A “Personal Masterpiece”

In 1986, a nonprofit set out to restore Thomas Jefferson’s private retreat, Poplar Forest. Now a sizeable chunk of Jefferson’s original plantation is again intact, and the main house’s exterior has been returned to its original glory.

Roughly 200 years ago, eager to step out of the public eye after his exemplary political and diplomatic career, Thomas Jefferson began spending time at his private, octagonal retreat in central Virginia—Poplar Forest. Situated on a plantation of more than 4,800 acres, Poplar Forest was Jefferson’s treasured redoubt for 14 years. After his death in 1826, Jefferson’s heirs sold the property, and over the next 150 years it would change hands a few times and ultimately evolve into a more typical family farmhouse. Though a National Historic Landmark and well known to Jefferson scholars and architectural historians, Poplar Forest was something of a secret site for decades even as the Palladian-style gem began to deteriorate and the land surrounding it was gobbled up for suburban subdivisions.

In 1983, a group of private citizens formed the nonprofit Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest and began raising money to preserve and restore what was left of the property. Aided by one $50,000 contribution, the group a year later took title to 50 acres around the original main house and two other buildings—all that was left of the original plantation—and bought an adjacent parcel that had been destined for development. Total purchase price: $1.7 million. Over the next 25 years, the nonprofit bought more property and set about restoring Poplar Forest using building techniques and period-appropriate materials such as heavy timber frames and iron hardware wrought in Colonial Williamsburg.

     The exterior restoration is complete, and the Corporation now owns 577 acres of Jefferson’s original property. Still, work on the grounds and outbuildings continues. Travis C. McDonald Jr., restoration coordinator for Poplar Forest, writes that the home was an “indulgence” for all of Jefferson’s architectural dreams, and “a personal masterpiece in many ways as autobiographical as his other house.” While Poplar Forest has been open to the public for years, now may be the time for anyone interested in neoclassical architecture, or Jefferson, or the spirit of the Enlightenment, to see what Corporation officials describe as “the real thing.”

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