Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest

Deborah Holmes

The view from the library at Poplar Forest. Jefferson had an extensive library, and he and his granddaughters spent many hours reading and studying in this light filled space.
OHW Photo

George W. Bush gets away to his ranch in Crawford, Texas when he needs a break. His father fished, golfed and relaxed at his home in Maine when he needed a break from the White House.

Ever since George Washington began using Mount Vernon as his escape from official duties, American presidents have enjoyed private retreats.

For Thomas Jefferson, that place was Poplar Forest.

The Italian-style villa near Lynchburg, Virginia was a place for Jefferson to, in his own words, "detach myself from public life, which I have never loved, and retire to the bosom of my family, my friends, my farm and my books, which I have always loved."

Today, nearly two centuries after Jefferson's death, Poplar Forest retains the quiet dignity of a country retreat. Jefferson's public house, Monticello, will host a half million visitors this year. By contrast, only 35,000 will visit Poplar Forest, 90 miles south of Monticello, in the same time.

Yet despite its low public profile when compared to Monticello, Poplar Forest is a detour worth taking -- especially for anyone with an interest in restoration.

The estate's owners -- a private, non-profit corporation -- have meticulously researched the house and some of the grounds. Now they're restoring the estate.

The historical process, and not just the results, are front-and-center in this restoration. Tradesmen keep the faith with Jefferson's original vision for Poplar Forest by using special tools and period techniques. For example: Custom-made, hand-molded reproduction bricks and lime mortars from historic recipes were used in restoring masonry. And white oak floors were hand-planed and re-laid in the original herringbone pattern.

before and after
A back view of the house shows two storeys. Top photo is the house after restoration in 1998. The bottom photo was taken in 1986 before the original pediment was reconstructed.
Library of Congress Historic American Building Survey photo

Framing for the restoration of the pediment.
Photo: Travis McDonald

The day I visited in October 2005, carpenters were replicating Jefferson's famous terras roof. This meant replicating the mortise-and-tenon roofing members, hand carving and planing gutter joists, and shaping shingles by hand. The one modern concession is a layer of high-tech rubber membrane under this famously complex, and alas, famously leaky, roof.

Using historic techniques and authentic materials gives a real sense of the challenges facing Jefferson in the construction of Jefferson's estate, says Travis McDonald, director of architectural restoration for Poplar Forest. It also fosters a new appreciation for Jefferson's vision, for his creativity, and especially for his perseverance.

The new homes surrounding Poplar Forest were built in a matter of months. By contrast, Poplar Forest was designed in 1806 and was completed in 1826. Along the way Jefferson dealt with problems of transportation, supply, workers and severe weather. And although he was in his 60s when construction began, he was still balancing demands of his public life.

Undoubtedly, Jefferson also dealt with more than one friend, relative, or neighbor who shook his head and wondered just what this former president, diplomat, and scholar could have been thinking.

If building the house was difficult, maintaining it wasn't much easier. In 1819, a ferocious hail storm with three-inch stones destroyed the central skylight. A roof fire in 1825 lead Jefferson to replace the chestnut shakes with a tin roof, a new technology he also employed at Monticello and at the University of Virginia. Unfortunately, the shingles at Poplar Forest were installed contrary to Jefferson's instructions. The roof leaked, his grandson would attest, "not in one, but in a hundred places."

Three years after Jefferson's death in 1823, the same grandson sold the estate out of the family.

Poplar Forest Today

These days the estate sits serenely among encroaching suburbia, its original 4,1827 acres shrunken to a mere 500 (Up from only 50 acres in 1980). Strip shopping centers and new neighborhoods of large suburban houses surround, and are visible, from the house. The Corporation recently rescued the last undeveloped adjacent land, a parcel Jefferson called his "Lower Field." The 72-acre parcel that once housed Jefferson's tobacco barns was slated for commercial/industrial development.

