Jefferson first visited the property in 1773. The following year he patented 157 acres in the nearby Shenandoah Valley in order to own what he called "the most sublime of Nature's works," the Natural Bridge. Jefferson described the Natural Bridge and the nearby Peaks of Otter in his important scientific work Notes on the State of Virginia, portions of which were written at Poplar Forest during the summer of 1781, when the Jefferson family retreated to the overseer's house to avoid capture by the British during Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton's raid on Charlottesville.
John Hemmings, a slave of Jefferson's who had apprenticed under Monticello's Irish-born joiner, James Dinsmore, made other finished parts of the house on site. Hemmings was responsible for the exterior classical moldings, louvered blinds, doors, and finished interior classical trim. Jefferson at times sent Hemmings, along with his nephew assistants, Eston and Madison Hemings, to Poplar Forest to work independently. During this time John Hemmings and Jefferson corresponded through detailed letters that used the language of the classical orders of Roman architecture.
The Villa Retreat
Poplar Forest was not simply a retreat. It was also a perfect work of neoclassical architecture that Jefferson designed as a treat and inspiration. Its design, like that of Monticello and the University of Virginia, blended ideas from the ancient Roman world, the Renaissance, and eighteenth-century France and England. This highly personal combination came to be known as Jeffersonian classicism.
Poplar Forest's distinctive shape was inspired by the British Palladian designs of James Gibbs, Roger Morris, and William Kent. Their work provided many examples of buildings that were octagonal—a shape that Jefferson used in his drawings throughout his life, mostly in un-built designs. Poplar Forest became the ultimate octagon and the first house with that shape in America. The influence of Italian architect Andrea Palladio, whose work inspired the Palladian style, is also evident in the house's design: Palladio's Four Books of Architecture (1570), so often cited as Jefferson's "Bible," provided the classical proportions for all moldings, orders, and elements. Mixed into the architectural melting pot were features Jefferson had admired during his years in Europe—mostly French characteristics of light-filled airy spaces that used skylights, sash doors, floor-to-ceiling windows, and alcove beds. The English traveler George Flower, one of the rare visitors to Poplar Forest, described the house as "built after the fashion of a French chateau, Octagon rooms, floors of polished oak, lofty ceilings, large mirrors betokened his French taste."
Jefferson sited the house due north so that its shape acted not only as a compass, but also as a theoretical seasonal sundial. The octagonal exterior of the house, about fifty feet in diameter, protruded on its north and south with porticos and to the east and west with stair pavilions. He cut out the crown of a hilltop so that an attached service wing could nestle into the ground, giving the front of the house the appearance of being one story. The house's taller back façade made an ancient reference with its Roman arcade-supporting columns and pediment of the portico, an ensemble seen in British Palladian books.
Two principal bedchambers occupied the east and west sides of the house. French-style bed alcoves positioned in the center of the elongated octagonal rooms created two smaller semi-octagonal rooms. Presumably Jefferson used one side of the room as his "cabinet," or inner sanctum, likely filling it with books, papers, and plants. The outer vestibule of each alcove opened to a stair pavilion providing access to the lower floor or outdoors and was lit with an oversized lunette, or half-moon, window. Jefferson retrofitted a space under the west stairs off his own chamber into an indoor toilet that was more conveniently located than the exterior octagonal privies.
A sash door on the south of the central room led into the brightest room, the south-facing parlor, which doubled as the library. This room's south wall was as transparent as reasonably possible, with a central glass door flanked by four triple-sash windows extending from floor to ceiling.
A nearly identical plan made up the lower level of the house. Octagonal rooms surrounded a twenty-foot-square deep cellar where ample stores of wine, cider, and beer were kept. Use of the lower level is undocumented other than as lodging for the workers and, at one time, for an overseer's family.
One of the most Jeffersonian elements at Poplar Forest was the attached four-room service wing that Jefferson called "offices." It housed a kitchen, a laundry, a smokehouse, and an unidentified room that may have been used for storage. Jefferson borrowed this wing concept from plates in Palladio's Four Books of Architecture, using it first at Monticello, in the 1770s, and then when he expanded the President's House in Washington, D.C., during his two terms as president (1801–1809).
At Poplar Forest, Jefferson improved on Palladio's design by creating a flat walking deck, or "terras," as he called it, on top of the wing through a clever use of ridge and gutter joists that formed a repeating series of hidden rooflets. Jefferson used the same design when he put the flat terrace roof over the central cube room in 1819. The deck design appeared again at the University of Virginia in his designs for the student rooms and at the Anatomical Theater. The 100-foot east wing at Poplar Forest was never balanced with a west wing. In an August 1817 letter, Jefferson describes a typical activity on that one wing with his granddaughters: "About twilight of the evening, we sally out with the owls and the bats and take our evening exercise on the terras."
