Located near Lynchburg, Poplar Forest was Jefferson’s retreat. He visited to rekindle his creativity, spend time with grandchildren, and escape the crowds at Monticello.
The octagonal house is set around a circular yard with stair pavilions. The yard is a perfect example of Jefferson’s neoclassical architecture that blended ideas from the ancient Roman world and eighteenth-century France and England. Read on to know more.
History of the Site
In 1800, Jefferson designed an octagonal house for his daughter at Pantops in Albemarle County, Virginia. Construction was halted when Maria died, but Jefferson dusted off the design and used it as the basis for Poplar Forest.
Jefferson kept a regular schedule at the plantation, rising before dawn, eating breakfast, horseback riding, reading, or writing. He consulted his books on maps, recipes, architecture, and astronomy. He read the works of Aesop, Virgil, Homer, Plato, and Moliere. He wrote to his family and others.
His letters to and from Poplar Forest provide the most extensive documentation of a private residential project in America in the eighteenth century. These written sources, along with the archival research of historian S. Allen Chambers, have led to the award-winning definitive history of Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest.
A perfect work of Jeffersonian classicism, the octagonal retreat house at Poplar Forest was one of Thomas Jefferson’s most personal architectural creations. Jefferson designed it as a place to relax and enjoy solitude and family time, away from the crowds at Monticello.
Jefferson used the Bedford County hermitage as a retreat from his busy political and diplomatic career. His octagonal house was set within an elaborate villa landscape, with oval flowerbeds and fashionable clumps of trees and shrubs.
Jefferson began construction on the octagonal house in 1806. He sent bricklayer Hugh Chisholm, a regular worker at Monticello, to help with the brickmaking. Their detailed correspondence forms one of the most complete sets of documents about the building of a house in early America. A carpenter named John Perry helped to frame the house, and Jefferson added a four-room service wing and ornamental gardens. About 94 enslaved people labored at the site performing a wide range of tasks, including fieldwork, plantation management, livestock care, woodworking and masonry construction, and service in the house. A must-see place!
Jefferson designed Poplar Forest as a villa retreat and incorporated the design of his octagonal house into the landscape. This was a personal architectural experiment, and he wanted to demonstrate that an octagon could be both beautiful and functional. The geometry appealed to his mathematical mind and the shape allowed light into interior spaces. Jefferson even created two octagonal privies—domed Palladian structures that flanked the house on the east and west sides.
The landscape was enclosed in a 61-acre curtilage around the house. This area contained the ornamental landscape, the slave quarters, and other domestic buildings and fields.
Today archaeologists are uncovering clues to Jefferson’s original design for the landscape at Poplar Forest. These discoveries are adding to the award-winning historical restoration that continues on site. Visitors to the award-winning National Historic Landmark can explore the full story of one of America’s most towering figures, a statesman without peers and a man of contradictions.
The Enslaved Community
Approximately 94 enslaved people lived and worked at Poplar Forest. Documents and archaeological investigations reveal their private lives. Overseers wrote of work schedules, births, and deaths. But excavations have helped us understand the size and materials of their homes, how they organized their yards, what foods they ate, and the types of belongings they owned.
At Poplar Forest, Jefferson created extended families among his slaves. He named them after family members and Biblical figures. He encouraged marriages among his slaves to increase their wealth and stability. He also named children after members of their families or their former homes.
Visitors to the octagonal house will learn about these aspects of Jefferson’s retreat home through guided and self-guided tours of the residence, plantation grounds, and 1857 Slave Dwelling during Winter Weekends at Poplar Forest. Admission includes a tour of the house and access to exhibits in the lower level of the house, the Wing of Offices, and the Slave Quarter Site. Up next is SeaQuest.
Driving directions from All Lit Up to Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest
Driving directions from Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest to SeaQuest Lynchburg