Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, Lynchburg, VA
By Candyce H. Stapen
Although Monticello, a stunning mountaintop plantation, is the house most associated with Thomas Jefferson, a visit to Jefferson’s other home—Poplar Forest, Lynchburg, VA,-- reveals much about the famed statesman and president in later life. For Jefferson, Poplar Forest, 60 miles from his beloved Monticello, took shape as a personal retreat, a place for solitude and renewal far from the frequent visitors who descended upon Monticello, sometimes staying for months.
While completing his second presidential term in 1806, Jefferson began construction on the unique house he designed for Poplar Forest, a 4,000-acre plantation he inherited in 1773. Even though a suburban enclave now surrounds Poplar Forest, the property
still conveys a sense of what Jefferson wanted for his retirement.
Like many prospective retirees, Jefferson delighted in planning his dream house. Instead of constructing a classic, Federal style home, one with a central hall flanked by two rooms on either side, Jefferson craved more light and better ventilation.. That’s why he fashioned an octagonal shaped building and placed a 16-foot skylight above the dining room, located in the heart of the structure. The design, with its emphasis on sun and a central gathering place, feels much more 20th century than 19th century.
Poplar Forest also illustrates Jefferson’s admiration for European elements, still the time honored model for a new nation. Instead of the typical pine floors used in most Virginia homes of that era, Jefferson installed white oak floors, popular in Europe and he created a sunken lawn, all the rage in France.
Jefferson visited Poplar Forest many times between 1809 and 1823. The sunny, south parlor features floor to ceiling windows, two fireplaces and later on, what Jefferson called his “siesta chair,” a semi-reclining lounger that Jefferson favored after 1819 when his arthritis made it painful for him to lie down or sit straight for long periods.
In 1821 when Jefferson was 78 he wrote the following to William Short, “ I have an excellent house there (Poplar Forest)…am comfortably fixed and attended, have a few good neighbors, and pass my time there in tranquility and retirement much adapted to my age and indolence.”
Five tulip poplars dating from Jefferson’s era grow on the lawn. Gazing at them from the front portico, it’s easy to envision Jefferson handing off his stallion to a groomsman after the two-day horseback ride from Monticello, then climbing the stairs to kick off his boots by the fire in the sunlit south parlor.