A Splendid Misery: Looking Forward to Life after the Presidency

Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest

Upon his election as Vice President of the United States in 1797, Thomas Jefferson wrote "The second office of this government is honorable & easy, the first is but a splendid misery". This sentiment seemed to stay with Jefferson throughout the next 12 years as he served one term as Vice President and two terms as President. Particularly in his second term, which lasted from 1805-1809, Jefferson was actively looking toward his retirement. With life outside the Federal Government high on his priority list, he began looking toward a project that was particularly dear to him: the building of his retreat home at Poplar Forest.

Thomas Jefferson: 1743-1826
Thomas Jefferson was born at Shadwell, Virginia on April 13th, 1743. While best known for his role as principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States, Jefferson preferred to think of himself as a gentlemen farmer. In fact in 1808 he wrote a friend, "It is now among my most fervent longings to be on my farm, which, with a garden & fruitery, will constitute my principal occupation in retirement". 
Jefferson considered himself first and foremost a farmer. His work in the House of Burgesses, the Continental Congress, as Ambassador to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and President were performed out of a duty to the country he helped mold. Throughout his years of public service Jefferson longed to be out of the public eye, at his plantations trying to grow new crops and performing scientific experiments. His true passion was architecture and in keeping with his, as he actively neared retirement in 1806, he began building his beloved retreat home, Poplar Forest as a sanctuary where he could pursue the interests of his mind without throngs of people and guests. 
Designing Poplar Forest
Poplar Forest, a two story, octagonal structure, was designed by Jefferson to include four elongated, octagonal rooms that surround a cubed center room. The main level of the house was used as living space by Jefferson and the few family members who accompanied him. The lower level was storage and sleep spaces for the workmen who built the house.
1806: Laying a Foundation
Hugh Chisholm, an Irish bricklayer, was hired by Jefferson to build the house at Poplar Forest. Unfortunately, he had a bit of difficulty understanding exactly how to build an octagonal house. In 1806, Jefferson himself came to Bedford from Washington D.C. to supervise the laying of the foundation at Poplar Forest.
The President Designs
Throughout Jefferson's Presidency, he constantly tinkered with designs. Here is a drawing of the President's House including the now famous West Wing, a carriage turnaround and clumps of trees. While the wing was incorporated into the White House, the carriage turnaround and clumps of trees weren't. Luckily for Jefferson, he had another spot to incorporate these landscape features: Poplar Forest.
The Carriage Turnaround at Poplar Forest
While included in Jefferson's design for the President's House, a carriage turnaround was never installed. Here at Poplar Forest, Jefferson was able to incorporate such design features. While our turnaround hasn't been restored to its Jeffersonian appearance yet, this gives a good idea of what the view of the front of house. 
Clumps of Trees
The clumps of trees on either side of the North Portico at Poplar Forest provided a landscape feature for visual interest and shaded the house.
Double Row of Paper Mulberry Trees
At Poplar Forest, Jefferson incorporated landscape features to mimic architecture. Here, the double row of Paper Mulberry trees acts as a wing mirroring the built wing of offices on the opposite side of the house.
South Elevation
This architectural drawing depicts the South view of the house with its accompanying wing of offices.
Who is Living Here?
From 1809-1823, Thomas Jefferson retreats to Poplar Forest three or four times a year. Often traveling with two of his granddaughters, Ellen and Cornelia Randolph, Poplar Forest was a haven for Jefferson. However, it was also a working plantation and an active construction site. So who was here beside Jefferson?
The Enslaved Community
As a working tobacco and wheat plantation, Poplar Forest was also home to roughly 96 enslaved people at its height of production. This image shows a Slave Quarter Site located on the property circa the 1790s-1810s.
Slave Quarter Today
Unfortunately, the slave quarters at Poplar Forest no longer exist. Today, this "ghost structure" stands at the spot it originally stood as an interpretative tool to show visitors the size of a typical duplex slave dwelling. The following images are artifacts that represent just some of the pieces found in areas where slaves lived and worked.
How did life change for the Enslaved?
Poplar Forest had long been a working plantation with an enslaved community before Jefferson began building his retreat. This begs the question, how did the enslaved population's lives change after Jefferson began visiting regularly? What bigger change than suddenly having to build a brick, octagonal structure? Over 240,000 bricks were handmade on site to build Poplar Forest including these curved bricks that were used to build eight columns.

