Monday, October 10, 2016

Vistas, architecture and landscaping
are all part of Jefferson's Monticello

Thomas Jefferson was such a key founding father of the United States that if you didn't know better, you'd expect he felt most comfortable rubbing elbows with fellow statesmen in Washington, D.C., the political hub of his fledgling nation.

But after his serving in the revolutionary army, the Virginia House of Delegates and as Virginia governor, serving as a Virginia delegate in the Congress of the Confederation, drafting the Declaration of Independence, helping to write the U.S. Constitution, and serving as U.S. minister to France, secretary of state in George Washington's administration, vice president under John Adams and two terms as the country's third president, Jefferson decided he'd had enough.

He retreated permanently to Monticello (Italian for "little mountain"), the place he designed and remodeled over a 40-year period. The home on a hilltop overlooking his plantation south of Charlottesville is where he really felt at home ... and where he would remain the rest of his life.

Monticello is the first among our early presidents' homes that I have visited (after touring Monticello, I would stop briefly at nearby Ash Lawn-Highland, where James Monroe spent some of his life). Monticello also was the first of several historic places I visited on a recent trip to the East Coast, which included stops at Colonial Williamsburg, Va., and the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. For good measure, once I got to North Carolina, I visited the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh and the Museum of Life and Science in Durham.

For much of my outdoor photography during this trip, I had thick cloud cover, which I'm thinking was attributable to the prelude weather system of Hurricane Matthew, which would sweep through North Carolina near the end of my trip. In fact, Matthew's deluge in central North Carolina delayed my return by a day. I mention this only because the thick cloud covers throughout my shoots introduced purplish hues in the skies after the shots were processed in high-dynamic range (HDR) software.

I think visiting Monticello would be an exciting, memorable experience for anyone appreciative of our nation's history. At Monticello, Jefferson entertained scores of friends as well as domestic and international political acquaintances. Jefferson had Monticello built in stages, and much of his designs were inspired by architecture he observed in Paris while serving as U.S. minister to France in the 1780s, a position he accepted after the death of his wife, Martha. The iconic dome was among the last additions

There is a cost ($25 per person) to tour and walk the grounds of Monticello. If you want to see more (such as the upper floors of the house), you have to pay more ... and make sure you time it right, because those tours are not as prevalent. The $25 basic day pass entitles you to informational tours of the main floor of Monticello, the plantation's slaves and the gardens along Mulberry Row. It also gives you access to most of the grounds and a 15-minute film on the life of Jefferson.

You don't have to take any or all of those tours or watch the film, but you pay the admission fee regardless. I took only the informational tour of the house and watched the film. Rather than walk through more informational tours, I preferred roaming the grounds on my own to photograph what I wanted at my leisure and speed. Note: Photographs inside the residence itself are not permitted, which is why this post lacks such images.

Walking the grounds includes viewing the family cemetery, where Jefferson is buried. However, an iron fence around the cemetery makes your "look" one from slightly afar. The cemetery is about a quarter-mile downhill from the residence. The shuttle bus stops at the cemetery and will take you back to the entrance area or loop uphill again to the residence if you don't want to walk to either destination afterward.  

The residence's upper floors include perhaps the most dramatic addition that Jefferson made during his ongoing remodeling at Monticello -- the octagonal dome. The dome, whose function was never really clear, was installed in the front of the west (back) side and used to replace the second-floor portico. Work on the dome was completed by 1809, although Jefferson would tinker with the residence through the remainder of his life (he died on July 4, 1826).

The photo leading off the post is a look at the front (east side) of Monticello, which is not the side most familiar to people who've seen pictures of the residence. One thing of note is that you cannot see the dome from this side of the home. Below, I'll present photos of the more photographed side of the house, the back (west) side. The first photo below is the view from outside the front/east side of Monticello. allowing an appreciation of the view Jefferson aspired when he made this his home.

Jefferson was able to enjoy several breathtaking vistas from his hilltop. If you stand in the covered brick overlook on the fringe of his garden (two photos below), you get the vista enjoyed in the third photo below.

Photo geek stuff: I shot all of my images at Monticello 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, my ISOs were usually in the 320-500 range outdoors in the cloud cover and at 1600-2000 in the cellar shots.

For a look at a full gallery of images I made at Monticello, visit my site at 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 and next three below: A few views of Monticello's gardens, which were developed on a lower-elevation plateau along what is known as Mulberry Row. Looking down on the gardens from the hilltop when photographing also allows you to get expansive forested backgrounds into the image.

Jefferson's gardens have an array of vegetables, berries and plants, including egg plant (above), gourds (below) and flowers (second below). He tried to develop a vineyard on the grounds, but it did not flourish.

Above and below: Side views of the backside of Jefferson's home -- the more frequently photographed/seen west side -- from different angles. 

Above: A closeup of the octagonal dome, probably the most dramatic remodel Jefferson made to his residence over the years he was there. Work to replace the second-floor portico with the dome at the front of the west (back) side appeared to be complete around 1809, the year he left office as president. 

Two views of the slave quarters along Mulberry Row, the one above looking down from the hilltop and the one below on the same plateau. Near these quarters is a rebuilt and restored cabin (two photos below) portended to be where Sarah "Sally" Hemings lived. Hemings, a woman of mixed race, was one of Jefferson's slaves and is believed to have had a long-term relationship with Jefferson in the years after the death of his wife, Martha. The couple were married only 10 years before she became ill shortly after the birth of their last child and died in September 1782. Jefferson never remarried, in keeping with his wife's wishes.

Above and below: The inside of the restored cabin shown above. 

Above: Seafood was kept in a pond behind the house until it was ready to be used for meals.  

Before the first section of the main residence was ready for habitation, Jefferson and his wife and family stayed in these tight quarters (above), which were situated above the kitchen area (below) where slaves prepared the family's meals.

Above: The long covered hall leading to the beer and wine cellars.

Above: I used a cellar hall window decoration to frame a flower shot outside. 

Above and below: Beer and wine were kept in these cellar rooms.

Above: The nicely maintained grounds and paths present excellent opportunities for photo compositions.

The epitaph on the monument of Jefferson's grave (above) in the fenced-in family cemetery at Monticello lists, at his direction, what he perceived to be his three proudest accomplishments: "Here lies Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, of the statute of religious freedom in Virginia, and father of the University of Virginia." Not far from his tomb is the grave of Jefferson's mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson (below), who died in March 1776, about three months before her son would write the Declaration of Independence.

Above: Visitors enjoy taking selfies with this Jefferson statue near the queue for the shuttle bus that takes riders to the hilltop where the residence and tours are given.

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