Monday, July 5, 2010


By (c) Russ Barnes. All rights reserved.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia.  The year is 1959.  I am traveling with my grandfather Cluss in his 1955 blue Chrysler New Yorker.  
Leaving Staunton, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley, we drive through the Piedmont countryside -- our road overhung by the dark-green canopy of the Carolinian forest.  Through the open car windows, you can smell the spring-fresh Southern Pine along with the oozing-hot road tar.
Our destination is Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s lifelong passion and his home. 
Unlike with today’s more organized tours, we drive right up to the front door of this Neoclassical American masterpiece and walk straight into the grand house.  
We arrive here at the turning point between an old era and a new one -- the election of John F. Kennedy and the beginning of the turbulent, dynamic era of the 1960's was upon us.  This era marker I somehow sensed as I walked through Monticello for the first time -- perhaps because Mr. Jefferson himself looked back and forward at the same time.
I won't outline here the architectural genius that produced Monticello nor the political and personal ups-and-downs of the author of the Declaration of Independence and the founder of the University of Virginia.
Rather, I want to chronicle the soul stirrings of myself as a sixteen-year-old boy upon encountering, on this Virginia mountaintop, something of greatness, an originality born of a fertile imagination, an engine of a new republic built upon daring.
Once in the house, our tour guide takes us past the obligatory inspections of inventions and gadgets: the “great clock,” the weathervane, the wheel cipher, the spherical sundial, the dumbwaiter.
But the thing that enamored my adolescent attention the most was displayed in the dining room.  Today, I barely know why this single object, with its simple classical lines, seduced my imagination so.  What captivated me was -- a teapot -- part of an elegant silver tea and coffee service.
Close by the teapot were drawings, practically cadcam-like, drawn by Jefferson himself and sent to a silversmith in Paris with specifications for execution and transport across the Atlantic back to Monticello.  The drawings are so reasonable, rational, so exact with an eye to detail, practicality, and aesthetics that they, and the object itself, flooded the feelings of the boy I was then with a new vision of what was possible in life.
Here was a man who funded Lewis and Clark on their expedition across an entire wild continent, who negotiated with Napoleon for another third of our nation’s geography, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, who founded the University of Virginia, who insisted on attaching the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution . . . and yet, who could, simultaneously, design a lowly domestic accoutrement with such grace and utility to please any hostess entertaining elegant and powerful guests.
And Mr. Jefferson did just that -- entertained at the Great House for the enjoyment of family and guests, all the while benefitting the fragile political and financial development of the nascent United States of America.  Our guide pointed out that the Great House had a suite of rooms dedicated for the exclusive use of such luminaries as James Madison and his family.  These guest rooms were like a home-away-from-home, but the guests were expected to show up for dinner and other communal occasions for lively discussions and activities such as music and stargazing.  

Such discussions, for example, might bring clarity to projects as to how to frame the legislative language for the Bill for Religious Freedom in Virginia -- a bill which provided part of the foundation for the First Amendment to the Constitution.
European guests such as the Marquis de Lafayette also showed up on the mountaintop. Lafayette, who had been an invaluable general in the American Revolution, also later served as an ally in securing French funds for the new United States.
My adolescent mind imagined how it would have been to be there experiencing that domestic detail, thoughtful entertainment and conversation -- as well as the delights of the inventive new world built on ancient classical values which had appealed to so many previous visitors of that Great House on the hill.
During the 1950’s, paying attention to a silver tea service appeared, to the boy I was then, to be what we would have called "a feminine pursuit."  That was the convention of the day.  But what Monticello dramatized for me was that the “Great House” provided not only a roof over one’s head, but also served as an instrument in achieving one of the most sweeping political successes in human history -- and, that in some way, Mr. Jefferson had combined both masculine and feminine qualities in his pursuit of this political victory.
Charlottesville has many comfortable lodgings and restaurants.  However, The Boar’s Head Inn is one of the best.  Opened in 1834, the 573 acre property features gourmet Virginia cuisine with locally grown herbs, golf, tennis, fishing, bicycling, a fitness club and spa.  Stop for afternoon tea or dinner or for a night or two.  

Don’t miss the University of Virginia. Check out this page --

For information on travel to Virginia, go to:

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