By Victor Block
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va —
The gracious mansion is a perfect example of an 18th-century gentleman’s country estate. Its 33 rooms are filled with elegant furniture and architectural touches imported from Europe. In its heyday, a virtual Who’s Who of early American history dropped by to visit.
About 10 miles away stands a tiny, much simpler wood-frame cottage. It was built without a stove, well or bathroom facilities. A newspaper article written at the time described its “meager complement of furniture.”
These houses couldn’t be more different, nor could the men who once stayed in them — Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. This diversity, which says much about the character of the two presidents, extends throughout Charlottesville, Virginia and the countryside that surrounds it.
Charlottesville adds life and color to important chapters of the nation’s past. The small city is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, surrounded by rugged Appalachian Range peaks and pastoral landscapes. Small farms, orchards and vineyards lie just beyond its borders.
In that rural setting, the city of about 44,000 residents is an enclave of arts, culture and history. A good way to experience and enjoy all three is to stroll along the Historic Downtown Mall. The brick-paved pedestrian walkway combines the nostalgia of historic buildings reminiscent of small-town Americana with more than 130 trendy shops and 30 restaurants — many with an outdoor cafe.
Close to the Mall is one of two places that, for many visitors, make Charlottesville synonymous with its most famous son, Thomas Jefferson. His many accomplishments included stints as governor, ambassador to France, secretary of state and the third president. Yet he placed high on his list of achievements founding the University of Virginia as an “Academical Village” available to qualified students regardless of wealth or birth.
Visitors to the sprawling campus see it much as it appeared when it opened for classes in 1825. Pavilions that skirt the expansive lawn still house rooms occupied by scholars and faculty. The Rotunda that overlooks the setting is a scaled-down version of the Pantheon in Rome.
Jefferson’s architectural genius is even more evident at Monticello, the plantation home that occupied much of his interest and activity over decades. Work began on the mansion in 1768 and continued until his death in 1826.
Features included ideas gathered while Jefferson lived in Europe. They include dumb waiters, skylights and French doors that open in tandem automatically.
The rustic retreat has been described as “the most unpretentious habitation ever owned by a president.” Among personal touches are a chart listing birds that Roosevelt spotted during his stays at the cabin, and letters he wrote to his children decorated with sketches of cartoon-like figures.
Introductions to two other presidential homes also support Virginia’s nickname as “The Mother of Presidents.” Four of the first five presidents, and eight in all, were born in the state.
Guides at Montpelier, the home of James Madison, note his place in history as a member of the House of Representatives, delegate to the Continental Congress, secretary of state and fourth president.
I found even more meaningful his instrumental role in drafting both the Constitution and its first 10 amendments, and the fact that he authored important documents in the rooms where I was standing.
The Ash Lawn-Highland plantation, which borders Monticello, was home to the fifth president. While serving as secretary of state, James Monroe negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, and the Monroe Doctrine that he established formed the cornerstone of America’s foreign policy for over a century.
Visitors are immersed in the atmosphere of a working farm, with demonstrations of spinning, weaving, open-hearth cooking and other early American pursuits.
A setting very different from plantation homes, and the hustle and bustle of Charlottesville, is tucked into a horseshoe bend of the James River about 20 miles away. The village of Scottsville (population about 600) served as a local ferry crossing and river port during the 18th century. Flat-bottomed boats transported tobacco, grain and other cargo to Richmond, and returned with goods imported from England and France.
A combination of events undermined the town’s importance and left it a sleepy shadow of its former self. However, it retains historical touches worth experiencing.
A small museum recounts the story of the town and river.
Exhibits in the Canal Basin Square adjacent to the river include a packet boat and a list of tariffs charged for transporting cargo and passengers. Among fares were “White person, 12 and older, 1 cent per mile” and “Coloured persons, 5 and up, 1/2 cent a mile.”
No trip to the Charlottesville area would be complete without at least one stop at a winery, and even here the influence of Thomas Jefferson is felt — or, rather, tasted. He began planting vineyards close to Monticello, and dreamed of producing wines equal to those of the Old World. However, a series of mishaps and misfortunes doomed his effort, and for some 200 years Virginia’s infant wine industry did not achieve distinction.
That changed recently as a new generation of winemakers began to produce improved vintages. Virginia now has at least 230 wineries.
For more information, call 877-386-1103 or visit visitcharlottesville.org.