Stepping into the past, through the mind of Jefferson
At Poplar Forest in Bedford County, Va., you can step into the mind of Thomas Jefferson. This was Jefferson’s “other” house, the one that you have to see in person because no photographer has ever captured the power of Jefferson’s Palladian prism to lift the mind above the unpleasant realities of life and politics.
I drove to Poplar Forest on a rainy morning, turning from the 21st century onto a singlelane dirt road, through second-growth woodland and up a slight rise from which I could see the house standing at the end of a formal allée. Just for a moment I thought it was a gatekeeper’s lodge, a scaled-down version of the house I had come to see. The scale, of course, is part of the point. This house was designed for the perfect contentment of one man.
Poplar Forest was built as a perfect, single-story octagon containing five geometrical spaces: four elongated octagons set around a perfect cube — an almost-perfect cube.
The cube, a dining room, needed a fireplace, and a fireplace needs a chimney. But a fireplace in the center of the room would have left no place for a dining table, and a corner chimney would have interrupted the perfect symmetry of the room. Jefferson compromised by adding a discrete fireplace in one corner, running a chimney through a wall, then horizontally through a ceiling to meet one of the house’s four symmetric chimneys. Creosote inevitably builds up in an inaccessible horizontal chimney. This one caught fire, destroying the house’s original interior and roof.
No sanitary conveniences interrupted the perfection of Jefferson’s house. A pair of necessaries, octagonal brick outhouses, was built due east and due west, at a distance of about a city block from the house. Not that a plantation owner needed to walk to the privy. “Those who labor for my happiness” (one of Jefferson’s euphemisms for slaves) carried the necessary out to the necessary. At some point, a privy was also built in the basement.
Had Jefferson included a staircase, slaves would have carried breakfast, lunch and dinner up from the basement kitchen. Because he regarded stairs as an unsightly waste of space, meals had to be carried out of the basement, up a grassy slope and around to the front door of the house.
Following his first stay at a nearly finished Poplar Forest, Jefferson instructed the builder to add extensions containing “two stairways necessary for communication between the upper and lower floors.”
The staircases spoiled the perfect octagon. It must have felt like writing an elegant declaration of independence that Congress then edited.
But no stairs interrupted the octagonal south room, where Jefferson could sit and see nothing of the messiness of life. No buildings, no sausage-making and no slaves were visible from that perfect room. It looked out onto a perfect landscape, bordered by a perfect circle of trees.
Nevertheless, Jefferson had to face the reality that Poplar Forest was a large, revenue-producing plantation and that the work of running it could not be contained in a small basement. He was forced to spoil perfection again by adding a long east wing of “offices” containing a kitchen, dairy, pantry and smokehouse.
The slave cabins were elsewhere, beyond the landscaped circle, out of sight. So, in a sense, was slavery itself. In his mature years, Jefferson, who preferred to call the people he owned “servants,” simply refrained from dealing with the morality or the politics of slavery.
Letters from earnest reformers went unanswered, and he recorded each slave birth as an increase in capital assets.
And yet the house is perfect. Light floods in through tall windows, large doorways and a leak-free skylight. In a light rain, the floors seem to glow. One of Jefferson’s successful innovations was flooring of very pale, quarter-sawn white oak, polished to a high gloss with beeswax and tung oil.
And then you step into the south-facing room. The room where Jefferson read and wrote and thought. The room seems to hover, slightly apart from this flawed world. Sitting there, in a replica of Jefferson’s campeachy chair, I could almost grasp the degree to which Jefferson’s mind operated above the mundane realities of life, such as laundry and budgets and slavery.
Go. Sit in that chair and in that room. But go now. This summer. Because by next year the foundation that owns the house will have completed a new, modern road, and you will no longer be able to experience the magical drive that for one final summer leads through the old poplars to Jefferson’s perfect house.
The slave cabins were elsewhere, beyond the landscaped circle, out of sight. So, in a sense, was slavery itself.
Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest plantation retreat in Bedford County, Va.