Jefferson inherited the Poplar Forest land in Bedford County through his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, upon the death of her father, John Wayles, in 1773. This piedmont land on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains was in a sparsely settled area of Virginia, not far from present-day Lynchburg. Due to the considerable debt that accompanied the inheritance, Jefferson was forced to sell some of the 6,861 acres, leaving the Poplar Forest tract with 4,819 acres. A portion of the remaining land contained a small tobacco plantation worked by a handful of slaves. Jefferson wanted to make the plantation more productive and eventually considered it one of his most profitable. By the time of his death in 1826, the property consisted of about 1,000 acres and the Poplar Forest fields, worked by ninety-four slaves, produced wheat and.
Jefferson first visited the property in 1773. The following year he patented 157 acres in the nearby Shenandoah Valley in order to own what he called “the most sublime of Nature’s works,” the Natural Bridge. Jefferson described the Natural Bridge and the nearby Peaks of Otter in his important scientific work, portions of which were written at Poplar Forest during the summer of 1781, when the Jefferson family retreated to the overseer’s house to avoid capture by the British during Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s raid on Charlottesville.
In 1805 Jefferson, then living in the President’s House in Washington, D.C., sent bricklayer Hugh Chisholm to the remote Poplar Forest site to start the brick making. The detailed letters between Jefferson, the owner-architect, and his workers constitute one of the most complete surviving sets of documents on the construction of a house in early America. Construction on the octagonal house and ornamental gardens began in 1806. Carpenter John Perry, who, like Chisholm, was a regular Monticello worker, was hired to frame the house. The frame was finished by 1809, and although the interior was not yet completed, Jefferson began to use the house that year.
Living in unfinished houses did not bother him; Monticello had been a forty-year project. Over the fourteen years he used it, Jefferson slowly finished Poplar Forest inside and out. He relied on workers and workshops at Monticello to make complete units such as windows and doors, which were sent to the site via wagon, cart, or boat. Fragile items came from Monticello or Richmond by way of shallow bateau boats that were poled by hand against the current or the rocks of the James River.
John Hemmings, a slave of Jefferson’s who had apprenticed under Monticello’s Irish-born joiner, James Dinsmore, made other finished parts of the house on site. Hemmings was responsible for the exterior classical moldings, louvered blinds, doors, and finished interior classical trim. Jefferson at times sent Hemmings, along with his nephew assistants, Eston and Madison Hemings, to Poplar Forest to work independently. During this time John Hemmings and Jefferson corresponded through detailed letters that used the language of the classical orders of Roman architecture.
The Villa Retreat
Poplar Forest provides a glimpse of the most private Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson needed and used retreats throughout his public life, whether in, Paris, or Philadelphia. Jefferson knew of the prototypical villa retreat of the Romans through literature and his copy of Robert Castell’s The Villas of the Ancients Illustrated (1728). Poplar Forest provided a retreat from the crowded and busy Monticello. The year he departed public life, 1809, Jefferson began using Poplar Forest between two and four times a year, staying from two weeks to two months at a time, until his last visit in 1823. Traveling the seventy miles from Monticello on horseback or in a carriage, which he typically did with only one servant, took three days. At Poplar Forest, he said, he was “comfortably fixed and attended, have a few good neighbors, and pass my time there in a tranquility and retirement much adapted to my age and indolence.” Family members, including his two granddaughters Ellen Wayles Randolph and Cornelia Jefferson Randolph, would occasionally make the journey with him. Ellen Wayles Randolph later recalled, “At Poplar Forest he found in a pleasant home, rest, leisure, power to carry on his favorite pursuits—to think, to study, to read—whilst the presence of part of his family took away all character of solitude from his retreat.”
Poplar Forest’s distinctive shape was inspired by the British Palladian designs of James Gibbs, Roger Morris, and William Kent. Their work provided many examples of buildings that were octagonal—a shape that Jefferson used in his drawings throughout his life, mostly in un-built designs. Poplar Forest became the ultimate octagon and the first house with that shape in America. The influence of Italian architect Andrea Palladio, whose work inspired the Palladian style, is also evident in the house’s design: Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture (1570), so often cited as Jefferson’s “Bible,” provided the classical proportions for all moldings, orders, and elements. Mixed into the architectural melting pot were features Jefferson had admired during his years in Europe—mostly French characteristics of light-filled airy spaces that used skylights, sash doors, floor-to-ceiling windows, and alcove beds. The English traveler George Flower, one of the rare visitors to Poplar Forest, described the house as “built after the fashion of a French chateau, Octagon rooms, floors of polished oak, lofty ceilings, large mirrors betokened his French taste.”
