Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest
Thomas Jefferson spent decades as a faithful public servant to the American people. He authored the Declaration of Independence, was the nation’s first Secretary of State, second Vice President, and third President. He was an American icon whose life was heavily influenced by overwhelming responsibilities and public scrutiny. The constant attention and unnecessary stress grew increasing difficult for the aging Jefferson to manage. He longed for a place of solitude and regress where he could focus on the pastimes of reading, writing, and philosophy in the absence of distraction. Poplar Forest was that ideal location.
The land surrounding Poplar Forest originally belonged to John Wayles, a Charles City county attorney and businessman. His daughter, Martha, married Thomas Jefferson in 1772. When Wayles passed away in 1773, Jefferson inherited his landholdings in Bedford County, Virginia. He visited the property later that year and was amazed by the beauty of the natural tulip poplar trees that dominated the landscape.
It wasn’t until 1806 that Jefferson ordered a residence to be constructed on the property, though it had been operating as a working plantation for some time. He utilized the same masons and carpenters from Monticello to build his villa at Poplar Forest and spared no expense in doing so. Marble imported from Italy and custom entablature frieze ornaments were just a couple of the elegant touches Jefferson included in his home. Due to the remoteness of the area, it was a challenge to coordinate labor and resources. Most of Jefferson’s workforce and construction materials were located a three-day’s journey away in Charlottesville. Other nonindigenous items were imported to Richmond, towed up-river to Lynchburg, and carted ten miles to Poplar Forest. It would take nearly 17 years for Poplar Forest to be completed.
Jefferson implemented his favorite architectural characteristics into the house, including Roman, Renaissance, French, and contemporary British styles. Some of Jefferson’s greatest sources of inspiration came from the works of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. Palladio provided insightful interpretations on ancient Roman structures and kept meticulous records of his own projects in his Four Books of Architecture (1570). His works, coupled with Jefferson’s infatuation with octagonal symmetry, contributed to the final design of Poplar Forest.
Poplar Forest is regarded by many architectural historians as “a melting pot of designs.” The home featured floor-to-ceiling windows, alcove beds, an indoor privy, pediment porticoes, and a sky-lit central dining room that measured a perfect 20’ x 20’ x 20’ cube. Extreme mathematical precision and symmetry were displayed in virtually every aspect of the home’s construction. Poplar Forest was initially completed in 1809, making it the first octagonal house in America.
Jefferson continued to make adjustments and improvements to the property following his occupancy of the home. During the winter of 1812-13, Jefferson had 300 trees planted in a radial, ornamental fashion around the house, some of which still stand today. That following summer, Jefferson requested a Wing of Offices be built on Poplar Forest’s east side. The 110-foot row of offices housed a dairy, kitchen, laundry, and smokehouse. A wine and cider cellar was also constructed underneath the main building. Jefferson was a wine aficionado, calling wine “the necessity of life,” and frequently imported fine wines from Italy and France. Both the cellar and offices were completed by John Hemmings, Jefferson’s enslaved carpenter, in 1814.
Shortly after the completing of the Wing of Offices, Jefferson designed a sunken lawn behind the house to accommodate the lower level. The garden was hand-dug by enslaved laborers—led by Phil Hubbard—who worked on their own time for pay. They arranged the displaced dirt into two symmetrical mounds that flanked the house, surrounded by shrubberies and flowering plants. These landscaping features are referred to as “Jefferson Mounds” today.
Poplar Forest was a growing community of enslaved African Americans. There were 35 slaves accounted for in 1783, most of whom had been transferred from other Jefferson properties. By the 1810s, that number reached between 70 and 100, spanning four generations and seven extended families. Poplar Forest operated under a traditional plantation system in which land was subdivided into separate farms, each with its own workforce, overseer, and agrarian production. The enslaved performed many duties at Poplar Forest: tended tobacco and wheat fields, raised livestock, laid roads, crafted goods, and performed masonry and carpentry duties for the house’s construction.
In early 1790s, Jefferson was forced to sell 40 slaves due to severe merchant debts. He tried to sell families as a package, but that was infrequently the case, and underscored the cruelty of slavery. Jefferson received 1800 pounds for the laborers, but would remain indebted for the rest of his life.
Jefferson visited Poplar Forest for the last time in 1823. Following his death in 1826, Jefferson left Poplar Forest to his grandson, Francis Eppes. The home was in Eppes’ possession for only four short years until he sold the property to William Cobbs in 1828 to alleviate financial difficulties. The Cobbs-Hutter families would retain Poplar Forest for the next 118 years.
Fire gutted the building in 1845, rendering the elaborate interior completely decimated. The Cobbs-Hutters made drastic changes to the home following the fire. They redesigned the interior into a Greek revival fashion and turned the sunken lawn into a Pit of Flowers in 1848. They reduced the four-room Wing of Offices into two rooms and constructed two plantation worker houses in the 1850s. The house was sold to James Watts in 1946 and slowly fell into disrepair. The estate was purchased by the Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest in 1984 and active restoration/archaeological efforts have been underway ever since.
The isolation and solitude Jefferson once experienced at Poplar Forest exists in a much more limited capacity now that the surrounding land has been developed; however, the grandeur and stateliness of the manor persists. For a fair general admission price of $16, visitors can explore the grounds, see numerous archaeological exhibits, and take a guided tour of the estate.
Some of the most interesting exhibits are located in the lower level and offices of the estate. The Wing of Offices was recently reconstructed after archaeologists uncovered the brick foundation for the first two rooms in 1989. The offices present today as they would have in the early 19th Century. The exhibits in the lower level detail the daily lives of Jefferson, his visitors, and his slaves at Poplar Forest. Perhaps the most intriguing display is the “Who were they?” exhibit which provides visitors with profiles of some of Jefferson’s slaves.
Not only does Poplar Forest provide a thorough examination into the leisurely life of Thomas Jefferson, it also places great emphasis on the enslaved population. Getting to see both sides of the story creates an encompassing and comprehensive interpretation of events, something that I appreciate as a historian. The experience at Poplar Forest is nothing short of enjoyable.
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