After being sold by Jefferson's grandson, Poplar Forest remained in the Cobb-Hutter family from 1826 until 1946. It passed through two more owners before it was sold to the Corporation for Jefferson's Poplar Forest in 1984. Two years later the estate was open to the public for the first time. The Corporation offers a number of hands-on opportunities to learn about Poplar Forest, from programs for school groups to an innovative Restoration School, a kind of summer camps for adults who don't mind the challenging, and often times messy, work of restoration.

A restoration carpenter works on the historic balustrade on Poplar Forest's roof.

Photo: Travis McDonald

plaster work
Plasterers at work in the formal center room of the house.
Photo: Travis McDonald

wall cutaway
Poplar Forest today is meant to inspire as well as instruct. The wall in one room of the main octagonal house shows the various stages of plaster restoration.
Photo: Travis McDonald

Narrow white oak flooring laid in a herringbone pattern is believed to be one of the earliest European style floor in America. Jefferson planned and directed the construction of the floor in the dining room. The flooring in the photo is a recreation of the original floor.
OHW Photo

Iron bars provide reinforcement for the brick hearths in the house.
OHW Photo

Jefferson employed many technologies learned from his European travels at Poplar Forest. Pictured here is a recreation of the original stew pot range. The grates and the stew kettle allowed for controlled cooking not possible over the open hearths more typical of the Jefferson's time. These stew pot ranges were sometimes found in fine houses in Europe, but were very rare in America in the early 1800s.
OHW Photo

"The finest dwelling in the state..."

Poplar Forest was Jefferson's country retreat, but it was no cabin in the woods. Architectural historians regard the main house as one of Jefferson's architectural masterpieces. In his 60s when construction of the villa began, Jefferson synthesized elements of the ancient, classical French and Italian architecture in the main house. Jefferson took added a healthy dose of modern interpretation and innovation to the classic design.

The main house is an octagon, one of the first in America. The eight-sized structured not only appealed to Jefferson's mathematical mind, it allowed light-filled interior spaces and circulation of cooling breezes. The octagonal shape is Jefferson's modern spin on the round Temple of Vesta, designed by Italian architect Palladio in the 16th century. A self-taught architect, Jefferson was greatly influenced by Palladio, calling his "The Four Books of Architecture" his "bible."

Set into the hillside, the two-storey house appears to be a one-story building, an idea Jefferson embraced during his years as minister to France. Jefferson noted that "all the new and good houses in Paris" were one-storey structures.. Surrounded by the hillside, the basement was naturally cool and was used for storage and cooking. Free and enslaved workers may have occasionally slept in the lower chambers.

The inside space consists of a perfect cube surrounded by four elongated octagons. With no outside walls, the central space is flooded with light from a 16-foot long skylight. The elongated outside octagons were used as bed chambers, a parlor, a library and a dining room. In 1814, Jefferson added a 110-foot long row of "service rooms", based on a concept in Palladio's books.

Practicality butted heads with classicism -- and won -- in Jefferson's design for the house. Shortly after construction began, Jefferson added two porches, two stair pavilions and six doorways to the design. The north porch, or portico, gave the house a neoclassical look and provided a sheltered entrance in bad weather. The south porch had a sweeping view of the hand-excavated sunken lawn, formal gardens and fields beyond. Bedrooms contained raised alcove beds, which allowed free circulation of breezes in the summer. In chilly weather, curtains could be drawn around the beds, providing some warmth. An indoor privy stood just outside of Jefferson's bedrooms. Two octagonal outdoor privies served other family members and guests. Although Jefferson disliked staircases because he felt they wasted space, he designed two staircases in the house, allowing inside passage between floors.

It took 20 years to complete and required almost constant rebuilding, but Jefferson boasted that the house would be:

"The finest dwelling in the state, except that of Monticello, perhaps preferable to that, as more proportioned to the faculties of a private citizen."

Granddaughters and a farmer

In 1816 Jefferson, a widower of many years, began brining his granddaughters to Poplar Forest. Copies of letters from the time reveal a warm and loving relationship.

