You are here

Monticello Landscape and Gardens

-A A +A
1768–1809, Thomas Jefferson; 1834–1923 restoration, Uriah Phillips Levy; 1934–1941 restoration, Fiske Kimball and Milton Grigg; 1979–1994 restoration and new design, Rudy Favretti, landscape architect; Peter Hatch, horticulturist; 1993–2002 renovations, Rieley and Associates. 931 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy.
  • West Lawn and Flower Garden (Photograph by Sbuckley, CC BY 2.0)

Monticello was the Virginia home and farm of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson throughout his adult life, the place he returned to again and again from his various professional posts and to which he finally retired. As a constantly evolving landscape, Monticello was the physical expression of Jefferson’s philosophical and intellectual development and served as a personal, experimental laboratory, one made possible through the labor of hundreds of enslaved people.

Jefferson was born in 1743 at his father’s Shadwell plantation, located about four miles east of Monticello. After studying law at William and Mary and gaining admission to the Virginia Bar, Jefferson returned home and began designing Monticello. He arranged what was at first a typical eighteenth-century Virginia plantation: he established the house on a high point and placed ornamental gardens, shade trees, and service-oriented outbuildings near the house; he sited orchards, vegetable gardens, barns, and agricultural sheds further away. To organize the landscape of the mountaintop, Jefferson designed four roundabout roads, each generally following one contour around the mountaintop; the roads and paths that connected them obliquely were called, variously, the 1:10 and the 1:20 (referencing their steepness), the Road Descending, the Kitchen Road, and the North, South, and East roads. Jefferson organized functional buildings and slave dwellings along what he called Mulberry Row, a straight road built on a terrace below the house.

The first roundabout encircled the house and its grounds; inside it, Jefferson placed an ornamental garden; beyond the central lawn between the first and second roundabouts, he established an arboretum of ornamental trees and shrubs he called “the grove.” Jefferson described the grove as “our Elysium” and its design expressed his interest in the writings of poet William Shenstone, an early proponent of the picturesque in landscape design. His effusive poetry and prose inspired Jefferson to experiment with “ancient and venerable oaks…gloomy evergreens…a small Gothic temple of antique appearance.” In other words, to play with naturalistic gardening concepts, including asymmetrical compositions and mixed native and exotic plants, all laid out to elicit admiration and discussion, as if viewers were seeing them depicted in sketches or paintings.

Jefferson’s plans for the ornamental garden evolved as his interest in naturalism expanded, as his reading broadened, and as his exploration of Virginia’s native landscapes widened. The strongest influences on Jefferson’s design philosophy were his travels in Europe while serving as an American diplomat in France. Particularly important was his trip to England in the company of his friend, John Adams, which included a multi-week tour of estates and gardens north and west of London. Using Thomas Whately’s Observations on Modern Gardening (1770) as a guide, they visited sixteen gardens, with Jefferson making copious sketches and taking detailed notes about their respective designs. Jefferson became especially enamored with the “ ferme ornée,” a term (first appearing in the writings of garden designer and writer Stephen Switzer) that described a farm fully integrating its functional and aesthetic aspects and typically featuring the formal characteristics of picturesque gardens, emphasizing scenic compositions, charming details, and sweeping views.

Upon returning to Monticello in the 1790s, Jefferson began to transform the mountaintop, making Monticello his home ferme ornée and the centerpiece of the larger, 5,000-acre plantation. He now grew wheat and other grains as part of a diversified planting program, bringing work specialization to Monticello. While enslaved agricultural workers supervised by resident overseers grew cash crops on his quarter farms (Shadwell, Tufton, and Lego), Monticello served as the center of the plantation’s primary industries, operated by enslaved domestic workers and artisans. Artisanal activities, organized along Mulberry Row, included a dairy, nailery, and smith’s shop.

In 1806, Jefferson revised his flower garden based on those he had seen in England, settling on a design comprising an asymmetrical, gravel-paved, serpentine walkway set with large oval flower beds. His inspiration may have been Stowe, with its long, winding drive around the edge of the property, or Woburn Farm, which had a walk encircling a lawn and some fields. Jefferson may have borrowed the idea from George Le Rouge’s Jardin Anglo-Chinois (1776) or George Isham Parkyns’s Six Designs for Improving and Embellishing Grounds (1793), both containing illustrations of estates with similar serpentine walks.

Around this time, Jefferson also expanded his vegetable garden, creating a terrace between the first and second roundabouts that measured 1,000 by 60 feet and was set with 24 growing plots, arranged by the part of the plant that was harvested: fruits, roots, or leaves. Native fieldstone retaining walls held heat and extended the growing season. Below the garden and the second roundabout, he established orchards totaling 600 trees, two vineyards, and a large berry patch. On the wall, Jefferson built a Classical Revival garden pavilion, in which he sat to view his garden and the mountains beyond.

