|Monticello's East Portico - the main entrance|
While it’s common knowledge that Thomas Jefferson designed and built Monticello, his magnificent home in Virginia, what happened to the property in the years after Jefferson’s death in 1826 has received little notice. I recently had the privilege of visiting Monticello during a rare open house. After leisurely exploring the mansion’s first floor, I took advantage of the opportunity to ask staff members about the post-Jefferson years at Monticello. Curiosity further aroused, I was directed to several sources of information, including Marc Leepson's well-researched Saving Monticello, The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House That Jefferson Built which laid out Monticello's entire story.
|Thomas Jefferson, portrayed by a reenactor, greeting guests to Monticello|
Martha Jefferson Randolph and her children continued living in the house after her father’s passing. In need of cash, the Randolph family held an auction in 1827 for Jefferson’s household and kitchen items, slaves, animals, and crops, but the sale’s proceeds were insufficient to pay off Jefferson’s $100,000-plus debt. Additional sales for Jefferson’s personal possessions attracted little interest and did poorly.
|North Pavilion and Terrace|
With her childhood home nearly empty of its possessions and up for sale, Martha Randolph and her family left Monticello. The house sat vacant and decaying until James Turner Barclay, a druggist from nearby Charlottesville, purchased the property in 1831. More interested in raising silk worms in the conservancy room next to Jefferson's study, the new owner neglected the house and sold some of the remaining acreage. A visitor to Monticello in 1832 noted that there was “utter ruin and desolation of everything.”* Barclay had cut down valuable trees, dug up Jefferson's gardens, and plowed the lawns under, planting crops where elegant beauty had once thrived. In 1836, Barclay sold the dilapidated house and grounds to Uriah Phillips Levy, a wealthy navy lieutenant originally from New York with a deep admiration for Thomas Jefferson.
Monticello’s neglect ceased under Uriah Levy’s ownership. Determined to restore Jefferson’s house to its original design, Uriah instituted repairs to the property, a monumental task, and purchased some of its former land.
|West Portico. ©The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, photograph by Cynthia Howerter|
The Civil War halted Monticello’s resurgence under Uriah. In 1861, the Confederate government seized possession of the estate on grounds that Uriah Levy was a Northerner. Booted from his property, Uriah returned to New York while his local attorney, George Carr, and overseer, Joel Wheeler, took control of Monticello. Wheeler and his family took up residence in the house with the result that ruin set in once more.
Uriah died in New York City in 1862, unable to regain Monticello. In dire need of cash, the Confederacy sold the estate to Confederate officer Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Ficklin in 1864 at a public sale. It's not known if Ficklin ever lived on the property.
By 1865, the once exquisite house was “an absolute ruin,”* according to a nearby land owner. Joel Wheeler, who continued to live in the mansion, milled grain in the once stately parlor with its hand-laid parquet floors. He allowed livestock to live in the basement, the foul odors permeating the house's living quarters. Pigs tore up the once elegant yards. Broken windows and shutters went unrepaired. Moss-covered roofs leaked and damaged the interior while the house's exterior deteriorated into disgrace. Unpaid by the owners of Monticello, Joel Wheeler charged visitors a fee to see the house and turned a blind eye when they took pieces of the building for personal souvenirs. Thomas Jefferson surely turned over in his nearby grave at the treatment of his life’s work.
In 1879 after seventeen years of neglect, Uriah Levy’s nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, himself a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson, became Monticello’s owner. Jefferson Levy assumed his Uncle Uriah’s goal: preserve the mansion according to Thomas Jefferson’s original plans. He spent considerable sums repairing and restoring the nearly ruined house and grounds and under his ownership, Monticello came back to life and flourished.
As he neared the end of his life, Jefferson Levy wanted to ensure that Monticello would forever be properly maintained and open to the public. Ending eighty-nine years of Levy family ownership, he sold Monticello in 1923 to the newly organized Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation which has provided good stewardship of the property ever since.
But for the Levy family—who owned the property longer than the Jeffersons—there would be no Monticello.
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* Quotes from Marc Leepson's Saving Monticello, The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House That Jefferson Built.
Information for article from the Monticello website, tour guides at Monticello, Marc Leepson's Saving Monticello, The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House That Jefferson Built.
Photograph of Monticello's West Portico ©The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, photograph by Cynthia Howerter.
Photographs ©2015 Cynthia Howerter, courtesy of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.