On land inherited from his father, Peter Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson established himself as a member of the Virginia planter elite at Monticello, his plantation in Albemarle County. Construction on the house began in 1769 and continued at intervals until 1809. It is a testament to Jefferson’s interest in classical architecture and the importance of education in the Early Republic, and a statement about his position in society. The plantation began as a tobacco farm and shifted to wheat and grain cultivation in the 1790s, a decade that saw many changes to the landscape and the built environment of the approximately 105 enslaved people living there. Monticello ceased activity as a working plantation after Jefferson’s death in 1826, passed through multiple owners, and was purchased by what is now the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1923. Open to the public today, Monticello is both a typical example of a piedmont Virginia plantation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and an idiosyncratic architectural essay by a man deeply influenced by the architecture of ancient Rome, Renaissance Italy, and contemporary France. The home has become an American icon, appearing on the reverse of the Jefferson nickel from 1938 to 2003 and from 2006 to the present, and hosting an annual Independence Day celebration and naturalization ceremony since 1963.


Monticello, meaning “little mountain” in Italian, was Jefferson’s home farm, the center of his 5,000-acre plantation tract. Peter Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s father, originally purchased the land in 1735, built a house in the adjoining plain at Shadwell around 1741, and settled his family there. As the elder son, Thomas Jefferson inherited his father’s property in 1764. By the late 1760s, Jefferson had begun planning the construction of his plantation house on the crest of a hill on his property and subdivided the land into manageable parcels called quarter farms. As the home farm, Monticello was the center of the plantation for Jefferson and his family, the primary plantation industries, the ornamental gardens, and enslaved domestic workers and artisans, while Shadwell, Tufton, and Lego were sites of cash-crop cultivation, managed by resident overseers and inhabited and worked by large groups of enslaved people.

Monticello I

Early Sketch of Monticello

The house that we know today as Monticello is the second version of Jefferson’s residence. Monticello I was planned in the 1760s, constructed through the 1770s, and largely finished by 1781. It stood until Jefferson made significant changes to the house, beginning in 1796. In selecting the mountaintop as the site for his house, Jefferson had to establish a system of roads, flatten the site, and build terraces to provide a suitable place for a house and the domestic outbuildings it required. Monticello I was a two-story, three-room house with doubled porticoes, or porches, with classically inspired columns supporting a pediment (the triangular section above a column-supported, horizontal structure). Jefferson’s source for the floor plan, and for decorative elements like the classical order of the columns, crown molding, mantelpieces, and door and window frames, was James Gibbs’s Book of Architecture, a pattern book of architectural plans first published in England in 1728. The work of Andrea Palladio, the sixteenth-century Italian architect and treatise writer, was another important source for Monticello, as well as other buildings Jefferson designed over the course of his architectural career.

One entered on the ground level through an entrance vestibule, which housed the staircases to the other floors and provided access into the bedroom, the parlor in the center, and the dining room. Based on Jefferson’s records, the bedroom and the dining room were finished first, and he ordered the bricks for the central parlor in 1773 and 1774. The upper level housed bedchambers for visitors and children. The primary living spaces for the family were probably ready for habitation by 1775. Very soon after initial construction, early in the 1770s, Jefferson added four-sided bows to the ends of the bedroom and the dining room, providing much-needed additional living space.

Every plantation great house in the late eighteenth century required a cohort of domestic buildings to serve the needs of the planter family. Kitchens, laundries, smokehouses, dairies, icehouses, storerooms, stables, carriage houses, and pens were the spaces of domestic industry, administered by enslaved workers. Comfort and safety for the planter family dictated that these buildings were separate from the main house. As early as 1774, Jefferson developed a plan to sink these support spaces underground, with access from the sides due to the site’s topography. This novel organization was not finished until 1809, but it established a precedent at Monticello to hide the inner workings of the house from the view of people in the public living spaces (that is, the hall, parlor, and dining room). The theme of hiding work from view comes up consistently in discussions of the architectural development on the mountaintop.

