How Monticello Works

By: Contributors
Monticello Image Gallery Monticello, illuminated by twilight. See more pictures of Monticello.
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Centuries before Bill Gates built his multimillion-dollar smart house, Thomas Jefferson designed his home, Monticello. Like the Gates mansion, where home networking technology simplifies and streamlines daily tasks, Jefferson engineered Monticello "with a greater eye to convenience."

The name "Monticello" is Italian and means "little hill" [source: vineyards, gardens and workshops. The house is more than an architectural wonder. Monticello's design, history and legacy provide us with insight into the mind of a U.S. president.


Located in Albemarle County, just two miles outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, Monticello brings a sense of Old World grandeur to the American South. Jefferson didn't have an architectural mentor -- he was self-taught by European masters' drawings and essays on structural design. If we think of Jefferson as an artist, we can consider Monticello his self-portrait. The house reflects his ideas about order and style as well as family, lifestyle and certain political truths.

That's the allure of Monticello. Today, thousands of tourists visit the house each year, just like scholarly pilgrims who flocked to Monticello during Jefferson's lifetime. Those pilgrims hoped to catch a glimpse of the president -- even better, pick his brain about politics and philosophy.

But the relics of the space in which he lived, entertained and planned his designs and curriculum for an American university draw people in for other reasons, too. They want to discover something about the inner life of a complicated man. Jefferson wrote about independence, but he had nearly 200 slaves. And despite his leadership of a young nation, he couldn't control even his own finances. Ultimately, an examination of the house is like looking at Jefferson with the humanizing perspective of today's media.

In this article, we'll learn how Monticello reflects Jefferson's tastes and attitudes. We'll also examine some of the innovations of the house. We'll discuss the lives of slaves at Monticello, and, we'll work toward a better understanding of the enigmatic president.


Designing Monticello

Monticello is secluded by nature, giving Jefferson the privacy he craved.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

When he turned 21 in 1764, Thomas Jefferson inherited 5,000 acres of land in Albemarle County from his father, Peter [source: Monticello Plantation]. This large tract of land was organized into separate farms: Shadwell (where Jefferson was born), Tufton, Lego, Poplar Forest and the parcel that would become the site of Monticello.

In 1760, Jefferson began drawing plans for his plantation home. He turned to the architect Palladio for inspiration. Jefferson got his sense of proportion and form from Palladio's designs. He also took a cue from some distinctive Palladian features, like columns, arches, domes and pediments (triangular frames). While Palladian architecture had become popular in European houses and buildings (largely because it was striking but simple enough to be imitated), it was new to America [source: University of Pennsylvania]. Jefferson capitalized on all the elements the style had to offer.


Villa Rotunda
Villa Rotunda in Vicenza, Italy is one of Palladio's country houses, designed and built for Paolo Almerica in 1556.
Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

His initial plans for Monticello included a two-story main house flanked by two pavilions. The main house had two porticoes, or porches. He planned for the main house to be divided into eight rooms and the cellar below to have six. His rough sketches included plenty of ornamental features, too. Stately pediments and columns would be the focal point of his perfectly symmetrical home.

Jefferson broke ground at Monticello in 1768. The first step was to prepare the area for construction. But Jefferson was careful to spare plenty of trees -- he left much of the woods untouched to create a private, green shroud for his home. After the mountain was leveled in 1769, construction officially began.

Paid laborers and slaves worked on the construction site. Slaves were respo­nsible for the framework of the house, and masons laid the bricks. Because Virginia's red clay was so abundant, Jefferson's labor force was able to make most of its bricks by hand on the plantation site. Other materials were collected from the grounds, too, including stones, which were used for the cellar, and limestone, which was used for mortar. Jefferson imported the glass and mahogany, as well the tradesmen that installed it. For the detailed moldings and cornices, he brought in a specialist from Philadelphia [source: Monticello FAQ].

­Construction was well under way when Jefferson was appointed U.S. Minister to France in 1784. He directed the project from his post abroad. But Jefferson returned home from Paris with many new ideas. He amended his original plans for the house to include skylights, indoor privies, round windows and the famous dome room (or sky room, as Jefferson referred to it). These renovations began in 1796.

At last, in 1809, Monticello was completed. It had three stories and a grand total of 43 rooms -- that's nearly one room for every year it took to build the house [source: Monticello FAQ]. In the next section, we'll examine some of the most notable rooms in the house, including Jefferson's unusual bedroom.


Famous Rooms at Monticello

Jefferson's bedroom
Jefferson's bedroom conserves space with its unusual alcove bed.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Strangely enough, the formal likeness of Monticello that's drawn on the United States nickel -- the west front's dome room and portico -- is actually the side of the house that Jefferson and his family used. The so-called formal entrance was at the east front.

