Tuesday, October 11, 2016

At Ash-Lawn Highland, James Monroe
was a neighbor to Jefferson for a while

Less than 10 minutes from Monticello, Va., where Thomas Jefferson's retired after his presidency, is Ash Lawn-Highland, property owned by James Monroe from 1799 to 1826. Monroe was our fifth president (1815-23) and the last in the line of Virginia's early presidential dynasty.

I visited Highland (which is what the estate was referred to in Monroe's day; Ash Lawn was the name given to the estate by a later owner) in the mid-afternoon of Sept. 26, after touring Monticello (see yesterday's post).

Highland is one of three residences that Monroe called home in the years after 1800 and during his presidency. One of the others, Oak Hill in unincorporated Aldie, Va., which is much closer to the nation's capital than Charlottesville/Highland, was another plantation and property he had owned since the early 1800s, although Oak Hill's mansion -- which reflects architecture influenced by his friend Thomas Jefferson -- wasn't built until 1822.

By the time he left the White House in 1823, Monroe no longer considered Highland home (he would sell that property three years later). He split time thereafter between Oak Hill and Monroe Hill, a residence on the grounds of the University of Virginia where he had lived in the late 1700s in the 10-year period before moving into Highland. Monroe lived exclusively at Oak Hill from 1827-30 before moving to New York City to live with his daughter for the last year or so of his life.

Highland is owned, operated and maintained by Monroe's alma mater, the College of William and Mary, and is open to the public. Oak Hill, about nine miles south of Leesburg and 35 miles or so northwest of Washington, D.C., is under private ownership and not open to the public, but it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

During his years in the White House, Monroe more often than not chose to go to Oak Hill to get away because it was much closer to the nation's capital than Highland, which was more than 100 miles from the nation's capital. Proximity was a big deal in colonial years, when travel time was exponentially slower than now.

Further dampening the prominence of Highland is the fact that the original structure on the grounds -- the home in which Monroe actually lived -- burned to the ground years after Monroe sold the property in 1826.

Until only recently, it was believed that Highland's oldest primary residential structure, a modest farmhouse (the white building in the photo leading off the post), had been Monroe's residence even though it didn't befit the size or architectural elan usually pursued by an individual of Monroe's stature. (It is clear that the adjacent taller, yellow structure was built much later).

The explanation for that befuddlement was revealed just this year. Scientific studies showed that the white structure actually was a guest house Monroe had built 20 years after he first owned the property. Also this year, Highland executive director Sara Bon-Harper said archeologists who had been searching for evidence of a missing wing of Monroe's main house dug in front of a newer (yellow) addition built in the mid-1880s. In their diggings, they found footings evidencing a large, free-standing house -- remnants of the former Monroe residence destroyed by fire.

Both Monroe and Jefferson battled financial problems in their later years, and in Monroe's case, those ills are why Highland was sold in 1826. It's also why he try to sell Oak Hill on at least two occasions -- once in 1809 before the mansion was built and again in 1825. Oak Hill passed out of his family's hands after his death at age 73 on July 4, 1831. He was the third president to die an Independence Day; Jefferson and John Adams died hours apart on July 4, 1826.

Perhaps Highland's most valuable, tangible asset is its kitchen yard, which contains the original Smokehouse (where meat and fish were stored) and Overseer's Cottage and a reconstructed three-room dwelling believed to have housed the plantation's slaves. Another important positive is that most of the furniture and personal items inside the farmhouse are Monroe family originals. Like Monticello, photographs were not allowed inside the residence. They were allowed, however, inside buildings in the kitchen yard.

Admission to Highland is $14 (you get a $1 discount if you display an AAA membership card). Children under age 8 and active members of the U.S. military are admitted free. People age 60 and older and U.S. military veterans pay $12, and children ages 8-11 are admitted for $8.

I appreciated touring the grounds and hearing information provided by a staffer, but I also think one can appreciate Ash Lawn-Highland's outdoor layout by viewing aerial and elevated-position images. If you visit the estate's official website, you can see a few of those displayed prominently on the home page. I wish there had been more.

Photo geek stuff: I shot all of my images at Highland with a Canon 6D equipped with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens. I bracketed my shots for three exposures of each scene, melding them into one using Photomatix high-dynamic range (HDR) software in post-processing. As always, I used my shutter speed as the exposure variable for the bracketing; my aperture was set at f/8. Because sunlight had emerged by the time I reached Highland, my ISO was around 160.

For a look at a full gallery of images I made at Ash-Lawn Highland, visit my site at SmugMug.com. As always, to view a larger and sharper version of a photo in this post, click on the photo. This is particularly important if you access the post using a mobile device.

Above: The kitchen yard, which included a smokehouse, overseer's cottage and slave quarters. 

Above: A closeup of the farmhouse roof.

Above and next two below: Images from inside structures in the kitchen yard. 

Above: A staff member inside one of the kitchen yard structures was demonstrating cotton weaving during the visit. My pictures of him didn't turn out, but this image of another visitor holding a spin and cotton did.

Above: The green mall behind the farmhouse.

Above and below: Examples of landscaping on the grounds and, in the case of the photo above, at least one vista on the property. 

Above, a brick path to a bust of Monroe (closeup below), and two photos below is a full statue of the president you'll find at the end of the right brick crosspath you see about halfway down the above path to the bust.

The scenic entrance to the grounds (above) and the walkway to the modest welcoming building (below).  

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