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Monticello Knits Jefferson Kin : Descendants Lovingly Maintain Former President's Home

Charles Hillinger's America

November 29, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

MONTICELLO, Va. — Among the more than 500,000 visitors each year to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's 21-room mansion high on a mountaintop in Virginia's Albemarle County, are many of the third President's direct descendants.

Jefferson had six children but only two survived to adulthood: daughters Martha, who had 11 children, and Mary, who had one son. Today their descendants number more than 1,200 and are scattered throughout America from Maine to California.

"We believe Thomas Jefferson has more lineal descendants than any other President," noted George Green Shackelford, a Virginia Polytechnic Institute history professor and a former president of the Monticello Assn.

To be a member of the Monticello Assn., one has to be able to trace his or her ancestry direct to Thomas Jefferson. There are more than 900 dues-paying members of this unusual group, from small children to men and women in their 80s and 90s.

"My father was the founder of the Monticello Assn. in 1913 and served as its first treasurer," Shackelford explained. "Its purposes then and now are to protect and preserve the family graveyard at Monticello, to protect and perpetuate the reputation and fame of Thomas Jefferson and to encourage friendship and association among his descendants."

Jefferson spent 40 years designing and supervising the construction, additions to and remodeling of Monticello, familiar to all Americans as the majestic Colonial home that's depicted on the back of the nickel. The President's portrait, of course, is on the other side of the coin.

Architectural Masterpiece

Monticello is one of the nation's all-time architectural masterpieces with its dome, patterned after that of the ancient temple of Vesta at Rome, the first dome ever built on an American home.

Jefferson spent a fortune on Monticello. As for the years and money he invested in his dream house and the works of art and expensive furnishings he had within it, he said:

"Architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements."

Architect was his avocation, and the house was his creation. There wasn't another like it in the young nation. The word monticello is Italian for "little mountain." It describes the 867-foot-high peak that commands a spectacular view of the rolling Virginia countryside that Jefferson so dearly loved.

But the estate taxed his resources. In the last years of his life, he owed more than $100,000. He staged his own lottery, hoping that it would save the house and bring in enough money to pay off his creditors. But that did not work.

Forced to Sell Estate

He died broke in his 83rd year on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. His family was forced to sell Monticello a year after his death to pay off his bills.

Fortunately, U.S. Navy Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy, an ardent admirer of Jefferson's, purchased Monticello in 1836. When Levy died in 1862 (during the Civil War), the Confederate government seized the property. It had been in litigation for 17 years when Levy's nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, regained possession.

The Levy family owned Monticello until 1923, when it was purchased for $500,000 by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation to preserve and maintain it as a national shrine to the third President, who was the author of the Declaration of Independence and founder, first rector and architect of the original campus of the University of Virginia.

It was on April 13, 1923, Thomas Jefferson's 180th birthday, that the foundation named in his honor purchased the property and set about to furnish Monticello with as many items as possible that originally belonged to the President and were in his home.

The 10-member Board of Trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation is headed today by English professor Edgar Shannon, a former president of the University of Virginia. Monticello--consisting of 1,800 acres, including the 21-room home, the remains of plantation buildings, and the restoration of gardens as they were planted by Jefferson--is supported solely by revenues from admissions and profits from a gift shop.

"Ninety percent of everything in the house--the furniture, kitchen ware, paintings and works of art--belonged to Jefferson. It seems fairly complete, but in fact, we have only about 30% of what was there originally," curator Susan Stein explains. "It is the largest collection of Jefferson's possessions in any one place."

She noted that although the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation has no formal link with the Monticello Assn., "we enjoy a close working relationship with Jefferson's family. Many, many things you see in the house were donated, purchased or are on loan from Jefferson's descendants."

A Virtual Museum

The main entrance to the house is a large square room Jefferson called the Infants Hall. It was a virtual museum housing his natural history specimens, Indian artifacts and busts of Voltaire, Hamilton and himself, which are still there.

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