Jefferson sited the house due north so that its shape acted not only as a compass, but also as a theoretical seasonal sundial. The octagonal exterior of the house, about fifty feet in diameter, protruded on its north and south with porticos and to the east and west with stair pavilions. He cut out the crown of a hilltop so that an attached service wing could nestle into the ground, giving the front of the house the appearance of being one story. The house’s taller back façade made an ancient reference with its Roman arcade-supporting columns and pediment of the portico, an ensemble seen in British Palladian books.
The plan, similar on the upper and lower floors, had Palladian symmetry with octagonal and semi-octagonal rooms that wrapped around a central square. Visitors entered the house from the north portico into a narrow passage with doors on either side that led to two small semi-octagonal chambers. Their sight would have been drawn ahead through fully glazed doors, called “sash doors” by Jefferson, and beyond through two more sets of sash doors to the outside. The dark, narrow passage led into the grand, luminous central space: the dining room. This room was a perfect twenty-foot cube with an entablature—a series of horizontal moldings laid on top of and typically supported by columns—invented by Jefferson. A sixteen-foot-long skylight, one of the largest in America, flooded the space with light. This was the center of Jefferson’s private world. More than that, this twenty-foot-high central space, surrounded by rooms with twelve-foot ceilings, finally gave its owner his own rotunda house modeled on Palladio’s Villa Rotunda.
Two principal bedchambers occupied the east and west sides of the house. French-style bed alcoves positioned in the center of the elongated octagonal rooms created two smaller semi-octagonal rooms. Presumably Jefferson used one side of the room as his “cabinet,” or inner sanctum, likely filling it with books, papers, and plants. The outer vestibule of each alcove opened to a stair pavilion providing access to the lower floor or outdoors and was lit with an oversized lunette, or half-moon, window. Jefferson retrofitted a space under the west stairs off his own chamber into an indoor toilet that was more conveniently located than the exterior octagonal privies.
A sash door on the south of the central room led into the brightest room, the south-facing parlor, which doubled as the library. This room’s south wall was as transparent as reasonably possible, with a central glass door flanked by four triple-sash windows extending from floor to ceiling.
One of the most Jeffersonian elements at Poplar Forest was the attached four-room service wing that Jefferson called “offices.” It housed a kitchen, a laundry, a smokehouse, and an unidentified room that may have been used for storage. Jefferson borrowed this wing concept from plates in Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture, using it first at Monticello, in the 1770s, and then when he expanded the President’s House in Washington, D.C., during his two terms as president (1801–1809).
At Poplar Forest, Jefferson improved on Palladio’s design by creating a flat walking deck, or “terras,” as he called it, on top of the wing through a clever use of ridge and gutter joists that formed a repeating series of hidden rooflets. Jefferson used the same design when he put the flat terrace roof over the central cube room in 1819. The deck design appeared again at the University of Virginia in his designs for the student rooms and at the Anatomical Theater. The 100-foot east wing at Poplar Forest was never balanced with a west wing. In an August 1817 letter, Jefferson describes a typical activity on that one wing with his granddaughters: “About twilight of the evening, we sally out with the owls and the bats and take our evening exercise on the terras.”
Portions of Jefferson’s designs for the landscape at Poplar Forest resemble the design he created for the President’s House. At Poplar Forest, an axial road on the north side turned into a circular carriage turnaround with a fifty-foot diameter. Jefferson used this turnaround as a small-scale model for the ornamental core of the estate—a five-acre yard, containing the house, that was fenced in by a circular road lined with paper mulberry trees. A rectangular double-square sunken bowling green lawn, bordered by flower beds or bushes, extended southward from the house, flanked by Kentucky coffee trees. Beyond the ornamental core was a ten-acre square yard and beyond that a sixty-one acre curtilage, or outer yard.