When guests crossed the threshold from the east front into Jefferson's imaginarium, they found themselves in the museum-like entrance hall, also known as the Indian Hall. With walls rising eighteen feet, eyes were drawn high upward to ornate woodwork and carvings, paintings and artifacts. There were replicas of famous paintings, nearly 40 Indian artifacts, engravings of the Declaration of Independence, maps, busts of philosophers and politicians, and specimens from the Lewis and Clark Expedition. There were also 28 chairs in the hall to accommodate Jefferson's many visitors.



Perhaps the most famous room in Monticello is the dome room. Its octagonal walls are painted yellow and its wooden floor is green. Each wall has a circular window, and the oculus, or top, of the dome has a window made of thick, blown glass. The peculiar room was largely unused. Jefferson's grandson used it temporarily for a bedroom, but the difficulty of climbing steep stairs and meandering down a low-ceilinged hallway kept most visitors away from the dome room. Even today, it's underutilized -- fire regulations keep tourists out of the room.

Jefferson's cabinet
Jefferson's cabinet contains his trusty polygraph and important volumes.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On the other hand, Jefferson's study, sometimes called his cabinet, was the site of much activity. Jefferson spent a lot of time in here, reading, writing letters and receiving guests. In addition to a perfect time-keeping instrument (which you'll read more about later), this room had a swivel desk chair so that he could turn from one task to another more easily. This swivel theme also applied to his rotating desktop and bookstand. The bookstand could hold up to five books at a time -- no paper, pen or book was ever out of reach for Jefferson.

The deep-reaching influence of Parisian design extended to his bedroom. This room relied on a skylight for illumination. Not that the sun ever found him in bed: Jefferson preferred to rise early, start his own fire and get to work right away. His bedroom wasn't just for sleeping. He also visited with family members here and did a lot of his reading in the quiet space. To reserve floor space for these activities, he incorporated an alcove bed into his bedroom's design. The bed was built into the bottom half of one wall, and a lofted closet occupied the upper half of the wall. Two circular holes in the wall allowed ventilation and light to penetrate the space. These space-saving measures came with one drawback, though: Jefferson had to use a ladder to reach his closet.

In the next section, we'll take a look at some of Monticello's most advanced gadgets.



Convenient Contraptions at Monticello

great clock
The great clock in the entrance hall may look simplistic, but it was a one-of-a-kind design with some pretty unique features.
Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Jefferson liked to keep busy. In a letter to his daughter Martha, he wrote, "Determine never to be idle…It is wonderful how much may be done, if we are always doing" [source: clock in almost every room of Monticello, but the two most notable ones are the great clock in the entrance hall and the astronomical case clock in his study.

He designed the great clock himself and had it made in Philadelphia. It told the time and the day with a long, weighted chain that descended to the floor. Because the clock was originally intended for use in a different house, Jefferson had to make a small hole in the floor to mark Saturday. The interior face of the clock faced the hall, and the exterior face looked outward toward the plantation. The exterior face had a large hour hand for the workers to read and a gong that struck loudly enough to be heard three miles away.


The astronomical case clock was also made in Philadelphia. Jefferson purchased this clock for its mechanical prowess: this clock reputedly kept perfect time. This clock also tells the day of the week, but it uses a chain and weight that moves inside of its case.

Jefferson's clothing rack never failed to amuse his guests when they received the grand tour. This device was a tall spiral rack with fifty arms that held his clothes. He called it a turning machine because it could be rotated with a stick. This allowed Jefferson to choose his outfit without climbing the ladder to his ceiling-high closet.


Monticello portico
The portico seen here could have been used as a sun room when louvered blinds were lowered from the columns.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Because Jefferson liked to write letters and keep records, he relied on a polygraph machine. The polygraph machine used a duplicate set of mechanical pens to simultaneously copy Jefferson's words as he wrote them. John Isaac Hawkins invented the device in 1804, and Jefferson got his hands on one the same year. Jefferson's friend Charles Willson Peale continually tweaked Hawkins' design, and Jefferson exchanged his model as soon Peale's upgrades were available.­

Monticello was one of the first American homes to have a Rumford fireplace. Unlike the common squat, stone fireplaces of early America, Rumford fireplaces were tall and slender. They reflected heat and prevented smoky buildup. Jefferson favored his Rumford fireplaces above all others both for their efficiency and attractive, compact design.

Fighting the heat of hot Virginia summers was a nearly impossible task, but Jefferson did his best to cool Monticello. Windows and doors were frequently left open to allow air to circulate, and the east and west porticoes could be turned into sun rooms by louvered blinds that lowered from the columns. If all else failed, Venetian porches were the perfect place to escape the heat. These porches were framed with wooden blinds that filtered sunlight but allowed cool breezes through.

