Southern Swing 2016 (Part I)

My wife and I took the opportunity to take a week’s break and head on down to slightly warmer climes. As with any trip like this, we took in some historic homes and I thought I’d share an account here of the interesting things which we came upon. Our tour took us down through Connecticut and New York, circling out and around NYC, and down through New Jersey to Baltimore, Maryland. Though we had the idea in mind that the further south we went the warmer the weather would become, in fact we found ourselves in a heavy snowstorm when we crossed into Maryland.

In Maryland we visited with some of my wife’s relatives, and then the next day headed further south, first into Virginia, and then down to North Carolina. It was nice to see the trees in leaf and flower after the winter. I also found that pretty much everyone I came across in the south exhibited a pleasant mix of politeness and friendliness. It’s so nice!

I’ll detail some of the places we came across below, in the order we visited.



I have been long interested in visiting the home of Thomas Jefferson. He was an owner/builder, though I would use the term ‘builder’ loosely since he did not do any of the actual construction himself but rather was the principal architect. Of course, people often say so-and-so built something when they did none of the actual construction. It’s a curious thing. Slaves built most of Monticello, let’s face it.

A lot of the construction occurred while Jefferson was away from the house, as he spent some 40 years away from Monticello after starting work upon it when he was in his early twenties. He inherited the 1500 hundred acre estate when he turned 21. Not a bad start in life I suppose. He also inherited his father’s debts as part of the package.

Jefferson’s Monticello, as a national historic site, was striking to me for one reason more than any other: how polished and slickly run the entire place was. At the bottom of the hill is a newish visitor center with cafe and gift shop, and a shuttle bus takes groups up to the house every 15 minutes or so. And all the staff were so very friendly! The grounds are well kept.

Once at the top, the shuttle lets you off near the front of the house:

The weathervane on the roof you can see in the above picture connects to a compass located on the ceiling of the portico:

The house itself is of brick, like many houses in the south, with some imperfectly-formed stone columns to the front at the entrance. It seems that Jefferson had such trouble getting the stone columns carved, that for the west portico at the rear of the house the columns were made from curved bricks and then stuccoed.

The original plan Jefferson had for the house was actually quite different, as this model shows:

After Jefferson’s 5 year stay as the US representative to France, he returned to Monticello, at that point half complete, with some fresh ideas. As a result, the building was partially razed and then built up again.

Here’s the main floor plan:

When you pass through the portico at the front, there is an entrance hall with a display of native American artifacts collected by Jefferson, largely via the Lewis and Clark expeditions:

There is also an intriguing clock on the entry wall which is actuated with cables carrying iron balls on each side:


The position of the weights corresponds to the day of the week. The design wasn’t fully thought through apparently, as there was not enough room for all the days of the week and holes had to be cut in the floor to let the weight stack drop down the right distance. The clock also connects to a face on the exterior wall of the portico, where it has, by design, but a single hour hand only:


Jefferson took daily weather readings and used these clocks and the compass connected to the weather vane for that purpose. Note also the interesting varied thickness of the brick arching above the central transom.

Inside, the standard tour is limited to the main floor only. The docent was very knowledgeable and skilled at her job.

Mention was made of the elliptical archways over some of the room passages, which were the work of an Irish joiner and thought to be very swish at the time:

It was nice to hear the word ‘joiner’ from the docent, as I think it is an unfamiliar term to a lot of folks. Frankly, the woodwork, including the molded arches, was only ‘okay’ to my eyes. I’ve certainly seen better. Most of it otherwise was done by a slave, and Jefferson had difficulty, it seems in finding a joiner who was not also a drunk. The view above is looking from the south parlor into the library.

Jefferson read widely, and some of the books in the house are in fact original possessions of his. When the the British torched the Library of Congress in 1814, Jefferson sold his vast collection to the LOC for $23,950 in 1815, more than doubling the holdings that the LOC had after the arson. Ironically, a second fire on Christmas Eve of 1851, destroyed nearly two thirds of the 6,487 volumes Congress had purchased from Jefferson. He seems to have been a compulsive reader and book buyer, and strongly believed in the virtues of an educated electorate. My how times have changed in political and cultural circles, as the bread and circuses model seems rather more in vogue. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.) Roman philosopher, orator, and statesman, was Jefferson’s favorite classical scholar. Jefferson is believed to have modeled his own life on Cicero’s love of study and aristocratic country life.