Four of the eight columns made of curved bricks at Poplar Forest.

Hannah: the Cook
A specific enslaved person who was greatly impacted by Jefferson's retreat was a woman named Hannah. Born at Monticello, Hannah moved to Poplar Forest in her teen years. Once Jefferson built the house at Poplar Forest, Hannah was designated as cook and housekeeper. Part of her duties was to stay in the Wing of Offices while Jefferson was staying at Poplar Forest to ensure that his meals were delivered in a timely fashion. This stew grate was found during an excavation of the wing site and may have been used by Hannah.

An archaeologist discovering the stew grate during an excavation.

Spinning and Weaving
Poplar Forest had an extensive weaving and spinning operation onsite, both for consumption on the property and for sale. These weaving loom beater cradles and the lace bobbin were found during the excavation of the Wing of Offices.
John Hemmings: Master Craftsman
John Hemmings was an enslaved master craftsman and joiner who was often sent to Poplar Forest to complete detailed word work throughout the house. The balustrade seen here is an example of work that he was in charge of. Although this is not the original balustrade, it was recreated just as it originally was. 

The Chinese Railing that surrounds the skylight over the Dining Room was also originally created by John Hemmings. Like the balustrade, this is a reproduction.

Craftsmen work to reproduce the roof of Poplar Forest as Hemmings would have originally built it.

This door is one of only a few pieces of original wood work from Jefferson's day. A fire in 1845 destroyed the wood work in the house, but owners saved a couple of doors. Handmade by John Hemmings, there would have been roughly 14 doors like this in the house. 

A restoration craftsman works on the reproduction doors crafted by example of Hemmings' original door.

Burwell Colbert
Colbert was Jefferson's enslaved butler and would often travel with Jefferson for his visits to Poplar Forest. This artifact is part of a bell system that existed from the main house to the kitchen in the wing of offices. It may have signaled to Colbert when to bring food in for meals to to let Hannah know something about mealtimes as well. 
Life at Poplar Forest: What was Jefferson doing?
The home at Poplar Forest was built as a sanctuary for Jefferson. Here he kept a library of about 900 books, wrote hundreds of letters, and even did more architectural designs for another famous Jefferson building: the University of Virginia. 
The Curtilage
Jefferson designed his home at Poplar Forest as a haven of seclusion and solitude. In keeping with that, he had this curtilage fence created to surround roughly 60 acres of property immediately surrounding the new home. This kept all plantation work such as tobacco harvesting and blacksmithing away from Jefferson's retreat.
While created as a private retreat, Jefferson was well aware that visitors would still come. In keeping with that, he designed the interior of the house to be quite exciting. This view is from the entry hall looking through the dining room. As you can see, entrants would have been able to see straight through two sets of glass sash doors and out onto the South Portico on the opposite end.
Jefferson often had his Bedford County neighbors over for dinner at Poplar Forest. Upon entering the house, they would have walked down the short entry way and come straight into this dining room. Dinner would have been served around 3 or 4 in the afternoon at a mahogany, octagonal table.

This piece of an original fireback was used in a fireplace in Poplar Forest to keep rooms warmer. We are currently working on restoring all 9 firebacks in the main level of Poplar Forest.

Sallying Out with the Owls and the Bats
"About twilight of the evening, we sally out with the owls and bats and take our evening exercise on the terras", Jefferson wrote in a letter to his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph. The terras to which he is referring is this, the roof of the Wing of Offices. The terras roof, was a design created by Jefferson and provided a relatively flat service on top, but collected water underneath and funneled it out. In Jefferson's day, the metal railings would not have been present.

Cross section of Jefferson's terras roof.

A President's Retreat
At Poplar Forest, Jefferson was able to exercise his love of architectural design and find the peace and quiet not always available at Monticello. However, Poplar Forest was home to so many more than just Jefferson. Almost one hundred enslaved people lived and worked at Poplar Forest to provide Jefferson the retreat he so desired. The commingling of Jefferson, his family, and his enslaved community created the personal retreat Jefferson had always wanted. 
Credits: Story

Jefferson's Design for the White House, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Translate with Google