"My grandfather was very happy during these sojourns...far from noise and news...both of which he got too much at Monticello," reported granddaughter Ellen Wales Randolph Coolidge. "And we, his grand-daughters were very happy, too."

The girls reported that Jefferson often took time to have thoughtful discussion with them, "as if we were much older and wiser people," and describe him as animated, cheerful and affectionate.

Poplar Forest was a working plantation, and Jefferson oversaw the production of a cash tobacco crop as well as vegetables to meet the needs of his family and the enslaved and free workers at Poplar Forest. He delighted in growing vegetables, writing in one letter, "tho an old man, I am but a young gardener."

Leaking roof

Shortly before Thomas Jefferson died in 1826, his grandson, Frances Eppes wrote a desperate letter. The roof of Poplar Forest was leaking "not in one but in a hundred places," he wrote.

"The plaistering of the parlour is so entirely wet every rain, that I begin to fear it will fall in. Large buckets of water pass through it,"

The source of the roof leaks were two-fold:

  • Tin roof shingles used to replace the original chestnut shakes after a chimney and roof fire in were installed incorrectly, and allowed water to be drawn up under the shingles.
  • Drainage issues inherent to flat roofs.

Roofs on the main octagon as well as the service wing are flat. By Jefferson's design, the roof over the wing also serves as a flat deck for walking. At twilight, he and his granddaughters would stroll out onto a deck over the roof to watch bats and owls.

Jefferson knew that flat roofs could have drainage problems, so he devised a complex system of drainage, which he called a "serrated roof." Beneath the flat surface is a hollow system of ridge-and-valley "rooflets" (as Jefferson called them) connected by wood shingles. In theory, the flat deck would allow water and rain to fall between the deck boards onto the sloping shingles below. From there, pitched gutter channels running the full length of each gutter joist would drain the water out via a spout, or scupper.

As letters of Eppes and others attest, the roof leaked almost from the beginning.

Rubber membranes have been installed under the roof in the main house as well as under the roof of the wing -- one of the few modern concessions to the painstaking hand restoration of the estate.

roof model
A model of Jefferson's terras roof helps visitors and craftsmen understand the design. Underneath the flat decking was a complex series of shingle covered ridges and valleys. Water drained down grooves in the shingles to channels that ran the length of the joists, and finally out through the spout.
OHW Photo

Hand planed and grooved, this board will take its place in the roofing system.
OHW Photo

The terras roof over the newly constructed service wing takes shape.
OHW Photo

In this photo, workers have begun to lay the flat walking deck over a portion of the terras roof.

OHW Photo


Poplar Forest's rescue and restoration is divided in phases.

  • The earliest, pre-restoration phase began in 1986 and lasted six years. Research and stabilization of the buildings were the goals of this phase.
  • Phase I of restoration began in 1993 and in the next five years, the house changed dramatically. Using what they learned through research and artifact excavation, workmen restored the main cube in the octagon to its original dimensions, and reconstructed the skylight and roof. By 1998, the outside of the house looked as it did when Jefferson lived in it. In recognition of the meticulous and historically accurate restoration, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded the Corporation its Honor Award.
  • Interior work was the focus of Phase II. By 2001, polished oak floors replaced the pine floors that had been added after Jefferson's time; 14 fireplaces and hearths were restored, rooms, plastered, and alcove beds reconstructed.
  • In 2005, attention then turned to rebuilding the service wing, a project the Corporation hopes to complete this year. It will be the first time since 1840 that the estate will look as it did in Jefferson's time.

Visiting Poplar Forest

This National Historic Landmark is located southwest of Lynchburg in beautiful Bedford County, Virginia. Guided tours of the octagonal house are conducted from 10 to 4 Wednesday through Monday from April through November, except Thanksgiving Day. Poplar Forest is closed on Tuesdays. Special events for visitors are held throughout the season. Group tours are available by appointment year-round.

Admission for tours is $8 adults, $6 seniors, $1 youth 6-16, children under the age of 6 are admitted free of charge.

Visit thePoplar Forest Web site.

About the Author
By Deborah Holmes, The Old House Web

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