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By Susan Stein, Curator of Monticello

West side of Monticello

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia’s Piedmont, is an even livelier place than it was in 1993 when the Decorative Arts Trust last visited. Since then the energetic Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF), which owns and operates Monticello, has acquired neighboring Montalto, Jefferson’s “high mountain,” and opened the Jefferson Library, the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, and a linear public park along the Thomas Jefferson Parkway. The Foundation remains devoted to carrying out its mission of preservation and education, and in April opened the largest educational initiative in its history—the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith Education Center, the 21st century gateway to Monticello. These efforts carry out Jefferson’s idea—“Cherish... the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention.”

Gallery from "Making Monticello: Jefferson’s 'Essay in Architecture'”

The new center, nestled at the foot of the “little mountain,” includes five pavilions sited around a central courtyard. Like Jefferson’s design for the grounds of the University of Virginia, the plan is open to the west. Key elements are the Robert H. and Clarice Smith Gallery with four exhibitions, a theater, three classrooms, a hands-on discovery room, café, welcome pavilion, and museum shop. A new film, Thomas Jefferson’s World, frames the new visitor experience with its impressionistic rendering of the lost plantation world and emphasis on Jefferson’s enduring ideas about liberty and equality.

Bust of Thomas Jefferson by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1789

The highly praised, innovative exhibitions highlight Jefferson’s ideas and achievements. The Words of Thomas Jefferson is as much a work of art as it is a means of conveying Jefferson’s views. It features 186 quotations by Jefferson on 13 different topics. The interactive Boisterous Sea of Liberty traces the development and impact of Jefferson’s ideas about liberty and places them in the context of his time and ours. Making Monticello: Jefferson’s “Essay in Architecture” presents the architectural origins, construction, and four-decade evolution of the Monticello house, the prestigious World Heritage site recognized for its expression of Jefferson’s creative genius. Monticello as Experiment: “To Try All Things” presents Jefferson’s Enlightenment ideas and how he used them to improve life inside the house and across his plantation.

The house features many noticeable changes. Hundreds of objects have been added to the collection, architectural elements have been restored, and garden features reinstated. Chief among the recent acquisitions is Jean-Antoine Houdon’s superb terracotta-patinated bust of Jefferson, taken in August 1789, just as he was about to return to America. Two different pairs of fauteuils à la reine, four of the 48 French chairs that Jefferson purchased in Paris, have also made their way home to Monticello. His Cabinet now contains microscopes, a ring dial, an orrery, and a pocket globe that vividly reveal his active interest in scientific observation.

Two green-louvered enclosures adjacent to his study and book room (Jefferson called them “porticles”) have been restored. These allowed him privacy to read and write, shielded from the sun, while enjoying ­mountain­top breezes. The North Square Room, once white, is now a brilliant yellow and contains a portrait of the room’s frequent visitor, the Abbe Correia da Serra, Jefferson’s philosphe friend. The terrace is enhanced by a re-creation of Jefferson’s remarkable spherical sundial, seated on B. H. Latrobe’s corn capital (a copy of an original from the U. S. Capitol).

These improvements—and more—await the exploration of the Trust’s members in September.

This article from our archives was originally published in July 2009.