Monticello makeover: $10 million gift brings goal of total restoration into view

Mulberry Row at Monticello. Photo: Mary Potter for Monticello. Mulberry Row at Monticello. Photo: Mary Potter for Monticello.

Before another month gets torn off the calendar, the leading lights of Monticello will sit down together to discuss a task every nonprofit dreams of facing: How exactly they’re going to go about spending $10 million.

It’s a conversation made possible by David Rubenstein, a co-founder of Washington, D.C. financial firm the Carlyle Group, who announced earlier this month that he planned to award the Thomas Jefferson Foundation one of the largest gifts in its 90-year history. His donation will allow the Foundation to fill the last physical gaps in the story of Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home, restoring the final third of the iconic house, updating aging infrastructure, and bringing to life the long-invisible imprint of slavery on the mountaintop.

Foundation President Leslie Greene Bowman has been at Monticello for only four years, but she takes the long view.

“It’s so incredibly exciting to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “After nearly a century of work, we’re now within the 10 yard line.”

Bowman said Rubenstein, a lover of history who owns several original copies of the Declaration of Independence, was looking for ways to put his wealth to work in his lifetime when he toured Monticello for the first time in many years in January. A few months later, he made the offering Bowman calls “transformative.”

One coming change is the restoration of the largely hidden and restricted second and third floors of Monticello, space that as late as 2010 still housed staff offices. It’s a process that requires deep knowledge of methods and materials, long hours of detective work—and patience.

Bob Self, the Foundation’s director of restoration, has been chasing down the secrets of Monticello for 30 years. And even though he’s used to delayed gratification when it comes to daylighting the house’s history, he still marvels at the necessarily drawn-out timeline of his work.

Consider, he said, that Jefferson’s major remodeling of Monticello took place between 1798 and 1809. Getting it back to that state has taken nine times that long—and they’re still going.

“It was just on a completely different level than what we see going on in 10 years around here,” he said.

When Self explains what a few million dollars will do to speed up the process, his technical terms—paint ghosts, stove evidence —evoke archaeological mystery. But understanding the appearance and purpose of the rooms where Jefferson’s family lived is often a matter of tedious scientific study.

The first steps are already underway in the upstairs bedrooms, as restorers begin carefully shaving off centuries of paint in neat patches, sometimes revealing half a dozen layers before they reach the original plaster. Experts will analyze the paint flecks, and their chemical workups can reveal a lot, Self said, including when they were applied.

And then, of course, there are Jefferson’s nearly obsessive notes to go on, records that detail the house, his life’s work, right down to the millimeter of space he dictated be left between the overlapping panes of his second-story skylights. Those notes and the letters passed among family members breathe life into the upper floors, and reveal details otherwise erased from memory, from a bed alcove converted into a closet in daughter Martha’s bedroom to a hideout created in the attic space hidden inside the house’s iconic pediment where Jefferson’s granddaughters read amidst borrowed furniture and buzzing wasps.

Peer out the fan window that lit up their secret den, and you can spy the site of another big project the gift will catapult into reality.

Mulberry Row is little more than a shaded walk today, but in Jefferson’s lifetime, it was alive with activity, the beating heart of what remains the most well-researched plantation in American history. For years, Foundation researchers and outside experts have been piecing together a visual representation of what the string of more than two dozen storehouses and slave buildings looked like.

Rubenstein’s gift lets them take it to the next level, said Susan Stein, Monticello’s senior curator, by physically recreating some of the structures: a shed for tinsmithing and iron and two homes for slave families, their dimensions, earthen floors, and hewn-pine walls built to the specifications of Jefferson’s meticulous notes.

“This is research we’ve been sharing for as long as we’ve known about it,” she said. “The big leap for us is making this visible.”

There’s deep symbolic and historical importance to recreating the landscape of slavery on the mountaintop, Stein and Bowman said. Without it, you don’t have the full picture of what they like to call the epic novel of Jefferson’s life, and the hundreds of supporting characters that peopled it.

“People think of a quiet house on a mountain today with a certain modern aesthetic that didn’t exist then,” said Bowman. “And I don’t think it’s easy, when you just see the house and the garden, to understand that Jefferson’s livelihood was based on the plantation, this enterprise that was supported and sustained by 100 to 150 people.”

The unseen link between the two major updates to house and plantation is a lot less glamorous than either: the overhaul of an aging, quirky HVAC system, a cleverly hidden network of ducts and returns that snakes through the house and feeds air back to a central spot buried under the “Weaver’s Cottage,” a freestanding building at one end of Mulberry Row. The entire system has to be replaced, and that fact has held up the long-planned indoor restorations and outdoor builds.

“It’s unusual for a donor to come along and say, ‘I can solve all of this with one gift,’” said Bowman. “So it’s a catalytic gift just by its amount, but also by the way it’s helped us take on three projects that were nagging at us as to how we could really ever schedule them.”

But within three years, Bowman said, they’ll have colored in the picture of Jefferson’s life and home in a demonstrable way. Visitors will be able to walk around a recreated slave cabin near the site of the one that housed the Hemings family. Behind-the-scenes tour attendants who wind their way up the cramped, steep stairs of the great house will see—maybe even touch and hold —interpretations of life as a Jefferson grandchild. Suddenly, the gap between planning and doing has vanished.


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