Thursday, April 4, 2019

April 2019

Saving Monticello: The Newsletter
The latest about the book, author events, and more
Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson

Volume XVI, Number 4                                                         April 1, 2019

The study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.” – Eric Foner

‘ALMOST A DESERTED RUIN’: In my now twenty-year quest to document the post-Thomas-Jefferson history of Monticello, I continue to find newly digitized first-person accounts of 19th century visits to the mountain. I feel gratified to report that these new (to me) primary sources confirm what I wrote about the condition of the place following Jefferson’s death in Saving Monticello.

The latest case-in-point: An article that appeared in The New York Times on March 11, 1866, about a year after the Civil War ended, a time when Monticello was under the care of cantankerous caretaker Joel Wheeler. During this time, the two partition lawsuits filed by Uriah Levy’s heirs (he had died in 1862) were very slowly wending their way through the courts and the house and grounds suffered greatly under Wheeler’s not-so-benign neglect.

The article, entitled “Affairs in the South,” was written by a special correspondent identified only as a “northern traveler,” and the initials “H.C.,” who was making a reporting tour through the former Confederate states. His stop in Charlottesville contains H.C.’s observations as he and a local acquaintance, Judge Alexander Rives, made their way up to Monticello by foot early in March from Rives’ nearbly home. Qwing to recent wet weather, “the roads were bad.” H.C. said, so the two men “took a stroll up the mountain path to the Heights of Monticello.”

In Jefferson’s time, he writes, “Monticello must have been a delightful residence. Now it is almost a deserted ruin, its occupants being a freedman and his family.” There may have been a former enslaved person and his family at Monticello that day, but it’s all but certain that Joel Wheeler, who was white, was the “occupant” of the house at this time. He would remain living there until Jefferson Levy obtained the property in 1879 from the other heirs, and sent him packing.

H.C. goes on to describe the house as “a very peculiar structure, its architecture being a copy of a building Mr. Jefferson saw in Paris, which struck his fancy.” That simply is not true.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is not a copy of any one structure. For one thing, he designed and built two houses at Monticello—tearing down most of the first one. For another, he was most influenced by the 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio—not by a building he saw in Paris. H.C. gets a D-minus for his knowledge of Monticello’s architectural history.

But his newspaper reporting is much more accurate, as it jibes with virtually every other first-person account of Monticello from the same time. For example, he says the terraces were “rapidly falling into decay,” and that the only furnishings he could see in the parlor were “the old clock over the doorway, and a plaster bust of Jefferson covered with dust.”

The lawn, he wrote, was “a field covered with cornstalks and rubbish.” The “musty smell,” he said, “and the deserted look” of the first-floor rooms “forms a sad contrast to the appearance they represented some forty years ago.” After dissing the narrow stairways and the upstairs bedrooms (“about the worst constructed” he’d “ever seen”), H.C. concluded with this gloomy assessment of Monticello: “Everything about the place is rapidly going to decay.”

There was s silver lining, however. The “house itself, being of very substantial build,” he said, “appears to be in good preservation.”

H.C. and Judge Rives left the house and headed toward the family graveyard. Along the way, H.C. reported that the “timber of the mountain woods was being rapidly diminished,” probably by Joel Wheeler.

The Jefferson family cemetery, which H.C. called a “burying-ground,” was “in a disgraceful state.” Its outside walls were “gradually falling to the ground.” Worse—and there are photographs (such as the one above) that bear this out—was the condition of Jefferson’s tombstone.  Over the years visitors helped themselves to chippings from the stone marker.

With the gate unlocked, H.C. wrote, “ingress can be obtained by every vandal curiosity-hunter disposed to desecrate the tomb of Jefferson for the sake of possessing a chip of the stone monument covering his grave.”

 MONTICELLO’S CABINET: In last month’s newsletter I quoted from an 1861 newspaper article in which a Charleston, South Carolina, newspaper correspondent described a recent visit to Monticello. In his description of the interior of the house, the journalist wrote: “The pencil might delineate, but no words can describe, the exquisite charm of this soft cabinet picture.”

I had no idea what “cabinet” meant in that context. But now I do, as an SM newsletter subscriber—my friend and colleague, the author and former Los Angeles Times art critic Cathy Curtis—emailed to fill me in.

“Beginning in the Renaissance, this was the name for small paintings,” Cathy said, “often of an entire figure,    compressed into the space of a square foot or two, that people kept in a small room, or ‘cabinet.’ The master of the house would have such a room as a private study.”

When I checked, I saw that Jefferson did, indeed, have a room (above) that was known as his cabinet. It’s the small-ish office next to his bedchamber on the first floor. You can get a 360-degree panoramic tour of today’s fully furnished cabinet at this page on Monticello’s website:

EVENTS: Just one in April, on the 13th for the Pentagon DAR Chapter in Alexandria, Virginia, on my book, Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler.

My main event this month—and in the next dozen or so months—will be writing my next book. It’s another house history, this one about Huntland, a historic house and farm in Middleburg, Virginia. It was built in 1837 by William Benton, who supervised the building of Oak Hill, the nearby residence of President James Monroe.

Huntland is on the National Register of Historic Places (, mainly because of what a son of the Gilded Age, Joseph B. Thomas, did after he bought the place in 1911. Thomas, as the National Register designation—written by my colleague, the great architectural historian Maral Kalbian—puts it: “converted and enlarged a relatively modest but stately brick Virginia country dwelling into a Colonial Revival-style masterpiece. At the same time, Thomas… constructed arguably one of the most sophisticated kennels and stables to accommodate horses and hounds associated with point-to-point foxhunting in the region.”

The history of the house in a way parallels that of Monticello, as Huntland went into a steep period of decline in the 1990s and early 2000s, and was saved from ruin, and beautifully preserved and restored, by the current owner, Betsee Parker.

Following a visit to Huntland a few weeks ago

There’s always the chance that I may be doing a last-minute talk or signing. For the latest on that, or to check out my scheduled 2019 events, go to the Events page on my website at

If you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello, or for any of my other books,e email me. For info on my latest book, Ballad of the Green Beret, go to

GIFT IDEAS:  Want a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello? Please e-mail me at  I also have a few as-new, unopened hardcover copies, along with a good selection of brand-new copies of my other books.