Jefferson placed the house on a small hill right up against a dense natural grove of tulip poplars referred to in the area as “the Forest,” or “the Poplar Forest,” from which the property’s name is derived. The circular yard was bisected by a symmetrical ensemble of architecture and landscape that separated the natural world in front of the house from the manmade garden in the back. The ensemble resembled Palladio’s five-part architectural plan, which is composed of a main building that is flanked by two wings, each of which ends in a pavilion. At Poplar Forest, a double row of paper mulberry trees acted as the “wings” that connected the house on its east and west sides to earthen mounds, which stood in for pavilions. The mounds became more vertical and impressive when planted with four weeping willows on top, a central row of golden willows, and a row of aspens circling the base. Extending the ensemble even further, Jefferson placed his domed, octagonal Palladian privies to the outer side of each mound. On four sides of the house Jefferson also placed oval flowerbeds and fashionable “clumps” of densely planted trees and bushes.
The full story of the furnishings at Poplar Forest is unknown. Ellen Randolph remarked that the house was “furnished in the simplest manner, but had a very tasty air; there was nothing common or second-rate about any part of the establishment, though there was no appearance of expense.” The onetime state luxury tax, collected in 1815 to help pay for the War of 1812, mentioned only a few “luxury” items at Poplar Forest in addition to its forty-six slaves, twelve horses, and thirty-nine cattle: four mahogany bookcases, a three-part mahogany dining table, and four mahogany Pembroke “tea” tables. The large French mirrors George Flowers mentioned seeing on his 1816 visit were most likely gilt—the kind of luxury item that was eligible to be taxed—but perhaps they had not yet arrived. Letters mention other items that made their way from Monticello: two stoves, a Campeachy “hamock” chair from Louisiana, a harpsichord, and a chest of drawers. From the Monticello joinery, made mostly by John Hemmings, came a Campeachy “siesta” chair, a round cherry revolving-top table, Jefferson’s system of stacking bookcases, a wall bracket, a dumbwaiter, and the taxed mahogany bookcases and dining table. Jefferson also designed his own Windsor “stick” chair, painted black with imitation bamboo rings in gold, and had thirty-six made in Richmond for the house.
Poplar Forest also contained a special retirement. While still in Washington, D.C., Jefferson started collecting his retirement library, which eventually numbered about 1,000 books. About one-third of the library consisted of petit-format books, which ranged in size from three by five inches to four by six inches. Most notable among the small volumes were 108 volumes of John Bell’s The Poets of Great Britain (1777–1783). Published in five languages, the majority of books were poems, plays, or literature. Absent were the or those used in constructing government. In fact, even current news was missing from Poplar Forest. Jefferson had confided to John Adams: “I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.”
History and Heritage
As construction began in 1806, Jefferson confided to a friend, “I am preparing an occasional retreat in Bedford, where I expect to settle some of my grandchildren.” In 1810, a year after he began using the house, he stated, “it is the most valuable of my possessions, and will become the residence of the greater part of my family.” Jefferson started giving portions of Poplar Forest to his daughters when they married, the first to his daughterin 1790. Maria Jefferson married in 1797, but by the time of her premature death in 1804 the land promised to her had not been conveyed. Jefferson then thought of it as a gift for Maria’s son Francis Eppes, born in 1801. Eventually the house itself went to Eppes.
In 1823 Jefferson gave up the use of his special house for Eppes and his bride, Mary Elizabeth Cleland Randolph. Jefferson died in 1826, thinking that Poplar Forest would remain safely in family hands; he was spared the knowledge that Eppes and his wife did not like the house and had already tried to sell it to their cousin Jefferson Randolph. In 1828 Eppes sold the house and the remaining 1,074 acres for about a quarter of its assessed value and moved to Florida with his wife, infant daughter, slaves, and furnishings. Neighboring farmer William Cobbs became the new owner. The Cobbs-Hutter family would continue to own the property until 1946, modifying the house to suit their needs, particularly after an 1845 fire destroyed its roof and interior. In 1946 the family of James O. Watts Jr. became the last owner-occupants of the house, living there until 1979.