For six days every January, a team of seven to 11 people enter Monticello at 6:30 a.m., long before any guests would ever think to arrive. They wouldn’t be able to get inside anyway — the house is closed for what Monticello’s curation and restoration teams call the “Big Clean.”
Museum technicians, wearing powder blue nitrile gloves and bearing buckets of warm soapy water, file in to do a deep clean of the house, the former estate of Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Father, former president and author of the Declaration of Independence. Starting with the first floor, they use soft-bristle brushes to wipe away dirt; water with a trace of Dawn dish soap to wash the walls; and scaffolding to reach the highest corners of the main hall, parlor, dining room, tea room and Jefferson’s bedchamber.
The clean also gives staff the opportunity to check to make sure the historic house remains architecturally intact. That’s an important item on the to-do list for the stewards of a a World Heritage Site, and a National Historic Landmark that hosts between 450,000 and 500,000 visitors every year and is 214 years old, according to data from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates the property.
That’s not to say that Monticello is cleaned only once a year. The staff does a “basic clean” of Monticello daily, and deeper cleans once a week, said Tabitha Pryor Corradi, collections and exhibitions manager at Monticello.
“Even with those daily and weekly cleanings, we aren’t able to reach all of the nooks and crannies. We use the Big Clean as our opportunity to clean the house from floor to ceiling,” Corradi told The Daily Progress.
The house gets cleaned during the winter months, when Monticello typically sees fewer visitors. That way, nobody gets crowded and the team gets to move more freely as they dust and scrub away, Corradi said.
“But those guests who do visit in January get the opportunity to see the ‘behind the scenes’ of what it’s like to care for a historic house full of artifacts,” Corradi said.
Monticello served as Jefferson’s home from 1770 until his death in 1826. After his death, the house and surrounding estate were sold to Uriah Levy, the first Jewish commodore in the U.S. Navy. Levy, who revered Jefferson, is credited by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation for maintaining the home for years after Jefferson’s death. The Levy family sold the property to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, a precursor of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, in 1923.