Virginia: 
A Presidential Tour

Last summer I traveled with my sister Janet (not my web site designer Janet) to Virginia to see a few of our presidents’ historic homes.  Do you know how many Presidents were born in Virginia?  (Answer at the bottom).  We traveled by car throughout the commonwealth.  Do you know the other commonwealths in the United States?  (Answer at the bottom).  We had a mixture of reactions to the three homes we visited, with Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello turning out a clear favorite.
The first piece of technical information you need to know before going to the Presidents’ Homes: buy your admission tickets in advance, otherwise you may wait in extremely long lines!  Usually you can do this online (web addresses provided below). You can also sign up in advance for specialty tours, such as the garden tours at Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s gardens are well worth a trip in themselves!)

A second useful factoid: at all the homes the parking was well designed and able to accommodate lots of cars and busses. The parking for our first and third presidents’ (can you name them?) homes was spacious and seemed newly laid out. (The Visitors Center and Gift Shops at Mt. Vernon and Monticello were also new). The estates try to limit vehicular traffic on their grounds, so they provide small busses to get you around.  So: parking is not an issue—always good to know!


Now!  On to the Houses!

 



Our first stop was Mount Vernon, home of George and Martha Washington—only a short drive from DC. The house is a gracious twenty-two rooms—built in increments onto an eight room original structure. The rooms are fascinating both for the light they shed on Washington’s personal style (remarkably colorful!) and for their architectural personality and furnishings, including the Neoclassical art on the beautifully paneled walls. Mt. Vernon is a house that grew and developed along with its inhabitants. 

Mt. Vernon c. 1800Aquatint by Francis Jukes


The estate offers several tours of the main house, outbuildings, and gardens. There is a great deal to see here, and some people visit for two days to see it all. My sister and I could easily imagine George and Martha, on a warm summer evening, sitting out on the back portico watching the boats go up and down the Potomac River.


From Mt. Vernon we wandered down to nearby Charlottesville to sleep and eat. Charlottesville’s center is pedestrian-friendly and easy to stroll through—and has lots of great restaurants and shops!


The next morning we were off to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home.  We were surprised: the house from the outside—and in pictures—always seems so large and grand!  Well, it is indeed grand, but really it is not large, and the rooms are quite small. It is the design that conveys the illusion of height.  Did you know Monticello means "little mountain" in Italian?  From its height you can look out over many beautiful vistas.

 

One of Jefferson greatest joys was his gardens.  The flower gardens today are designed to preserve their early nineteenth century appearance, as are the vegetable gardens and fruit trees. Jefferson was very interested in botany and planted seeds sent to him by botanists from all over the world. The present gardens are trying to recreate his experiments.
The view from Monticello looks toward the town where Jefferson designed and established the campus of The University of Virginia. He could watch its construction from his house.  The university's spectacular Doric architecture is his legacy.  

The original main quad is defined by student and faculty housing. Only senior students with excellent grades are invited to live in these historic buildings. The rooms are very small and are provided with a sink for water. Shower and toilet facilities are accessible only by the outdoor corridor shown to the left. A dubious privilege! Still—look at these columns! These students are living in history!


Our last stop before heading home was James Monroe’s house, Ash Lawn-Highland. (Sadly, we did not have time for Madison’s home. It would have been nice to see four of the first five presidents' homes!  Question: where did the one non-Virginian of our first five presidents come from?) Monroe's house was a surprise after the grandeur of the first two estates. The original house is very small—an ordinary house for an unpretentious man.

 

 And yet, the rooms within are elegantly furnished in the French style of the times. The furnishings don't seem to agree with the style of the house—you would never guess from the exterior the comfort of the rooms within. Monroe was obviously a man of many facets. He could see Monticello from his back yard—and so was able to enjoy it without having to own it!

 

A large addition has been built onto the original small house—much larger than the house Monroe lived in, which seems merely tacked on by accident.  The new building's architectural style is also quite different. The juxtaposition seems, to put it kindly, not the best way to set off the older dwelling.

Maybe Monroe's house wasn't the most exciting ending we could have chosen for our trip, but it was still interesting, and made us want to know more about Monroe himself.  This will be a great trip to share with my eight-year-old grandson Dillon!

James Monroe, by Samuel Finley Breese Morse

 

Eight United States Presidents were born in Virginia: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Woodrow Wilson.

There are four commonwealths in the United States: Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky.

Our first five presidents were: Washington, Adams (from Massachusetts), Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.

The portrait of Thomas Jefferson at the top of this page was painted by Rembrandt Peale.  

Web sites:

Mt. Vernon
http://www.mountvernon.org/ 

Monticello
http://www.monticello.com/ 

Monroe House
http://www.ashlawnhighland.org/ 

 

 

Harriet H. Ahouse | Independent Travel Consultant
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