“When finished, it will be the best dwelling house in the State, except that of Monticello; perhaps preferable to that, as more proportioned to the faculties of a private citizen.” – Thomas Jefferson
Nearly a decade ago during a stay in Roanoke, Va., we learned of a villa designed, built and enjoyed by Thomas Jefferson during and following his presidency. We had previously visited Monticello, Jefferson’s primary home near Charlottesville, Va., but had no idea he had designed and constructed a villa to occasionally escape Monticello’s commotion and seemingly endless stream of visitors. The following day we headed an hour east from Roanoke to visit Jefferson’s retreat, Poplar Forest.
Considerable work on the home was taking place at the time of our visit. While the exterior appeared in good condition, the interior had undergone extensive alteration by subsequent owners following Jefferson’s death and was in an intermediate stage of restoration.
We found Poplar Forest and its history quite interesting and after returning home to South Georgia talked of someday returning to the historic villa. It wasn’t until this summer, during a road trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway, that we were able to connect again with Jefferson’s retreat.
The remote 4,819-acre plantation on which Jefferson would build his villa had been inherited by wife, Martha, at her father’s death in 1773. At the time, the plantation included 11 slaves and had been named for the numerous poplar trees in the surrounding forest .
A kitchen with an expansive fireplace is in the home’s service wing.
Construction on the one-story villa was set in motion in 1805, during the beginning of Jefferson’s second presidential term when he dispatched a Monticello employee to Poplar Forest to begin making bricks. At the time, Jefferson had been a widower for more than two decades. Actual construction atop a small hill commenced the following year with brick walls and roof framing completed in 1807. Windows, floors, columns, and privies were finished the following year, and Jefferson began using the home in 1809, prior to its completion.
The villa and surrounding landscape, each designed by Jefferson, a self-taught architect who oversaw Poplar Forest’s construction, evidence the owner’s preference for symmetry, octagons and designs experienced during his European travels. The home is an equal-sided octagon with a main floor comprised of four elongated octagonal rooms surrounding a 20-foot cube housing the dining room accentuated with a large skylight. The villa is entered from the north portico and through a passage leading to the dining room. The south-facing parlor/library is enhanced with sunlight from two expansive floor-to-ceiling windows on each side of an exterior glass door. Rooms on the east and west sides of the home served as bedrooms (Jefferson’s on the west), each split in the middle with an alcove bed.
A lower level of the villa, visible only from the back (south) is similar in layout to the main floor and was utilized for storage and as living space for enslaved and free workmen. A service wing jutting from the home’s east side housed a kitchen, laundry, smokehouse, and a room likely used for storage. A unique octagonal brick privy stands an appropriate distance from each side of the home requiring that occupants undertake an uncomfortable walk on cold nights. Jefferson had his own private privy in the villa’s lower level.
Following two terms as president, Jefferson would make the two- to three-day trip to Poplar Forest three or four times per year for stays lasting up to two months. The plantation was then home to nearly 100 slaves and served as a source of Jefferson’s income, primarily from raising tobacco. His final visit was in 1823 when he assisted grandson Francis Eppes and Eppes’ family move into the villa.
Jefferson, who would die three years later, anticipated Eppes would raise his family at Poplar Forest. However, two years following Jefferson’s death the grandson sold the plantation and moved to Florida. The house would subsequently suffer a major fire in 1845, pass through several owners, and go through extensive alterations before being acquired in 1983 by the Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, a non-profit with a goal of restoring and relating the story of Thomas Jefferson’s personal retreat.
We found Poplar Forest considerably more intimate than Jefferson’s Monticello. The villa at Poplar Forest is considerably smaller and experiences fewer visitors (about a 10th the number of visitors as Monticello) resulting in a more personal experience. During our most recent visit we were fortunate to tour with Mary Massie, the facility’s director of Programs and Education who has worked at Poplar Forest for more than a dozen years.
Docent-guided public tours of the first floor last from 45 minutes to an hour and are offered four times daily from mid-March through the end of December as docents are available. Other elements of Poplar Forest, including extensive exhibits in the villa’s lower level and a slave dwelling site, are accessible for self-guided tours. Visitors may explore the property at their own pace using a cell phone audio tour. Weekend winter tours are offered from mid-January to mid-March.
if you go
Directions: Poplar Forest is in Central Virginia, about 10 miles southwest of Lynchburg via US 221 and State Highway 661.
schedule: The estate is open 7 days a week except Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day from March 15 through December 30. Guided tours are offered four times daily.
Tours: Tickets may be purchased online or by calling the museum shop at 434-534-8120. Admission is $18 for adults, $16 for senior citizens and members of the military, $10 for teens and college students, and $6 for youth.
Additional Information: The organization’s website at www.poplarforest.org should answer most questions and includes a listing of special events. A link offers a virtual tour of the villa with Mary Massie. An villa tour via a drone is available on YouTube.