After the death of his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, in 1782, Jefferson left Monticello for long periods, serving as minister to France from 1784 to 1789 and as secretary of state under George Washington from 1790 to 1793. Jefferson returned to Monticello in the mid-1790s, eager to implement some of the architectural innovations he had observed in Europe.

Monticello II

As early as 1790, Jefferson began making plans to renovate his house, even though construction did not begin until 1796. For this building, Jefferson relied on a wider range of sources, including pattern books and architectural treatises written by Roland Frèart de Chambray and Antoine Desgodetz, which introduced French interpretations of classical architecture into Jefferson’s vocabulary. Jefferson added rooms to the east side of the original house, separated by longitudinal passageways with narrow, steep stairways and spaces for small privies. Jefferson also added two guest chambers, a workroom for his daughter, and his private library, with a grand entrance hall at the center of the composition. The renovation almost tripled the number of rooms, which increased from eight to twenty-one. The parlor, dining room, and Jefferson’s bedroom retained their original footprints.

One of the most remarkable features of the redesigned house was the dome, the first on a house in America. Based on a drawing of the Temple of Vesta in Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture (1570), the dome provided a focal point to the composition of the house, which had been altered to appear as a tall one-story structure instead of the three-story building it actually was. In France, Jefferson had seen fashionable new houses of a single story, with grand rooms for entertaining and private spaces tucked into smaller tiers, and he adapted the plans for his Virginia plantation house. The large windows on the ground story dominate the east elevation, but closer inspection reveals the smaller, private spaces on the second and third stories. Square windows between the top of the large window frames and the house’s entablature (the moldings and bands located above its columns) light bedchambers on the second story. They appear to open into the ground level, and, in fact, are only seven inches off the floor of the second level. On the third level, bedchambers have only skylights, hidden from view by the baluster that marks the roofline of the house, to light and ventilate the spaces. External appearances were everything to Jefferson. Even the dome, which logically would have risen above the grand parlor space, opened over a third-story room that never had a defined function during the Jefferson family’s occupation of the property.

Thomas Jefferson

The organization and decorative elements found in Monticello II both asserted Jefferson’s standing in society and communicated proper social interactions to its inhabitants and visitors. It symbolized Jefferson’s elite status and sophisticated taste, cultivated by extensive European travel and through expensive imported architectural pattern books. Elite Europeans and Americans in the eighteenth century used the principles of Renaissance and classical architecture to announce high social standing. The level of sophistication in architectural detail varied throughout a building to express a hierarchy of interior spaces, from rooms open to all visitors to those accessible only to a plantation owner’s family, friends, and social peers. As an example, compare the entrance hall, where Jefferson used the Ionic order taken from Desgodetz for the crown molding (where the wall meets the ceiling), with the parlor, where Jefferson applied the Corinthian order, also from Desgodetz and considered the most formal of the three principal orders of classical architecture. At Monticello, Jefferson and his family hosted a steady stream of visitors, including statesmen, scientists, dignitaries, and, most famously, the marquis de Lafayette in 1825. Almost every one of them would have seen the entrance hall. Jefferson used a sophisticated architectural treatment and his collection of natural history artifacts to impress and educate the people who came to his home, most of whom never made it farther into the house. Only the few guests invited to see Jefferson personally went into the parlor, which was lavished with the most sophisticated level of detail available in the vocabulary of classical architecture. Members of society understood visual clues in the architecture to know where they would be welcome and how to conduct themselves in the various rooms of the house.

Jefferson rebuilt the house not only to express his enhanced architectural knowledge and his position in society, but also to create a more efficient hub to supervise plantation activities. Scholars have identified surveillance, or the impossibility thereof, as one of the driving forces behind the renovation of Monticello I into Monticello II. In Monticello I, it was impossible to observe circulation within the house from a single point, since the rooms only connected from the entryway. In Monticello II, the entrance hall and the parlor established a central passageway, enabling someone to observe all the comings and goings throughout and immediately surrounding the house. The large windows on the ground level and the wooden terraces extending from Jefferson’s bedroom and from the tearoom allowed him to keep watch over the domestic core and Mulberry Row. Jefferson could not see all his property from Monticello, but from the privacy of his study and bookroom, he could monitor much of the work done by Monticello’s enslaved people.

