Summer camp at Jefferson's Poplar Forest

Deborah Holmes

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poplar forest
With another Jefferson masterpiece, Monticello, as a backdrop, students in the Restoration Field School examine historical restoration techniques.
Travis McDonald Photo

Two weeks away from home, sleeping in a college dorm room, digging for historical artifacts, staying up late, going on field trips. Does it make you wish you were a kid at summer camp again?

You can't turn back the clock to recapture your youth, but you can go to this summer camp.

For 16 years, the Poplar Forest Restoration Field School has catered to a diverse group of adult "campers" whose idea of heaven is two weeks of intense, hands-on training in museum quality research and restoration. Poplar Forest, near Lynchburg, Virginia was Thomas Jefferson's final great architectural work, as well as his retreat from the demands of public life. The estate consists of an brick octagonal mansion circa 1806, outbuildings and landscaped grounds.

Over the course of two weeks, field school students will hear 120 hours of lectures, participate in architectural and archeological investigations, visit area public and private restoration projects, and produce professional quality documentation, including architectural drawings and photos. A typical day might include a field trip, on-site demonstrations of restoration techniques, a hands-on activity and a reading (yes, homework) assignment.

An interest in historical restoration, rather than actual experience, is key in being selected for the program. Participants have included undergraduate and graduate students, historians, architects, interior designers, craftsmen and contractors, as well as a sprinkling of adults from other walks of live who happen to have a hankering for hands-on history.

The course is inexpensive -- $350 (nor including room and board). For the first time this year, the Vernacular Architecture Forum offered two fieldwork scholarships for this and five other field schools. Dormitory rooms with shared bath and kitchen facilities are available at Lynchburg College for approximately $22 a day. Students are encouraged to stay at the college to facilitate after-hours discussion and work groups.

Travis McDonald, Poplar Forest architectural historian and founder of the field school, hand picks students based on an application essay and recommendations. Enrollment is limited to 10 to 12 students.

Poplar Forest is an active restoration project and the bulk of the lectures and activities take place on the grounds. Field school students might observe workmen hand carving moulding based on an original Jeffersonian design, or mixing a batch of lime mortar from a historic recipe.

The highlight of the program for most, McDonald says, is the investigation of a structure from inside out. This can be a historic public building, or in some cases, a local house of historic significance. Students take measurements, do architectural drawings, photos, research and documentation.

frieze model
Plastic model of the frieze Jefferson designed for the main room of Poplar Forest. Visible above is the skylight that provides natural light for the windowless room.
OHW Photo

"Details are important," says McDonald. "It's critical to learn how to 'read a house.'"

By this he means researching and interpreting artifacts and documents, documenting materials, understanding historic procedures, and finally synthesizing all the tiny details into a document that records the history of the house.

It's the same process that has won Poplar Forest the coveted Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. For example, it wasn't enough to know that plans for the frieze in the most formal central room in the Poplar Forest octagonal house broke from strict classical order and included ox skulls, rather than human faces. Was this an unlikely mistake by Jefferson? An inaccurate interpretation of an order? An inappropriate later addition?

An investigation revealed the answer. In a letter to his confused sculptor, Jefferson explained that since Poplar Forest was a private dwelling, he felt he could take a little liberty and "follow (his) fancy...although in a public work I feel bound to follow authority strictly."

Although Jefferson never lived to see the fruition of his design, craftsmen have recreated the elaborate frieze based on records and drawings.

  • The 2006 Restoration Field School dates are May 28 to June 10.
  • From June 4 to July 7, 2006, a historical archeology summer program will be held. Participants will work with Poplar Forest archeologists, excavating an early nineteenth-century building complex adjacent to Jefferson's ornamental grounds.
  • The University of Virginia School of Continuing & Professional Studies is sponsoring an archeology camp for teachers from July 31 to August 4.

More information of Poplar Forest's Field School and camps can be found on the Poplar Forest Web site.

For an Old House Web story on Poplar Forest, click here.

About the Author
By Deborah Holmes, The Old House Web

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