There are few homes in the United States more immediately recognizable than Monticello. With its trademark Neoclassical architecture, innovative gardens, and an ample array of quirky contrivances, Thomas Jefferson’s home draws over 500,000 visitors a year. Even with all of the publicity, however, we think it’s safe to say that Monticello still has a few secrets up her sleeve.
- Money Talks
The two lions flanking the entrance of Monticello shown here on the 1953 $2 bill were placed there by Jefferson Levy, but were removed in 1923 when the Thomas Jefferson Foundation purchased the home
You may not have realized it before now, but odds are pretty good that you’ve got a couple of Monticellos of your own rattling around in your couch cushions; you’ll find the historic home emblazoned on the back of US nickels and two dollar bills. Familiar as they are, if you compare the two representations, you’ll find a hidden clue, a plot twist in the home’s history. On the two-dollar bill, two stone lions—absent on the nickel—flank the entrance.
When Jefferson died in 1826, the opulence of his home had rubbed a little threadbare, and his heirs had little money to do it justice. It wasn’t until Uriah P. Levy, the first Jewish Commodore in the US Navy and fan of the third president, purchased the home that it was brought back to its original splendor. The Levys, whose trademark lions flank the Monticello entrance on the two dollar bill, maintained the home for the next 100 years.
- Beating the Heat
On-site pools kept fish fresh and on-hand for mealtime (photo courtesy of Thad Zajdowicz)
It is an undeniable fact of life that Virginia summers are hot, but this–like many things–was not a fact that Jefferson was willing to acquiesce to without a fight; you’ll find that Monticello has a number of amenities designed to beat the heat. With the advent of central air conditioning over 100 years away, indoor temperatures could easily reach upwards of 100 degrees, a fact that Jefferson combated with innovative design: a large central hall, aligned windows, and venetian porches encouraged a cooling current, and an octagonal cupola was constructed to draw hot air up and out. Aside from architectural ingenuity, Jefferson came up with a slew of other ways to one-up the Southern summer: an on-site pool filled with fish to be eaten on demand, a beer cellar to keep barrels of brew cool for the drinking, and three well-ventilated indoor toilets–or “air closets”–allowed guests to answer the call of nature far from the sun-baked and buggy unpleasantries of nature herself.
- Third Time’s a Charm
The Library of Congress houses 5,000 volumes recreating Jefferson’s personal library, 2,000 of which are his originals (photo courtesy of Martin Linde)
In the south wing of Monticello, you’ll find Jefferson’s private library, which at its peak held over 6,000 volumes, a number made even more impressive by the fact that it had to be built from the ground up on three different occasions. Much of Jefferson’s first library was destroyed in an early plantation fire, and the second was sold to Congress in 1815. These books–over 6,487 in total—were purchased to replace those lost when the British set fire to the Capitol Building, and they not only formed the nucleus of the Library of Congress, but have, in their breadth and scope, helped shape the variety of subjects found in the Library today.
- Uncommon Chambers
Jefferson’s bed was set in an alcove that opened to his study or his bedroom (photo courtesy of Rollynson Bellatrix)
If Monticello is a brick and mortar monument to Jefferson’s ingenuity, then his bedroom would be its centerpiece, a room filled with quirky contrivances to suit Jefferson’s every whim. A large skylight above kept Jefferson rising with the sun, and the bed itself was set into an alcove in the wall and opened on either side to allow the former president to roll out of bed and into his bedchamber or his office as he saw fit. Tucked in the low-slung ceiling above the bed was the closet, outfitted with a ladder for access and two round portholes to allow light and ventilation. In another closet along the wall, Jefferson designed a hanging system that would be the envy of any modern-day walk-in; a rotating helix of hangers kept clothes neatly accessible and displayed.