Monticello’s Plantation Landscape

Above all else, Monticello and the quarter farms of Shadwell, Tufton, and Lego were plantations, growing cash crops cultivated by enslaved workers to support Jefferson and his family. When Jefferson inherited the property in the 1760s, the primary cash crop was tobacco. At the time Jefferson inherited his father’s lands, the center of plantation operations was Shadwell, which housed the majority of the enslaved population. Because tobacco was so damaging to the soil, farmers planted it in small fields, which moved frequently. Even though the total acreage in tobacco cultivation at any one time might have been small, a tobacco planter had to own a large estate to have enough land to shift fields, accommodating the worn-out plots tobacco left behind. Growing tobacco required slow, repetitive work like hand-hoeing, weeding, and topping the plant, as well as ever-present watchfulness against voracious pests. Though labor-intensive, the work did not require much direct supervision.

Centralized living quarters were the most efficient for plantation owners using groups of people doing the same work in the same place. Archaeologists at Monticello have found a centralized slave quarter and overseer’s house located approximately half a mile east of the great house, with evidence such as broken ceramic dishes to suggest that people lived in this area between 1750 and 1790. People lived on this site when Monticello was a quarter farm on Peter Jefferson’s property and continued living there as long as tobacco was the dominant crop on the plantation. An overseer remained on the site until about 1805, but most of the enslaved people moved elsewhere on the plantation starting in the 1790s.

Due to fluctuations and instability in the tobacco market, competition from other growers, and the unsustainable nature of its cultivation, many farmers in Virginia shifted their primary cash crop from tobacco to wheat and grain in the 1790s. While not needing as much hands-on tending as tobacco, wheat cultivation was part of a diversified planting program that called for regular rotations of crops through the fields. Even though wheat cultivation was not as draining on the soil as tobacco cultivation had been, the methods widely used in the late eighteenth century by Virginia farmers, Jefferson included, caused significant erosion, a problem amplified at Monticello and the quarter farms by the topography. New crops used new machinery, in the forms of plows and threshers, that had to be operated by skilled enslaved laborers with draft animals. All these changes required craftsmen and artisans to keep the machinery in working order, tenders to care for the draft animals, and fodder crops to feed them. In summary, the shift from tobacco to wheat brought significant work specialization to Monticello, requiring smaller groups of enslaved people spread over the range of the property, working within specified tasks based on that person’s specialty. The shift made it more difficult for planters and overseers to effectively monitor enslaved people at work, forcing them to focus instead on the finished task or product.

Changing work requirements and the need for specific vocational skills opened up an opportunity for enslaved people to negotiate with overseers and owners for better living conditions on their own terms. This phenomenon can be observed in the shift in location of field workers’ houses beginning in the 1790s, away from long-established quarters to dispersed sites situated along the edges of fields with an overseer’s house placed in a relatively central location. This suggests that enslaved field workers were able to choose the sites of their homes and with whom they wanted to live, away from the direct supervision of an overseer.

Mulberry Row

Daguerreotype of Isaac Jefferson

The shift to wheat and grain cultivation from tobacco made plantation industries like blacksmithing, coopering, joinery, and carpentry essential to efficient operations. At Monticello, those activities centered on Mulberry Row, a terrace south of the great house that was developed to support the construction of Monticello I. In its earliest phase, it featured the joinery, log buildings where groups of enslaved people lived, and a stone house for hired artisans.

The second phase of Mulberry Row, from 1791 to 1809, coincided with the reconstruction of Monticello and the shift from tobacco to wheat cultivation. Mulberry Row grew significantly to house the joinery, carpenter’s shop, saw pit, nailery, blacksmith’s shop, storehouse for iron, tin shop, smokehouse and dairy, washhouse, a shed, five houses for enslaved people, and a house for hired artisans.