The roof of Monticello is intriguing. Of course, the dome is the most obvious feature:

A circular dome sitting atop a stretched octagonal base is somewhat unusual. It was something Jefferson had seen in France –  a design originating with the sixteenth-century architect Philibert De l’Orme – and Jefferson had his carpenters recreate it. He did the calculations himself for the varied curved shapes of the rafters. The construction is on the crude side, with a clinch-nailed 3-ply oak lamination of short pieces, instead of joinery as in the original system.

In the middle of the roof is found the truly unusual piece – a hipped  ‘zig-zag’ roof. The roof is low pitched and comprised of  rows of small alternating ridges and valleys, connected to one another with t and g lath. He called the alternating hips and valleys ‘rooflets’. This type of roof is also found under the flanking walkways at both sides of the house. Sheathing nailed to the configuration of the lath was then covered with sheet iron – one piece bent and placed in the “gutter,” or valley, and another similar sheet placed over the ridge and lapping the valley piece. The object was to make a watertight roof without the need for complicated metal seams.

The valleys are formed into troughs to collect rainwater:

The above shows the system as used on the flanking walkways.

Perhaps this model shows the system a little more clearly:

Four large cisterns are placed, two at each end of the house, to collect rainwater. It’s an interesting set up and quite innovative.

I found Monticello worth the visit but not intriguing enough to go back again. I did learn some interesting things about Jefferson from the docent. He greatly admired learning and learned people, and had three portraits on his study wall of what he called “my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced”: John Locke, Issac Newton and Francis Bacon. Interestingly, Jefferson noted in a letter from 1811 that when Alexander Hamilton visited Monticello,

“Another incident took place on the same occasion, which will further delineate Mr. Hamilton’s political principles. The room being hung around with a collection of the portraits of remarkable men, among them were those of Bacon, Newton and Locke, Hamilton asked me who they were. I told him they were my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced, naming them. He paused for some time: “the greatest man,” said he, “that ever lived, was Julius Caesar.” Mr. Adams was honest as a politician, as well as a man; Hamilton honest as a man, but, as a politician, believing in the necessity of either force or corruption to govern men.”

Interesting that Hamilton favored a dictator as the ‘greatest man who ever lived’, not an enlightenment figure. Hmm, not sure I care much for Hamilton. Not my cup of tea.

Jefferson, as noted above, inherited both the plantation and his father’s debt. It seems the plantation never made a whole lot of money, and when Jefferson died, he was still in debt, to the tune of $107,000.00. The creditors immediately set upon his heirs, and the estate, plus all furnishings, and the hundred or so slaves, were all sold off to pay down (some) of the debt. The house sold for but $7500.00.

The buyer of the house seems to have cared little for the house or it’s famous creator, and by 1870 the house was a total wreck:

Grass was growing on the roof, shutters were dangling and many glass windows were broken. The fields were overgrown, animal feed was stored inside one of the rooms.

The next owner, eight years after Jeffersons death, was Uriah Phillips Levy, the first Jewish Commodore of the United States Navy, who bought the house and 218 acre estate for $2700 (equivalent to $64,000 in today’s dollars). He was a guy who ran away from home at 10 and became a cabin boy, later to rise to the highest naval rank of that era. He fought in the war of 1812, was instrumental in abolishing the use of flogging in the Navy.

Levy was an admirer of Jefferson’s – and held a very modern notion that the houses of great men should be preserved as “monuments to their glory,” and he did a probably the most to save the house, along with his nephew Jefferson Monroe Levy.

Here’s a look at Uriah:

Upon Levy’s death in 1862, Levy left Monticello to the American people to be used as an agricultural school for the orphans of Navy warrant officers. Due to the American Civil War, Congress refused to accept the donation.

Jefferson Monroe Levy, who spent a lot of money to restore and preserve Monticello, served as a Congressman at times during the early 1900s and was encouraged by associates in Washington to turn the property over to public ownership. Though initially reluctant, in 1914 he offered the federal government the opportunity of purchasing Monticello, but after much congressional rhetoric on the subject, no funds were forthcoming. Some politicians, it seems, are often not the most forward-thinking individuals. Monticello was finally acquired by a non-profit, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, in 1923, for $500,000.00. The Levy family’s role in preserving Monticello was downplayed by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation through much of the 20th century, which Melvin Usofsky, in his work “The Levy Family and Monticello” (Virginia Quarterly Review: 395–412) suggests was due to anti-Semitic views among some of its board and members.

There were a few other stops on our southern swing that I’d like to write about, so look for that account in the following post.

Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way.

Anything to add?

error: Content is protected !!
%d bloggers like this: