Looking Down on T.J.

Trying to understand the Jeffersonian enigma from atop a nearby mountain

Monticello
The view from Monticello

Credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation

For the past several years, in its list of the nation's most-visited house museums, the Almanac of Architecture and Design has ranked Graceland just above Monticello. This means that more people have been lining up to view Elvis' jumpsuits than to see the artifacts in Thomas Jefferson's natural history collection, which includes, among other things, the upper jawbone of a mastodon and a pair of elk antlers sent back from the Lewis and Clark expedition. No doubt there is a message here about our collective cultural identity, but I don't know just what it is. I only know that I fall into the jawbone camp—and that I am continually drawn to Jefferson's idiosyncratic mountaintop house, with its terraced vegetable garden of unlikely crops such as sea kale and cardoons, the dumbwaiter that carries only wine bottles, the hand-colored maps of the continents, the revolving walnut bookstand, the surveying instruments, and the bust of Voltaire with his plaster ringlets and slightly pained expression, as if he might be smelling a bad cardoon.

Over the years, I have probably toured Monticello 40 or 50 times. Proximity certainly plays a part in this. I happen to live in Charlottesville, Va., Jefferson's hometown, and Monticello is but a 20-minute drive from my house.

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