Monday, February 21, 2011

Monticello's preservation forever linked to Jewish family 

I've never met an American who didn't have a soft spot in his heart for Thomas Jefferson and Monticello, his home and plantation in Charlottesville.

After his term as president expired in 1809, Jefferson lived full time at Monticello. The house, which Jefferson called "his essay in architecture," is a testament to his genius. The 11,000-square-foot neoclassical mansion has 21 rooms, and from the moment you set foot in the reception and waiting room, with its grass-green floor and museum-like exhibits of natural history specimens, Native American and African artifacts, you know are in the domain of a man of taste, knowledge and broad interests.

During his lifetime, Jefferson spent freely and entertained lavishly, often hosting dozens of guests for weeks at a time. When he died in 1826, he was about $100,000 in debt (about $2 million in today's dollars). Jefferson's heirs could not afford to keep Monticello and, to the shock and sadness of everyone who admired his book room (which once held more than 6,000 volumes), bedroom (where the latest gadgets and technological inventions surround his bed), dining room (with its dumbwaiters, hidden in the fireplace, that brought wine up from the cellar), guestrooms, art collection and dome room, the plantation had to be sold.

Historical treasure or not, no one wanted Monticello. In 1827, Jefferson's daughter and grandson auctioned off the slaves, possessions and even the stored grain and farm equipment. The empty house decayed from lack of upkeep. Finally, the estate was purchased by James Turner Barclay for $7,000, but he held on to it for only three years before selling it in 1834.


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