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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

What Happened to Monticello after Thomas Jefferson Died? by Cynthia Howerter




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 his death in 1826 has received little notice. I recently had the privilege of visiting Monticello during a rare open house and asked staff members about the post-Jefferson years. 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 the the house's entire story.


Thomas Jefferson, portrayed by a reenactor, greeting guests to Monticello

On July 4, 1826, eighty-three-year-old Thomas Jefferson exhaled his final breath in the house he began constructing fifty-seven years earlier. His only surviving child, Martha Jefferson Randolph, inherited the enormous debt her father had accrued as well as Monticello and its grounds—unmaintained for years due to lack of funds and in decline.

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.

Garden Pavilion


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 familywho owned the property longer than the Jeffersonsthere would be no Monticello.


Award-winning author Cynthia Howerter grew up playing in Fort Rice, a Revolutionary War fort owned by family members, and lived on land in Pennsylvania once called home by 18th century Oneida Chief Shikellamy. Hunting arrowheads and riding horses at break-neck speed across farm fields while pretending to flee from British-allied Indians provided exciting childhood experiences for Cynthia and set the stage for a life-long love of all things historical. A descendant of a Revolutionary War officer and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), history flows through Cynthia's veins.




You can find Cynthia on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Pinterest.





* 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 ©2017 Cynthia Howerter, courtesy of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.


For more information about Monticello and to purchase tickets to tour the house and grounds, visit www.Monticello.org


17 comments:

  1. Great post, Cynthia. A fascinating saga of this beautiful estate.

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  2. Thank you, Janet! I'm glad you enjoyed this article. After learning about Monticello's past, our country is certainly fortunate to possess this national treasure intact.

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  3. Great article. THanks for posting.

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    1. Hi, Kim! Thanks so much for letting me know you enjoyed the article.

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  4. Great article, as usual, Cynthia!
    I had a packet of 1940's photos from the Monticello gift shop.They sold pretty quickly from my Etsy shop. Wish I had saved them for you.

    (I can't bear to think of Jefferson's gardens being dug up...)

    Susan

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    1. Oh, Susan, I would have loved those cards! :) Not to worry, Jefferson's gardens are being tenderly cared for these days. You'll want to visit them the next time you're in Virginia.

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  5. Wonderful post, Cynthia! Without all those history lovers where would we be?

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    1. Thanks, Carrie! We're so fortunate to have such a wealth of history here in Virginia. We need to get out there and see all of it!

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  6. Great post Cynthia! Never knew his home was in such disrepair, glad it is now in tact.
    Blessings,Tina

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    1. Thanks, Tina! It's shocking to think that such an architectural masterpiece as Monticello came close to being destroyed. Our country owes a debt of gratitude to the Levy family.

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  7. Great article! Amazing the disregard for a founding father's legacy but wonderful that the house and grounds have been so thoughtfully restored.

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    1. Hi, Megan! I'm so glad you enjoyed the article. It's amazing that more hasn't been heard about the role the Levy family played in saving Monticello from ruin. While visiting there recently, it was hard to believe that the beautiful house and grounds weren't always in good repair.

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  8. Such a lovely estate. I love when beautiful parts of history are kept. :)

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    1. Hi, Angela! It is a beautiful place, isn't it! I'm so glad to know that you're a history buff, too!

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  9. Awesome post! Love to visit Monticello one day!

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    1. Hi, Just Commonly! Thanks so much for the kind words. I do hope you'll get to visit Monticello - you will love it.

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