Clever as these devices are, Jefferson is credited with making only three inventions. In the next section, we'll take a look at Monticello's grounds and learn what those inventions are.


Monticello's Grounds

Monticello fish pond
The pond on Monticello's lawn stored live fish for food.
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Jefferson turned to nature as an escape from politics and other burdensome responsibilities. He used his land for many projects, like gardening, farming, winemaking and as we'll learn a little later, even a small industry.

For a man who was so fond of record-keeping and experimenting, gardening was a perfect outlet. He grew numerous vegetables that sustained his mostly vegetarian diet. Among the most plentiful were beans and peas -- he grew at least 35 varieties of legumes. Jefferson also experimented with foreign seeds like French figs, Italian broccoli, Mexican peppers and specimens gathered on the Lewis and Clark expedition.


Though he tried growing many types of vegetables, he relied on a kind of Darwinian principle to plan future garden plots, commenting that only the best crops would be replanted and that others would be discontinued to "avoid the dangers of mixing or degeneracy" [source: Jefferson: the Scientist and Gardener].

As with so many elements of Monticello, the garden was meant to be practical as well as beautiful. Jefferson planted some flowers, trees and crops to add colorful variety and graceful, shady canopies. He spent a lot of time in his gardens making notes about his plants' progress. He used a handheld notebook to record observations about temperature, wind, rain, animal behavior and the status of his crops.

gig seat
In lieu of walking, Jefferson sometimes rode in a gig seat to cover the plantation's terrain.
Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Jefferson also tried his hand at winemaking at Monticello. While he had success with his imported vegetables, he didn't have much luck with the European grapes he tried to grow in the Virginian soil. Still, he approached the task with the zeal he brought to all of his projects. In 1807, he planted 287 grape vines and 24 specimens of European grapes -- and none produced viable results [source: The Vineyards]. But Jefferson wasn't discouraged, even when his efforts with American grapes didn't yield his desired results.

His interest in farming and meteorology gave rise to two of his inventions: the moldboard of least resistance and the spherical sundial.

The moldboard of least resistance was a component of a plow. The moldboard of a plow is what shakes and churns the soil as the plow digs. Jefferson's moldboard was an improvement on previous designs because it was so lightweight. He claimed that "two small horses or mules" could use it to plow rather than using an entire team of horses.


As if his custom clocks weren't enough to gauge time at Monticello, Jefferson devised a spherical sundial. Unlike most sundials, which are flat discs, Jefferson's was crafted from a column and a sturdy round ball. Like a typical globe, the ball was marked north and south, and intersecting meridians represented the hours of the day. One meridian was made from a strip of iron and attached to the north and south poles of the sphere. To tell time, Jefferson adjusted this piece to the point where its shadow was the smallest [source: Monticello Newsletter]. This point was the hour.

A wheel cipher was a third invention of Jefferson's. It consisted of 26 lettered disks held together with an iron rod. Soldiers in the Revolutionary War used it to code and decode secret messages. (You can read more about the wheel cipher and other ciphering machines in How Code Breakers Work.)

Of course, the plantation extended far beyond Jefferson's pea gardens and his sundial. In the next section, we'll examine the most controversial part of the plantation: Jefferson's slaves.


Slavery at Monticello

slave quarters
House servants lived in these slave quarters, while other slaves had cabins.
Authenticated News/Getty Images

Jefferson's political views on slavery are some of the most controversial points he made in his career. He believed that slavery was a necessary evil and that the institution should be slowly phased out -- after his lifetime. For a man who supported life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Jefferson's acceptance of slavery contradicted almost every political maneuver he made.

Jefferson rationalized his ownership of slaves by trying to be a fair, kind master. According to the slave Isaac, whose memoir was recorded around 1847, Jefferson was a calm-tempered man. The overseer Jefferson appointed to Monticello, a man named Edmund Bacon, reflects similar sentiments about him. In Bacon's biography, he says that Jefferson was "indulgent" toward the slaves and that he preferred to see them dismissed rather than whipped for their transgessions [source: Bear]. About 80 of Jefferson's 200 slaves lived and worked at Monticello, while the rest were divided among his other four plantations.


Most of the slaves at Monticello were inherited from John Wayles, Jefferson's father-in-law. The slaves that worked as house servants were supposedly fathered by Wayles himself. House servants were responsible for cooking and laundering. Their quarters were located in the basement of the south terrace. Slaves that worked in the fields lived in single-room log cabins. Their tasks ranged from planting and harvesting crops to caring for livestock, constructing buildings and fences and working in Jefferson's nail-making industry.

Slaves were given rations of corn and preserved meats, but they grew their own vegetables and raised chickens. They sold their crops to the main house or at the Charlottesville Sunday market. This gave them a small dose of independence: pocket money and a weekly excursion.

