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.

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