Forest, Virginia. Ever heard of it? Neither had I, but the sleepy, picturesque town can lay claim to a widely known former resident.
It was in Forest where Thomas Jefferson inherited a 4,819-acre plantation, Poplar Forest, from his father-in-law in 1773. The farmstead was a source of income for Jefferson during his early political career and while in his first term as President of the United States he decided to turn the property into a private getaway some distance away from Washington for recreational use. Some of Jefferson’s passions were reading, gardening, and thinking. He found he was able to do all in the relative serenity of Poplar Forest’s vast acreage.
In 1806 Jefferson began building what may well have been the first octagonal house in America. He included many unusual features in the home and used it as a lab for furthering his love of architecture by designing and implementing several structural improvements to increase the functionality and form of the estate. He used the property quite frequently and after leaving office in 1809 he would visit his unique home several times a year.
Poplar Forest remained in the Jefferson family until two years after his death when it was sold to a neighbor. It served as a private residence, through several successive owners, until the house and remaining property was purchased by a nonprofit organization. Today Poplar Forest is a working archaeological site as the organization studies the grounds for clues to help restore the house and grounds to a state as closely as possible resembling the home as it was in Jefferson’s time.
I first learned of Jefferson’s octagonal abode while researching for a presentation on the man for one of my college courses. Poplar Forest struck me as an ingenuous piece of architecture and remained on my list of places to visit for many years. Recently I visited the site and was thrilled to see the items I had discovered through research in person.
Tickets to tour the property are purchased in the gift shop. The spacious building is filled with replicas, books, and souvenirs themed to Poplar Forest. There is even a private label wine offered for sale as well as hosted wine tastings scheduled throughout the year. Jewelry, t-shirts, and other novelties are offered for sale and displayed in a neat and tasteful fashion that compliments the grandeur of the man and his legacy.
The house is undergoing renovation and restoration which allows insight into the design and construction of the structure. If you have never experienced an octagonal house this is the one to get your feet wet with. The house is not overly large but the design is such that as I journeyed from room to room, space to space, I got the feeling it was much larger than it looked. At times felt I could easily become lost even though I was never more than a few dozen feet from the entrance way. Unfortunately photos inside the house are not allowed so be sure to experience the features hands-on to create lasting memories of your visit.
I went outside on the “terras” and marveled at the intelligent use of space. Jefferson built an office wing off one side of the main house and designed a drainage system to allow for outside entertaining on the roof of the additional structure. There seemed to be evidence that he intended to mirror the construction on the other side of the house, keeping with his love of symmetry, but that never materialized. In one of the restored offices in the wing, I and other visitors were treated to a welcoming reception showcasing local delicacies.
The grounds were just as impressive as the main house. There were stately poplar trees guarding the front of the home, reconstructed slave quarters, the remarkably intact remains of a rose garden, and opposing, high-tech privies on either side of the dwelling. One building housed the offices and headquarters of the archaeological staff with a large window through which visitors could observe the team’s efforts and view a few displayed artifacts that were found on the grounds.
I very much enjoyed my visit to poplar Forest and imagined I could feel some of the same tranquility that Jefferson obviously pursued with the property. The chance to walk in the footsteps of one of America’s, and my, great heroes was exhilarating and even more than I had hoped for. Thanks T.J., for leaving so many opportunities behind for us to ponder, reflect, and enjoy.
© 2015 G. Scott Brinkley. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.