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Architect indulged 'fancy' in building retreat home

LYNCHBURG — The tradition of a summer home, a country retreat to escape from the day to day, has been around for generations.

One of the more extraordinary retreat homes — Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest — sits just outside Lynchburg off Bateman Bridge Road in Forest.

Jefferson’s retreat was designed and built after the third U.S. president decided it was time to step down from public life.

His ideas about architecture can be found in places as grand as the University of Virginia and as small as a local treehouse. His designs have influenced builders for generations.

In crafting Poplar Forest, Jefferson felt free to experiment, marrying classical Roman architecture of the 1500s with French designs of the late 1700s. The result: an octagonal home set at the crown of a hill to appear a single story. It features giant double-sashed windows that can open from top or bottom, a 16-foot skylight thought to be the first in residential construction and a perfect 20-foot cubed room with an enormous entablature (think crown molding).

“The residence at Poplar Forest was Jefferson’s ultimate octagon: the only fully octagonal building he ever constructed and one of the first octagonal homes in America,” according to, the website of the nonprofit Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, which owns the property.

“In this private building, he felt he could follow his ‘fancy,’ which, he wrote, ‘I can indulge in my own case, although in a public work I feel bound to follow authority strictly.’”

Jefferson and his wife, Martha, inherited the Bedford County plantation from Martha’s father in 1773 and for, a while, Jefferson managed the more than 4,800-acre estate from afar, according to Martha Jefferson died in 1782.

Travis McDonald, director of architectural restoration at Poplar Forest, said he sees two major themes in the construction of Poplar Forest: Jefferson the architect, and Jefferson the builder. In the early 1800s, the profession of architect didn’t exist and Jefferson learned by studying the world around him, gaining experience by building his Charlottesville estate, Monticello. Jefferson had a tradition of apprenticing slaves to build a skilled labor force.

Two years after the death of his daughter, Jefferson decided to retire from public life and build Poplar Forest into a place where he could pursue his passions. So, in 1806, he traveled from Washington to oversee the laying of the octagonal home’s foundation.

“The design of the house at Poplar Forest is highly idealistic in its elegant geometry. Its exterior walls form a perfect, equal-sided octagon. Inside, the space is divided into four elongated octagons surrounding a central square. The simplicity of the floor plan displays Jefferson’s attraction to the precision of mathematics,” according to

A three-day journey from Monticello, Jefferson often visited Poplar Forest to “get away from all the people that popped in on Monticello and treated it as a hotel,” McDonald said. “…Jefferson’s two houses represent a lot of personal decisions and personal ideas.”

The architecture of Poplar Forest is a melting pot of ideas Jefferson gathered over his travels, McDonald said.

“The design of Poplar Forest is highly idealistic in concept with only a few concessions to practicality — it was so perfectly suited to Jefferson alone that subsequent owners found it difficult to inhabit and altered it to suit their needs,” according to the non-profit.

After his presidency ended in 1809, Jefferson visited his retreat several times per year, staying anywhere from two weeks to two months.

“Once Jefferson started living in the house in 1809, it took another 17 years to finish the house,” McDonald said. “It was slowly being perfected.”

By 1812, the octagonal house was considered complete, though projects continued. Interior plastering was completed in 1816, about two years before Jefferson founded the University of Virginia.

Jefferson’s grandson Francis Eppes and his wife Elizabeth began living at the summer home in 1823.

“In terms of construction, Jefferson, we can see, is overbuilding things because he always built for permanence,” McDonald said. “If you are building your own house, you might put a little bit more into it because you want it to be the best construction. People building their own houses today probably don’t conceive their grandchildren will live there. Historically, you built very well, because you thought your grandchildren would be there. [Jefferson’s] grandson only lived there five years. Jefferson thought the house would stay in the family forever. Sadly, he didn’t see the future.”

Jefferson died in 1826, and Eppes inherited Poplar Forest. The retreat home stayed in the family for just two more years before Eppes sold the home to neighbor William Cobbs. After a fire in 1845, the villa was converted into a practical farmhouse.

It remained in the Cobbs-Hutter family until 1946 when it was purchased by the James O. Watts family. It was sold in 1979 to a North Carolina man before becoming the property of the nonprofit Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest in 1984, opening to the public two years later.

The corporation has been working even since to restore the property to its Jeffersonian appearance.

“The three families that owned and lived in the house made changes to accommodate their growing families,” said Alyson Ramsey, president and CEO of Poplar Forest, adding changes included installing plumbing and electricity, lowering ceiling heights and dividing rooms.