Jefferson placed the house on a small hill right up against a dense natural grove of tulip poplars referred to in the area as "the Forest," or "the Poplar Forest," from which the property's name is derived. The circular yard was bisected by a symmetrical ensemble of architecture and landscape that separated the natural world in front of the house from the manmade garden in the back. The ensemble resembled Palladio's five-part architectural plan, which is composed of a main building that is flanked by two wings, each of which ends in a pavilion. At Poplar Forest, a double row of paper mulberry trees acted as the "wings" that connected the house on its east and west sides to earthen mounds, which stood in for pavilions. The mounds became more vertical and impressive when planted with four weeping willows on top, a central row of golden willows, and a row of aspens circling the base. Extending the ensemble even further, Jefferson placed his domed, octagonal Palladian privies to the outer side of each mound. On four sides of the house Jefferson also placed oval flowerbeds and fashionable "clumps" of densely planted trees and bushes.
Poplar Forest also contained a special retirement library. While still in Washington, D.C., Jefferson started collecting his retirement library, which eventually numbered about 1,000 books. About one-third of the library consisted of petit-format books, which ranged in size from three by five inches to four by six inches. Most notable among the small volumes were 108 volumes of John Bell's The Poets of Great Britain (1777–1783). Published in five languages, the majority of books were poems, plays, or literature. Absent were the law books or those used in constructing government. In fact, even current news was missing from Poplar Forest. Jefferson had confided to John Adams: "I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier."
History and Heritage
Poplar Forest has remained relatively unknown to historians, architectural historians, and the public. The house was continuously occupied and its land farmed until 1979. In 1983 a group of local citizens formed a nonprofit organization, the Corporation for Jefferson's Poplar Forest, and rescued the house, along with 49.5 acres. Poplar Forest opened to the public in 1986. Since that time more than 600 acres of open land have been secured around the house, which is undergoing an archaeological excavation and architectural restoration.
May 28, 1773 - John Wayles, father of Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, dies, leaving to his daughter and son-in-law, Thomas Jefferson, a parcel of 6,861 acres of land in Bedford County.
June 5, 1781 - Governor Thomas Jefferson retreats to the Poplar Forest site with his family to avoid capture by the British. While he is there, he works on portions of Notes on the State of Virginia.
1805 - Thomas Jefferson sends Hugh Chisholm, a bricklayer at Monticello, to the Poplar Forest site in Bedford and Campbell counties to begin making bricks for a house of Jefferson's design.
1806 - Construction begins at Poplar Forest on the octagonal house and ornamental grounds.
1809 - After retiring from public service, Thomas Jefferson stays in the octagonal house at Poplar Forest for the first time.
1815 - According to tax records, Poplar Forest is home to forty-six slaves, twelve horses, and thirty-nine cattle.
1823 - An aging Thomas Jefferson visits Poplar Forest for the last time. He gives up use of the octagonal house to his grandson, Francis Eppes, and Eppes's new wife, Mary Elizabeth Cleland Randolph.
1826 - Francis Eppes inherits Poplar Forest from his grandfather Thomas Jefferson. At this time, Poplar Forest consists of 1,000 acres. Its fields, which produce wheat and tobacco, are worked by ninety-four slaves.
1828 - Francis Eppes sells the Poplar Forest house and the remaining 1,074 acres to his neighbor, farmer William Cobbs. The Eppes family moves with their slaves and furnishings to Florida.
1845 - A fire destroys the roof and the interior of the house at Poplar Forest. The house is rebuilt and its design modified a year later.
1946 - The Cobbs-Hutter family sells the Poplar Forest house and remaining land to James O. Watts Jr.
1979 - Ownership of Poplar Forest passes to Dr. James Johnson, who rescues the house and fifty acres of the surrounding land from commercial development.
1983 - A group of citizens from Bedford County and the surrounding areas forms a nonprofit organization called the Corporation for Jefferson's Poplar Forest, with the goal of buying the unoccupied house and land.
1984 - The Corporation for Jefferson's Poplar Forest buys the Poplar Forest house and 49.5 acres of surrounding land.
1986 - Poplar Forest opens to the public.
1990 - Restoration of the octagonal house at Poplar Forest begins.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
McDonald, T. C. Poplar Forest. (2018, January 29). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Poplar_Forest.
- MLA Citation:
McDonald, Travis C. "Poplar Forest." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 29 Jan. 2018. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: February 4, 2013 | Last modified: January 29, 2018