When Jefferson died in 1826, Monticello ceased operation as a working plantation. In 1831, a Charlottesville druggist named James Barclay purchased the house and property, tearing out Jefferson’s ornamental garden and grove to plant mulberry trees in hopes of turning Monticello into a silkworm farm. When the project failed, the property was sold at a much-reduced price to Uriah Phillips Levy, of the U.S. Navy. An ardent admirer of Jefferson’s, Levy restored Monticello’s house and gardens; after his death in 1862, the property eventually passed to his nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy. In 1923, this Levy sold Monticello to the private nonprofit Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.

Under the guidance of architects Fiske Kimball and Milton Grigg (who was based in Charlottesville), the Foundation solicited support for the restoration of the ornamental garden from the Albemarle Garden Club, the Garden Club of Virginia, and the Garden Club of America. This effort, spearheaded by Albemarle Garden Club’s Susanne Williams Massie and Hazelhurst B. Perkins, began with arborist George Van Yahres rehabilitating Jefferson’s remaining trees. In 1934, the Civilian Conservation Corps rebuilt Monticello’s entrance and exit roads, repaired erosion, and cleared underbrush and stumps. In 1939, the Garden Club of Virginia donated funds to restore the flower garden following Jefferson’s final plan. The committee for the restoration included Kimball, Grigg, Massie, Perkins, and Edwin Betts. A professor of botany and Jefferson scholar at the University of Virginia, Betts had located Jefferson’s long-lost 1807 plan for the garden in the archives of the Pennsylvania Historical Society. This restoration was completed in 1941.

In 1976, the Monticello Board of Trustees adopted a resolution for the long-term restoration of the mountaintop to its appearance circa 1812, following Jefferson’s retirement. In 1979, the Foundation hired landscape architect Rudy J. Favretti to develop a plan to recreate the 18-acre grove with horticulturalist Peter Hatch responsible for its implementation. Monticello’s architectural historian, William L. Beiswanger, began researching and surveying the vegetable garden, hiring William Kelso, previously of Colonial Williamsburg, to locate and map the garden features. From 1979 to 1981, Kelso and his crew located the garden’s boundaries and features and uncovered the remains of the 12-foot-tall stone retaining wall that supported the garden. They also identified the foundation of the garden temple and the locations of 57 fruit trees in the south orchard. Favretti and Hatch led the restoration of the retaining wall, vegetable garden, orchards, vineyards, and berry patches; the project was fully complete by 1994. This phase of restoration led to Monticello’s 1987 inscription on the World Heritage List.

Recent projects at Monticello have focused on visitor accommodation. In 1993, landscape architects Rieley and Associates were brought in to deal with increased traffic, eventually developing the Thomas Jefferson Parkway by renovating a portion of State Route 53, a county road that winds between Charlottesville and Monticello. They also developed Kemper Park, including the Saunders-Monticello Trail, and the Saunders Bridge, a magnificent stone structure that provides safe entrance into the site; all these projects were completed by 2002. In 2009, the Foundation the hired architecture firm Ayers Saint Gross to design a new, LEED Gold–certified visitor center, and Michael Vergason and Associates to develop the facility’s landscape design.

The most recent research and interpretation initiatives on the mountaintop are focused on understanding the lives of the Monticello’s workers, both enslaved and free, during Jefferson’s time. One initiative is revealing changes in the domestic and agricultural landscape between 1740 and the Civil War, and explores the social consequences of environmental change and agricultural diversification among Monticello’s agricultural workers. A second initiative compares that information with data gathered along Mulberry Row, considering how and why the lives of the enslaved living there differed from those of field laborers. The active interpretation of Mulberry Row has been the focus of a multi-year project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and private donors, that aims to help visitors at the site (and online) to understand the complex world of Monticello and all of its people.

References

Favretti, Rudy. “Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Ferme Ornée’ at Monticello.” American Antiquarian Society, 1993.

Hatch, Peter. “A Rich Spot of Earth:” Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello.New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Hatch, Peter. “Restoring the Monticello Landscape, 1923–1955.” Magnolia23, no. 1 (Fall 2009–Winter 2010): 1, 3-8.

Johnson, Emilie. “Monticello.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Accessed August 13, 2015. www.encyclopediavirginia.org.

Nichols, Frederick Doveton, and Ralph E. Griswold. Thomas Jefferson, Landscape Architect.Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1978.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Laura Knott
Coordinator: 
Thaïsa Way

If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.

SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.

, ,