Both Monticello and Mount Vernon are imposing estates. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were imposing historical figures. What do the homes tell us about the statesmen? Quite a bit. Practically since the nation’s founding, there have been those, particularly among intellectuals, who deprecate the reserved, stoic, and to some stolid Washington. Such people much prefer the vivacity, activism, and seeming brilliance of the better read, better spoken, and more Revolutionary Jefferson. For both good and ill, personality is important in politics and to those who judge one’s political legacy, but it is useful to concentrate on the concrete legacy of a statesman in judging his worth as a model. Such a legacy may be reflected in something as seemingly un-political as a house.
To begin, we should recognize that both estates were designed by their owners. Planters in semi-aristocratic Virginia were Very Important Persons. Where Washington hired architects, Jefferson acted as his own, but both planned and crafted their own estates. They had a public image to uphold and it was bound up with their lands, their great houses, and all their performances as hosts and members of their communities—roles tied to their lands and houses. Grandeur was part of the mix, of course, as was a willingness to cater to the desires of hundreds of people per year staying for dinner, the night, or a week. I refer, here, to “the right kind of people,” of course. Again, this was a semi-aristocratic, slave owning society with all its attendant inequalities. But inequality still entailed reciprocity and even magnanimity, at least to those who took their duties seriously. Here, as with so much else, Washington and Jefferson differed.
Jefferson is famous for referring to Monticello as his “essay in architecture.” He was also somewhat infamous in his day for always having his house under construction—guests were more likely to walk on wood planks and see scaffolding than to enjoy the kind of fine environment on display today. Washington built his own estate over time as well. But Mount Vernon’s growth was more organic, rooted in changing circumstances to which Washington sought to adapt while retaining the estate’s overall symmetry, harmony, and continuing functionality. Washington took great care to build and preserve his estate as a public house worthy of an important public figure capable of tending to his public duties, including those related to hosting guests by the hundred each year.
At first glance Monticello, like Jefferson, presents the observer with the more interesting prospect. The imposing dome, the neoclassical features, and the stunning view from the mountaintop all give an appearance of reasoned grandeur and a flash of brilliance. But Mount Vernon itself is built in grand, British Palladian style. Less interesting, perhaps, for those who deprecate architecture intentionally suited to its time and place rather than serving as a statement or experiment, Mount Vernon is more appropriate for the public life of a public man. It also shows a discipline and care for the practical needs of actual human beings.
Where Jefferson was constantly experimenting, Washington added on buildings and colonnades as seemed appropriate. The styles of architectural details are not fully consistent in Mount Vernon, but the differences are really rather minor and one wonders whether Washington, the busy public man, even noticed or if he left it to the hired professionals to maintain the harmony he sketched out for them. Washington did add two important, and somewhat novel, features to his home. One is the huge, expansive back porch—really a piazza complete with two-story piers. Of Washington’s own design, it presents an imposing façade, taking full advantage of surrounding views, and was much copied afterward. The other unusual feature at Mount Vernon is the off-centered cupola which, along with the front door, had to be pushed out of alignment to accommodate an interior stairway. The cupola does not exactly match the house’s Palladian style, but adds vertical lines that balance the wide house even as it makes the asymmetry much less apparent. The asymmetry was unavoidable, for Washington, because avoiding it would mean great inconvenience for those who would visit and live in the home.
Such practical concerns were of less importance to Jefferson, who was much more enamored of novelties and inventions than was Washington. Indeed, a tour of Monticello is in significant measure a lesson in minor inventions of Jefferson’s day, some of them quite interesting and even useful. Among Monticello’s novelties is the set of entrance doors, both of which open at the same time when either is pushed or pulled. There also is the Great Clock, which has faces both inside and outside the entrance hall. This clock is powered by two cannon-ball weights and causes a gong to strike on the roof. With this clock, we see the two sides of Jefferson’s love of invention: the precision and the problem of detail. The clock’s weights were supposed to indicate the day of the week, but Jefferson had to have holes drilled in the floor through which they pass, making some markings unreadable, because the ropes on which they hang are too long for the height of the entryway. The clock was, as it remains, the subject of much conversation and often admiration, but, let us say, lacks the conveniences afforded by proper planning.
Such is at least as much the case with the stairways in Jefferson’s house. The stairs are so steep and narrow as to be almost ladders. This was of little consequence to Jefferson, who lived on the main floor, but no doubt caused issues for his extended family and guests. Monticello, filled as it is with interesting inventions, is not really set up for living, or even for hosting large numbers. As to its grand features, one sometimes wonders as to their purpose beyond mere spectacle; the magnificent dome room, lived in briefly by Jefferson’s grandson and his wife, was primarily used for storage. One can read much about Jefferson’s architectural obsessions (one good book on the topic is Jack McLaughlin’s Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder). The numerous failed experiments with brick making and other related crafts merely added to the grand mess that was Monticello, that never-more-than-half-finished obsession of a putatively rational mind.
Monticello certainly is a grand building, especially now that Jefferson’s successors have completed the work. The vista is sublime and the gardens impressive. As for Mount Vernon, the house is, in fact, grander, though designed and placed with an emphasis on the picturesque that makes it somewhat less imposing. Mount Vernon is designed to fit with its surroundings, with views available from most any window. It is a house made for hosting, which of course Washington did very much.
If it seems I have sided with Washington throughout, here, it is because I find his house, like his character, to reflect in the very fact that it is historically and practically grounded the permanent goods of prudence and magnanimity. The reader will, I hope, pardon a final biased reflection in this regard. For Jefferson’s architectural (and other) profligacy caused him to accumulate so much debt, that his home and slaves had to be sold on his death to pay them. Washington, meanwhile, tended his garden and his duties in such a way as to allow him a final, posthumous act of both magnanimity and justice, namely, the freeing of his slaves.
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