The first few years of ownership under the nonprofit consisted of an intense period of stabilizing the house before investigation and restoration efforts could begin.

Ramsey said crews are in the final stages of recreating the intricate woodworking Jefferson had designed, using the tools and techniques available at the time of its initial construction.

For the central room, Jefferson commissioned a sculptor to replicate an ancient frieze with two alternating elements — human faces, carved in low relief and triglyphs of three vertical bars. It is meant to replicate the Roman Baths of Diocletian. He added a third element of an ox skull to the design. In the parlor, Jefferson had a replica made of the entablature of the Roman temple Fortuna Virilia, with its cherubs, ox skulls and swags of foliage.

“There are various styles of entablature,” McDonald said. “The ones Jefferson did, he played with the details. He said he could do that because the public wouldn’t see it, so he was going to indulge his fancy.”

The home also features a long skylight thought to be the first of its kind in a domestic residence, Ramsey said.

“The cube room … is a real dynamic space and it reflected Jefferson’s attempt to build a rotunda house, something he admired from Renaissance architecture from the 1500s,” McDonald said. “That one space meant a lot to Jefferson. It’s an ah-ha moment when you walk into the room. You see this 20-foot cube you can’t really see from the exterior. It’s a surprise space.”

Ramsey said Jefferson was a student of Italian architect Andrea Palladio, so the trim elements in Poplar Forest all are proportionate to each other and based on what a Roman column height would have been.

“He’s got other things that are considered modern or un-American, like the alcove beds and the central cube room, so he’s really making his own style by combining from the ancient and the modern worlds,” McDonald said.

Poplar Forest is the first full-sized octagonal house in America, he added.

“Designing an entire house as a big octagon is very challenging,” he said. “… A lot of thought and effort went into design to make a very idealistic design and make it work.”

McDonald describes the restoration process as almost as idealistic as Jefferson’s initial construction. Archeologists carefully have investigated the house to determine the modifications made after Jefferson’s time to restore the house to its original state.

“Clues as big as fingernails might be important,” McDonald said. “It is critical to go slowly and carefully. Putting this house back together was unique in the world of house museums because we followed Jefferson’s sequence in how he built the house.”

Ramsey said the corporation is leaving the east side unfinished so visitors can better understand the restoration process.

Jefferson’s inspiration for his retreat home came from the Villa Barbaro in Italy, which was built in a five part plan — a centerpiece, two wings and two pavilions.

Jefferson mixed it up a bit, Ramsey said, noting how he mimicked the architecture using landscape elements: The double row of mulberry trees, for instance, create the same visual effect as the wings and the two mounts give the impression of pavilions.

“Jefferson liked them because they provided a lot of shade,” Ramsey said of the mulberry trees. “We think that Jefferson directed his grandson who he passed the property on to after his death to plant the same double row of mulberries on the other side of the house, on either side of the wing so that it would provide shade on the wing, but we’re not sure that ever was executed.”

Poplar Forest has benefited from the money raised by the Garden Club of Virginia during its annual Garden Week tours. It was scheduled to be on Lynchburg’s tour this year, until the event was canceled amid COVID-19 concerns.

Ramsey said the partnership with the Garden Club of Virginia, Poplar Forest and individual donors, funded the archaeology work that informed the grounds restoration. Some of that work dated to the 1990s, but the intense investigation began in 2012.

“Jefferson left a lot of documentary evidence,” Ramsey said, adding Jefferson made note of three oval beds in the carriage turnaround, one on the northwest side of the turnaround, one on the northeast side and one Jefferson referenced as being in the north front.

Each oval bed had something different — one had dwarf roses, another had bristly locust and the newly discovered center bed had large roses of different varieties.

“We want to extend our significant gratitude to the Garden Club of Virginia,” Ramsey said. “These projects are significantly expensive. They have advanced these projects to a level we would not have been able to.”

The corporation is in the final stages of recreating the carriage turnaround directly in front of the house, designed to allow visitors to experience the surface without damaging the original turnaround.

The group preserved the original surface, then covered it with 40,000 new rough-hewn, hand-set quartz cobble stones. A viewing window was built so visitors can look down to see the original surface without risk of damaging it.

The newest project to create a direct route to the home from Thomas Jefferson Road recently went out to bid with the intention to break ground in the coming months.

PHOTOS: Architect indulged ‘fancy’ in building retreat home

The tradition of a summer home, a country retreat to escape from the day to day, has been around for generations.

One of the more unique retreat homes — Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest — sits just outside of Lynchburg off Bateman Bridge Road in Forest.

From the archives: Poplar Forest


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