Jefferson didn't educate his slaves, but his grandchildren taught some how to read and write. In addition to interacting with the Jefferson family, the slaves were permitted to form families of their own. Laws prohibited slaves from marrying, but Jefferson condoned marriage among his slaves. By law, any children that the slaves had became Jefferson's property. When they turned 10, Jefferson put them to work [source: American Sphinx].­

Toward the end of his life, an indebted Jefferson was forced to sell many of his slaves. He never could find a peaceful, conscionable resolution to the slave question, and today it's one of his sharpest criticisms.

Despite these hypocrisies, Jefferson was well-respected by his contemporaries. In our last section, we'll see how Jefferson entertained these visitors at Monticello.


Entertaining at Monticello

The Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia
The Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia studied reincarnation and other seemingly paranormal events.
David Coleman/

Jefferson often spoke of his distaste for government and announced his retirement long before he held the office of United States president. He wanted to settle down quietly at his little mountain with his books and papers. But his plans for retirement didn't last long: He found himself drawn back into politics and served two terms as president, from 1801 to 1809. Even after he returned from Washington and gave up "that distressing burden of power," he wouldn't find peace at Monticello [source: Bear].

As we've learned, Monticello was a popular site for scholarly pilgrimages, but it also attracted other visitors. People wanted to see the former president. Some went so far as to peep through the windows at Jefferson and his family at the dinner table. Not all guests were uninvited, though. Jefferson welcomed family, friends and fellow scholars to his home. At times, Monticello had so many houseguests that its stables were jam-packed with horses and its every square foot of floor covered in makeshift mattresses for overnight visitors. Edmund Bacon observed that not all of these guests came for the pleasure of meeting Jefferson -- some of them wanted only a free meal and drinks.


Jefferson's re­putation for generosity paved the way for another kind of visitor to the steps of Monticello: beggars. Even though Jefferson was nearly $107,000 in debt, he never refused the poor [source: Monticello FAQ].

But when Jefferson was entertaining legislators and political scholars, he restricted access to Monticello. Hosting only four or five of these men at a time, Jefferson conducted some pretty serious dinner parties. He even limited servants' access to the dining room, preferring instead to have meals placed in dumbwaiters (carts that held all the utensils, dishes, food and beverage one would need for the meal) or to have it served on the shelves of a revolving door, which the servants would stock in the kitchen and Jefferson would turn to serve the plates directly to the table. If wine ran out at the table, he used another type of dumbwaiter, one with a pulley, to hoist wine from the cellar to the dining room. The reason for such privacy? Jefferson used these intimate dinners as an opportunity to influence politicians. He even kept a record of how his parties swayed the voting records and politics of his guests.


Monticello After Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson
A bust of Thomas Jefferson by Jean Antoine Houdon.
Nina Leen/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

While Monticello buzzed with energy when Jefferson ran the plantation, its legacy after Jefferson's death in 1826 was more dismal. Because he was so deeply in debt from costly restorations to Monticello and other expenses like books, his daughter Martha was forced to sell the house and all of its contents at auction.

A year later, the plantation, slaves, livestock and farming equipment were sold, too. An apothecary named James T. Barclay acquired the house and plantation in 1831 for the meager sum of $4,500. He sold it in 1834 to Uriah P. Levy, a disciple of Jefferson's religious philosophies. After his death, it was overtaken b­y the Confederate Army during the Civil War. At last, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation acquired it in 1923. Under the foundation, the house was restored and opened for tourists.


To learn mor­e about Monticello and other topics of historical, mechanical and engineering interest, peruse the links that follow.

Monticello FAQ

Where is the Monticello plantation located?
It's located in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Can you walk around Monticello for free?
The official Monticello website says adults can go on a self-guided tour for $29.
Did slaves build Monticello?
Paid laborers and slaves worked on the construction site. Slaves were respo­nsible for the framework of the house, and masons laid the bricks.
How long does it take to tour Monticello?
According to TripAdvisor, it takes about 45 minutes to tour Monticello.
What happened at the Monticello plantation?
400 people were enslaved at Monticello. House servants were responsible for cooking and laundering. Slaves who worked in the fields lived in single-room log cabins. Their tasks ranged from planting and harvesting crops to caring for livestock, constructing buildings and fences and working in Jefferson's nail-making industry.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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  • "Astronomical Case Clock." Thomas Jefferson Foundation Wiki. Jefferson Wiki Community Scholars. 23 July 2007. 29 January 2008.
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  • Betts, Edwin Morris and James Adam Bear, Jr., Editors. "The Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson." University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville: 1966.
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  • Buckley, Jim. "What is a Rumford Fireplace, Anyway?" Buckley Rumford Fireplaces. 2003. 29 January 2008.
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