Friday, June 17, 2011

Poplar Forest

Thomas Jefferson is synonymous with Monticello, his famous house near Charlottesville, VA.  But he also built a second home near Lynchburg, Poplar Forest.  Few of his contemporaries were aware of Jefferson's getaway or its location and it remained out of the public eye, known mostly to Jefferson scholars and architectural historians until the early 1980's.

The 4819-acre plantation provided him with significant income and was the perfect setting where he could read, write, study and garden after retiring from public life. In fact, Jefferson wrote his only book at Poplar Forest.

In 1806, Jefferson traveled to Forest, VA to supervise the laying of the foundation for the octagonal house we see today.  When his presidency ended in 1809, he visited the retreat three to four times a year, staying from two weeks to two months at a time.  He made his last trip to Poplar Forest in 1823 as declining health made visiting the plantation impossible.  In 1828, two years after his death, Francis Eppes, his grandson, sold the property to a neighbor.

The design of Poplar Forest is highly idealistic in concept - it was perfectly suited to Jefferson alone, so that subsequent owners altered it significantly and in 1845 a fire led the then owners to convert Jefferson's magnificent small villa into a practical farmhouse.  Amazingly, the property was privately owned until 1983 when a non-profit corporation began the "rescue" of the landmark. 

By the 1980's Jefferson's planation was a mere 50 acres.  Approaching development threatend the landmark and two other remaining original buildings on the property.  A group of local citizens and a $50,000 gift enabled the property to be purchased and rescued from development.  An adjacent tract was purchased (saving it from a housing development) with $1.7M garnered from area banks, the group was buying time and this enabled them to save the property and to later go out and raise needed funds.

Today the non-profit owns 577 acres of Jefferson's plantation retreat free and clear and has taken title to another 39 acres with bank loans.  There are additional parcels of critically important land that are unprotected and these tracts hope to be purchased in the future.

It is amazing structure, I prefer it over Monticello.

The property is still a "work in progress" but thank goodness the building was saved from development and destruction so that we all might enjoy it as Jefferson clearly did.  Did you know that Jefferson also owned Natural Bridge?  (Hint, wait for a future post).  Happy Friday!

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