The slave houses from the second phase of Mulberry Row illustrate important changes among living conditions for the enslaved. The buildings for enslaved workers from the first phase of Mulberry Row have an interesting architectural feature: multiple subfloor pits in the building, probably covered by boards. Scholars interpret these as safe-deposit boxes for enslaved people, a place to store food and other personal goods. The slave houses of Mulberry Row’s second period are significantly smaller and have one or no subfloor pits. The second phase of Mulberry Row corresponds with the house reconstruction and the shift to wheat cultivation, when enslaved domestic workers, artisans, and field workers negotiated for more private, more autonomous family-based houses. The smaller size of the buildings (to house fewer people) and the disappearance of the subfloor pits suggest that enslaved people were able to live in family units: when people live as a family, they have no need to safeguard their possessions from their cohabitants.

The third phase of Mulberry Row, from 1810 to 1831, signaled the removal of the dairy, smokehouse, and washhouse to the recently completed South Terrace wing. This centralized the great-house domestic complex, leaving Mulberry Row to continue serving as housing for enslaved domestic workers and artisans and as the center of plantation industries. Jefferson had numerous buildings demolished or expanded and repurposed. One of the most striking examples is the Workmen’s House, a seventeen-by-thirty-four-foot mortared stone structure built about 1776 that housed hired artisans and enslaved domestic workers, mostly members of the Hemings family, at various times. By 1815, this building became the weaver’s cottage, where enslaved people produced rough fabrics used to make clothing for the plantation’s approximately 140 enslaved men, women, and children during the British trade embargoes of the War of 1812.

Vegetable Garden

Located behind Mulberry Row on a sunken, 1,000-foot-long terrace was Jefferson’s vegetable garden. Even though Jefferson had grown vegetables in this space since the 1770s, gardeners only terraced the site in 1806, bringing it into full cultivation during the period of Jefferson’s retirement (1809–1826). Occupying two acres, the garden was divided into twenty-four growing plots, or “squares,” arranged according to the part of the plant harvested, either “fruits” (tomatoes and beans), “roots” (beets, carrots, and potatoes), or “leaves” (lettuce and cabbage). Jefferson used the retaining walls that supported the terrace as warming beds, which allowed him to extend the growing season significantly. Down the hill from the terraced garden were the eight-acre orchard, a vineyard, and the berry squares (plots of figs, currants, gooseberries, and raspberries). Jefferson was a noted gourmet, and his garden provided the raw materials for many of the culinary masterpieces created by the enslaved chefs James Hemings, Peter Hemings, Edith Fossett, and Fanny Hern.

After Jefferson

Fund-raising Committee for the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation

When Jefferson died in 1826, he was deeply in debt. To satisfy his creditors, his heirs decided to sell Monticello and its furnishings, agricultural implements, and enslaved people to raise necessary funds. Most of Jefferson’s furnishings and 130 enslaved people were sold at auction in January 1827, but the profits did not come close to covering the debt. The idiosyncrasies of the house’s design, a declining market for wheat, the dilapidation of the plantation in general, and the streams of visitors who pilgrimaged to Jefferson’s home and took home souvenirs like plants, architectural elements, and chips off Jefferson’s grave lessened Monticello’s value for potential planters. After several years on the market and for considerably less than the asking price, the property sold in 1831 to a young apothecary from Charlottesville, James Turner Barclay, who hoped to turn a profit by cultivating silkworms on the plantation. In 1834, Uriah Phillips Levy, a Jewish naval officer who admired Jefferson and his support of religious toleration, purchased the house. With an exception during and after the American Civil War (1861–1865), the Levy family owned Monticello for eighty-nine years. The Levys made significant repairs to the house, repurchased furnishings and property owned by Jefferson, and helped establish the methods of modern historic preservation still practiced today. Their efforts saved Monticello. In 1923, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (renamed the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 2000), a nonprofit organization, purchased the property from the Levy family with money raised through a national campaign to open it to the public. The Foundation still owns and operates Monticello, adhering to a mission of preservation and education. In 1987, Monticello became the only house in America to be named to the World Heritage List, a register of buildings and sites deemed to have outstanding universal value by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Peter Jefferson buys property in Albemarle County.
Peter Jefferson builds a house called Shadwell on his Albemarle County property.
April 13, 1743
Thomas Jefferson is born at Shadwell, in Albemarle County, to Jane Randolph Jefferson and Peter Jefferson.
April 13, 1764
Thomas Jefferson turns twenty-one and comes into his inheritance from his father, Peter Jefferson, who died in 1757.
The hillcrest upon which Thomas Jefferson plans to build his plantation house is cleared and leveled.
Construction begins at Monticello.
January 1, 1772
Thomas Jefferson and Martha Wayles Skelton marry at the Forest, the Wayles plantation in Charles City County.
Thomas and Martha Jefferson and their young children, Martha and Jane Randolph, move into Monticello I.
September 6, 1782
Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson dies at Monticello from complications related to the birth of her daughter Lucy.
Mulberry Row, a terrace developed to support the construction of Monticello I, grows to house a joinery, carpenter's shop, saw pit, nailery, blacksmith's shop, storehouse for iron, tin shop, smokehouse and dairy, washhouse, shed, five houses for enslaved people, and a house for hired artisans.
Thomas Jefferson, like many farmers in Virginia at this time, shifts the primary cash crop at Monticello from tobacco to wheat.
Thomas Jefferson begins commercial manufacturing of nails at Mulberry Row.
Construction begins on the renovation and enlargement of Monticello.
A dome, modeled after a drawing of the Temple of Vesta that appears in Andrea Palladio's Four Books on Architecture (1570), is constructed atop Monticello II.
Construction on the North Pavilion and remodeling of the South Pavilion at Monticello is complete.
By the time that Thomas Jefferson retires, the remodeling of Monticello is mostly finished. Construction of the dependencies under the North and South Terraces is also largely complete.
Mulberry Row continues to serve as housing for enslaved domestic workers and artisans. The dairy, smokehouse, and washhouse are removed to the recently completed South Terrace wing.
July 4, 1826
Thomas Jefferson dies at Monticello.
January 1827
To satisfy Thomas Jefferson's creditors, his heirs hold an auction of Jefferson's household goods, furnishings, and 130 enslaved people.
August 1831
James Turner Barclay, a Charlottesville apothecary, purchases the Monticello house and grounds (except the family graveyard). He hopes to turn a profit by cultivating silkworms on the plantation.
Uriah Phillips Levy, a Jewish naval officer who admired Thomas Jefferson and his support of religious tolerance, purchases Monticello. With one exception during and after the American Civil War, the Levy family owns Monticello for eighty-nine years.
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation purchases Monticello from Jefferson Monroe Levy with the intention of opening the house to the public.
July 4, 1963
Monticello hosts its first annual Independence Day celebration and naturalization ceremony.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adds Monticello and the University of Virginia to its World Heritage List, a register of buildings and sites deemed to have outstanding universal value.
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  • Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2008.
  • Hatch, Peter J. “A Rich Spot of Earth”: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2012.
  • Kern, Susan. The Jeffersons at Shadwell. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2010.
  • Stanton, Lucia C. “Those Who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012.
  • Stein, Susan R. The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. New York: Harry N. Abrams, in association with the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Inc., 1993.
  • Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Charlottesville, Virginia: Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2002
  • Urofsky, Melvin I. The Levy Family and Monticello, 1834–1923: Saving Thomas Jefferson’s House. Charlottesville, Virginia: Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2001.
APA Citation:
Johnson, Emilie. Monticello. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/monticello.
MLA Citation:
Johnson, Emilie. "Monticello" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 18 May. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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