Monticello was a busy place in Thomas Jefferson’s time, just as it is now. And just as Jefferson’s second home, Poplar Forest, provided him with a much-needed retreat, the meticulously restored property today offers visitors a peaceful haven to gain a different view of the third president’s life and times.
Located near Lynchburg and first occupied by Jefferson in 1809, Poplar Forest is “one of the most important neoclassical buildings in the world,” restoration director Travis McDonald says. Architecturally, “it’s an important link between Monticello and UVA.”
In designing what many consider to be his masterpiece, Jefferson refined ideas he’d been working with over his lifetime, including octagonal floor plans, Renaissance and classical motifs, elements contemporary in his day, and Virginian influences. “You put all these things together and you can call it Jeffersonian,” says McDonald. “It’s all personal.”
Jefferson made periodic visits to Poplar Forest —a 4,819-acre plantation he’d inherited from his father-in-law in 1773—between 1806 and 1823. He lodged in an overseer’s house during the main structure’s three years of design and construction.
It is a symmetrical octagonal structure in which the dining room, a perfect 20-foot cube, occupies the center space. The skylight that illuminates this otherwise windowless room is one of the more forward-looking features of the home.
After the brick shell of the building was complete, Jefferson entrusted the finish work to John Hemmings (also spelled Hemings), an enslaved master carpenter who lived at Monticello. “You could call Poplar Forest the masterwork of John Hemmings too,” McDonald says.
Three of Hemmings’ nephews—who were also Jefferson’s sons by Sally Hemings—apprenticed with their uncle, sometimes working on the house while Jefferson was there enjoying his still-unfinished retreat. McDonald calls this poignant situation “the elephant in the room,” pointing out that Jefferson’s granddaughters, who occasionally accompanied him to Poplar Forest, never mention these men in their writings.
Getting to the plantation from Monticello required a three-day journey by carriage. Jefferson stayed at Poplar Forest for periods of two weeks to two months, using much of that time to read and write.
Before Jefferson died, in 1826, he willed ownership of Poplar Forest to his grandson Francis Eppes, but Eppes didn’t like it. Within two years he had sold the property and moved to Florida.
“The people who bought it probably thought it was a weird place,” McDonald says, noting that Poplar Forest had many features that were atypical at the time. After it was ravaged by fire in 1845, the new owners saw it as an opportunity to make “improvements,” transforming it into “a more typical farmhouse,” he says.
The house remained in private hands and was occupied until 1979. Four years later, a nonprofit corporation bought the abandoned property and embarked on a restoration process that continues to this day.
“This is one of the most idealistic preservation projects in the country,” says McDonald. “It’s not a two-year restoration; there are never any artificial deadlines. That’s the enemy of good restoration projects.”
Instead, the approach has been to painstakingly research the house architecturally and physically; to restore it using period techniques, tools, and materials; and to let the public in on the whole decades-long journey. “Our vision was that visitors would see a Jeffersonian process,” McDonald says.
Poplar Forest is an atypical house museum. Staff offices are located in other buildings, and there’s no original furniture in the house, only replicas. These choices allow the windows to be opened in warm weather—a simple thing that contributes to visitors’ experience of authenticity. The heat system is hidden under the floor; visitors encounter no modern touches, like electrical outlets, at all.
What’s spotlighted inside Poplar Forest is the building process itself. Over the years, craftspeople have painstakingly reenacted the work done by Jefferson’s slaves—three-coat plaster, brickwork, woodwork—all with period techniques and tools. The current project, reproducing Tuscan-order entablatures where the walls meet the high ceilings, uses lumber from Jefferson-era trees. Likewise, the door-molding material was sourced from the nearby poplar forest that gives the property its name. Marble hearthstones were quarried from the same geologic vein tapped in Jefferson’s day.
Archaeology and historical research inform every part of the ongoing restoration. Interior doors are known to have been built by John Hemmings because their unique design echoes that of his work at Monticello. Earlysville artisan Blaise Gaston made 10 walnut reproductions of the two original doors that survived. On the grounds, visitors can see the archaeological work that goes hand-in-hand with preservation. Eric Proebsting, archaeology director, has been involved in a detailed study of the landscape, with the goal of recreating Jefferson’s design. For example, 200-year-old grains of pollen, found in the soil near the front porch, became clues to plants and trees chosen by Jefferson, and their positioning is based on planting holes found during excavation.
A partnership with the Garden Club of Virginia has helped with replanting other landscape elements, like rows of paper mulberry trees, and the Garden Club is also supporting the recreation of the carriage turnaround, to be hand-laid with stones like the ones Proebsting and his colleagues have excavated from beneath layers of soil and gravel.
Poplar Forest is a location rich in learning and atmosphere. On winter weekends, visitors are even permitted to simply sit a spell and enjoy the interior of the house. “The character of this as a museum is in keeping with its nature as a retreat,” McDonald says.