, he was quite different from our third president. Jefferson was an effervescent and gregarious host; Madison was more reserved.

Today, the houses are in marked contrast to one another, as well. Though Monticello looks as if guests could walk in at any moment and sit down to tea, Montpelier is still undergoing restoration. The day I visit, I’m the only guest. Standing alone in each of the sparsely furnished rooms, I spot architectural touches I might not have noticed in a crowded environment, including an interior “rob” window that brings light from an exterior room to an interior stairwell, and a large closet shared by several bedrooms (since homes were taxed according to the number of closets).

The engaging guide points out evidence of the restoration itself: The ghost imprint of a chair rail shows where that element will be replaced; a cutaway wall reveals layers of 18th-century-style insulation; and ink stains on the floor of Madison’s library indicate where his desk was located. It’s easy to imagine our fourth president gazing out the window across the bucolic landscape before dipping his pen back into the inkwell, writing out our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

Like Monticello and Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland to the south, Montpelier was sold when the president’s widow fell on hard financial times. It eventually was purchased by William duPont in 1901. The duPonts doubled the size of Montpelier, and their daughter, Marion duPont Scott, created a leading horse-training center here.

Steeplechase races are still held each fall on the 2,650-acre property. The duPont Gallery, part of Montpelier’s visitor center, re-creates the elegant style of a wealthy 20th-century family, as well as the art deco verve of the 1920s.