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Monday, July 29, 2013

Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest Retreat by Cynthia Howerter


Poplar Forest, view from the rear of the house

Say the word “Monticello” and one immediately thinks of Thomas Jefferson’s stately home. Lesser known is Jefferson’s retreat “Poplar Forest,” located about 70 miles south of Monticello, near Lynchburg, Virginia.

Jefferson first visited the Poplar Forest plantation in 1773 after he and his wife Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson inherited the 4,800-acre working farm from her father, John Wayles. For many years, because of Jefferson’s involvement in government, it was necessary for him to manage the estate from afar.

During the Revolutionary War, the British wanted to capture Jefferson who was then Governor of Virginia. In 1781, as British soldiers closed in on Monticello, Jefferson and his family fled their home near Charlottesville and sought refuge at this distant plantation for two months until danger passed. Because no house existed at Poplar Forest, the Jefferson family most likely stayed in the overseer’s house. 

A student of architecture, Jefferson designed the brick octagonal house to be a small private retreat for himself. Like many inventive individuals, Jefferson needed time alone to rejuvenate his creativity. While serving as President in Washington, D.C., Jefferson traveled to Poplar Forest in 1806 to supervise the laying of the house’s foundation. 

The completed house consisted of two small chambers that adjoined each of the two bedrooms, a dining room, and library. A number of features found at Monticello are also found at Poplar Forest, such as the liberal use of windows for natural lighting, alcove beds, and floor-to-ceiling windows. A one hundred foot-long wing adjoining the basement of the house contains the kitchen, cook's room, laundry, and smokehouse. Covering this “wing of offices,” as Jefferson referred to it, is a flat roof that provided recreational evening walks.   


Poplar Forest

Jefferson began visiting the retreat several times a year when his presidency ended in 1809, often staying several weeks or months at a time. He tried to keep the existence of his retreat a secret in order to guard and guarantee his privacy.

Jefferson’s grandson Francis Eppes inherited Poplar Forest upon Jefferson’s death in 1826, but neither he nor his wife cared for the rural retreat. Two years later, they sold the property to a neighboring farmer, William Cobbs.    

In 1845, a fire destroyed the house's interior and roof although the original walls survived. The Cobbs family rebuilt the house and modified its original design to suit the needs of their large family, adding a second-floor dormitory. The result was that Jefferson's meticulously-designed architectural masterpiece was nearly unrecognizable.

Through the years, various owners of the house implemented their own renovations, and by 1984, when a group of citizens purchased the property with the intent to restore the house to its original design, very little of Jefferson's structure existed. The beautiful eight-sided house now appears much as it did when Thomas Jefferson owned it. Restoration of the house and grounds continues today.

Archaeological excavation on Poplar Forest's circular drive 
In the photograph above, an archaeologist is carefully removing layers of soil to learn what type of road was originally laid in front of the house.


All Photographs ©2013 Cynthia Howerter



Award-winning author Cynthia Howerter loves using her training in education, research, writing, and speaking to teach and inspire others about a time in America that was anything but boring. A member of the Daughters of the American revolution (DAR), Cynthia believes history should be alive and personal.

Visit Cynthia's website: Cynthia Howerter - all things historical





For additional information on Poplar Forest:   www.poplarforest.org.    






10 comments:

  1. A very interesting post, Cynthia. I had heard of Poplar Forest, but didn't know much about it. Virginia is a fascinating place to live.

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    1. Thank you, Janet! I agree; Virginia has such a rich history and is incredibly beautiful as well. I love living here.

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  2. Would love to go here, Cynthia! Thanks for the great, post! I really hadn't heard of Poplar Forest before.

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    1. You would enjoy Poplar Forest, Carrie! Jefferson's skill at architectural design is incredible, especially when you consider that he was virtually self-taught on the subject.

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  3. I feel gypped!! I lived in Lynchburg for 3+ years and never knew this. :-) Thanks so much for sharing! If I ever make it back, I'll have to check it out.

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    1. Hi, Shannon! I'm glad you now know about this beautiful retreat. Unfortunately, it is not well known, but it should be as it is a masterpiece of Jefferson's architectural skill. Hope you are able to visit Poplar Forest one day!

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  4. Oh wow, it looks beautiful! I should put this on my list to visit. :) Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Susan P.! I do hope you're able to visit this wonderful gem.

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  5. Thanks so much for this post. I didn't know anything about Poplar Forest, though I've been to Lynchburg several times. Next time I go there, I will have to plan a visit to Jefferson's retreat.

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    1. Hi, Kay M.! No reservations for tours are currently necessary (unlike better-known Monticello), but there is a small fee to tour the house and grounds. Hope you enjoy your visit as much as I did!

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