A Tale of Two Estates
Sam Burnham, Curator
In our modern times there is a tendency to oversimplify the archetype of the Southern gentry. It goes without saying that two of the most pivotal founders fit in this category. Interestingly, these two men were very different. They offer a contrast that suggests a diversity of thought, of personality, of philosophy within that archetype.
The contrast between Washington and Jefferson can be seen in their estates. Mount Vernon and Monticello give us a physical edifice as a tribute to each man. There are obviously similarities: agriculture, slavery, Virginia, and both men being among the Founding Fathers. But the many differences is where we really see the men themselves.
George Washington’s manor sits high upon a bluff overlooking the Potomac River near the inland limits of the Virginia Tidewater. It might not seem enormous by today’s obscene standards for mansions, but with 21 rooms, this is an imposing home.
Construction started on Mount Vernon in 1734. Augustus Washington, George’s father, started the house as a structure of a story and a half in height. After Augustus Washington died the home passed to Lawrence Washington, George’s elder half brother. Lawrence Washington also served as a father figure for George. Washington came into possession of Mount Vernon after Lawrence’s death and eventually became the owner of the estate.
George Washington made his own changes and additions to the home until it became the structure we see today. A soldier and frontier surveyor, Washington is thought of as a powerful and successful man. Mount Vernon reflects that. The location is beautiful in its own right but the house is central as it stands as a monument on the landscape.
Mount Vernon reflects the power of its owner. It stands high and visible. A ship on the river cowers under the gaze of the cupola-topped mansion. To this day, visitors sit on the porch and gaze out on the river.
Washington was a stickler for order and etiquette. His Rules for Civility remains a guide for proper conduct in social and professional situations. He kept a tight schedule, particularly for dining and his many and frequent guests were expected to adhere to the schedule. There’s a certain formality to Mount Vernon that reflects Washington’s sense of the appropriate.
Monticello, on the other hand, it situated in Virginia’s piedmont region. Jefferson designed and constructed his home atop his “little mountain.” While the estate was a working plantation, Jefferson’s main pursuits were philosophy, science, and the arts.
The design of the home is deceptive. You can stand in front of the house and wonder if that is really all there is. The structure sits low on the landscape rather than towering as other homes of its day. Once inside the house seems to expand and it is hard to believe how large that same house actually is. With wings built below grade off of each end of the home’s rear, a substantial portion of Monticello is hidden from view upon arrival. Monticello’s location concealed it from much of the world. The view from the home is majestic. The view of the home is purely local. Monticello balances with the landscape rather than dominating it.
Monticello is obviously an impressive and comfortable home but it is custom built for Jefferson’s personality. The house has no grand staircases as Jefferson saw them as a waste of space. Much of the main floor is dedicated to Jefferson’s personal space: his library, his office, and his bedchamber. Writing, reading, experimenting, and learning all took precedence in the design. This extended to the garden, the lawns, literally every aspect of the estate.
While Washington and Jefferson had overlapping interests and traits, their unique identities weee reflected in their homes. It’s not a matter of right or wrong as it is matching specific individuals.
Thankfully we have both estates fully intact. Researchers, curators, and historians continue to learn more about these men, their families, and the enslaved people who worked there. Each estate is supported by foundations that see to repairs and maintenance, conduct programs, and raise funds. No tax dollars are spent on either estate. I can’t imagine that either man would have it any other way.
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire