On the presidential trail in Charlottesville

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Victor Block

An aerial photo shows the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819. The 21,000-student university is ranked second among the 2014 top public schools on a list produced by U.S. News and World Report. Read about the school on page 41.
Photo courtesy of the University of Virginia

The gracious mansion is a perfect example of an 18th century gentleman’s country estate. Its rooms are filled with elegant furniture and architectural touches imported from Europe by Thomas Jefferson. In its heyday, a virtual Who’s Who of early American leaders dropped by to visit, including two James — Monroe and Madison, the latter accompanied by Dolley.

About 10 miles away stands a much simpler wood-frame cottage where Theodore Roosevelt escaped the pressures of the presidency. It was built without a stove, well or bathroom facilities, and would have fit almost twice into the parlor of the much larger mansion. A newspaper article written at the time described its “meager complement of furniture.”

These two houses couldn’t be more different, nor could the men who once stayed in them. This diversity, which says much about the character of the two presidents, also extends throughout Charlottesville, Va., and the countryside that surrounds it.

Part college town, part living history museum, 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. Agriculture has long been a staple of the area’s economy, and small farms, orchards and vineyards lie just beyond Charlottesville’s 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 renovated historic buildings reminiscent of small-town Americana with more than 130 trendy shops and 30 restaurants, many with an outdoor cafe.

The street follows a route that during Colonial times connected Richmond with the Shenandoah Valley. It was called Three Notch’d Road, which referred to three nicks made in tree trunks to mark it.

A tale of two presidents

A short drive from the Mall is Monticello — the plantation home that occupied much of Thomas Jefferson’s interest and activity over decades, and which demonstrates his genius in architecture. Work began on the mansion in 1768, when Jefferson (a self-taught architect) was 26 years old, and remodeling continued until his death in 1826.

Design features included ideas gathered during Jefferson’s several years living in Europe. They include dumb waiters, which he saw in a Parisian café, skylights, French doors that open in tandem automatically and a seven-day wall clock that still chimes.

In contrast with the elegance of Monticello is the tiny, modest cottage where Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed relaxing while serving as president. It was purchased by his wife Edith who, like Teddy, cherished simple pleasures derived from nature.

The rustic retreat has been described as “the most unpretentious habitation ever owned by a president,” which says a lot about Roosevelt. Among personal touches are a chart listing birds that he spotted during his stays at the cabin, and letters he wrote to his children decorated with sketches of cartoon-like figures.

Homes of Monroe and Madison

Introductions to two other presidential homes in the Charlottesville area 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 leading tours of Montpelier, the home of James Madison, note his prominent place in history as, among other accomplishments, a member of the House of Representatives, delegate to the Continental Congress, secretary of state and fourth president.

Strolling through the plantation house, 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.

Madison’s prominence was equaled by that of his famous wife Dolley. She was known for her social graces and hospitality, which boosted her husband’s popularity. Dolley did much to define the proper role of the president’s wife, which led to the term “First Lady.” When Madison left the White House in 1817, he and Dolley returned to Montpelier where they lived out their final years.

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.

Monroe purchased the estate at the urging of his close friend Thomas Jefferson. Monroe referred to the small house, that was added to by later owners, as his “cabin castle.”

Today, visitors are immersed in the atmosphere of a working farm, with demonstrations of spinning, weaving, open-hearth cooking and other early American pursuits.

Sleepy Scottsville

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 south of the city.

The village of Scottsville (population about 600) served as a local ferry crossing and river port during the 18th century. Flat-bottomed “bateaux” boats transported tobacco, grain and miscellaneous cargo to Richmond, and returned with clothing, furniture and other goods imported from England and France.

A combination of events, including the Civil War and advent of railroads, undermined the town’s importance and left it a sleepy shadow of its former self. However, it retains historical touches well worth experiencing.

A little gem of a museum recounts the story of the town and river. A deteriorating warehouse, which in the mid-19th century stored grain, tobacco and other produce awaiting shipment in river boats, overlooks the Canal Basin Square adjacent to the river and the canal beside it.

Exhibits in the square include a packet boat, which over 150 years ago plied the James River, 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.”

Virginia vintages

Thomas Jefferson began building his Charlottesville mansion Monticello in 1768, remodeling the home, replete with innovations such as dumb waiters and skylights, until his death in 1826.
© Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

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, and if Jefferson’s dream of competing in quality with the best that France and Italy offer is yet to be completely fulfilled, he would be proud to know that his beloved native state is the fifth largest producer in the country.

Jefferson’s unusual failure as a maker of wine pales in comparison to his achievements and those of his famous neighbors, who were among the founders of our country. A visit to Charlottesville brings their and other stories to life in a setting as varied as were those early leaders.

Where to stay, eat

In a city surrounded by farmlands, it’s not surprising that a number of restaurants serve fresh-from-the-ground fare. Up to 95 percent of the ingredients used at the Brookville Restaurant in the Historic Downtown Mall (225 W. Main Street) come from Virginia farms, foragers and the chef’s garden.

Some dishes, like chicken with waffle ($25) and biscuits served four ways ($5 to $8) have a southern twang. For more information, call (434) 202-2781 or log onto www.brookvillerestaurant.com.

Touches of the past come to life at the C&O Canal Restaurant (515 E. Water St.). For example, the walls and bar in the bistro are made with wood from an old barn, and the upstairs dining room served as a bunk house for railroad workers during the Depression.

The menu here also focuses on local ingredients, including a Virginia oyster stew appetizer ($10) and locally raised pork tenderloin ($27). For more information, call (434) 971-7044 or log onto www.candorestaurant.com.

Guests at the English Inn are immersed in a world of British tradition. In addition to the décor, touches like afternoon high tea add to the atmosphere. Amenities include a hot breakfast buffet, indoor swimming pool, exercise room and sauna. Rates begin at a reasonable $100. For more information, call (434) 971-9900 or log onto www.englishinncharlottesville.com.

It’s early Americana that’s the focus at the Boar’s Head Inn, a gracious resort that sets the tone for a visit to the history-rich Charlottesville area.

A large part of the main hotel building is made of wood from a gristmill that was built nearby in 1834 and later dismantled. That includes the pine floor of the Old Mill lounge, along with beams and wall paneling. Fieldstones that were part of the mill’s foundations adorn a fireplace and an arched entrance into the inn.

The golf course is laid out over land that was part of a 1734 land grant, and where the Boar’s Head now stands a modest inn named Terrell’s Ordinary provided lodging for westward travelers.

Along with such historical touches, the Boar’s Head offers amenities and facilities expected at an AAA Four-Diamond Resort. In addition to golf, there is tennis, squash, a spa, and activities ranging from biking and hot air ballooning to fishing and swimming. That’s a lot of leisure living for rates that begin at $165. For more information, call (855) 574-5627 or log onto www.boarsheadinn.com.

Charlottesville is about 115 miles from downtown Washington, D.C. For more information about Charlottesville, call (877) 386-1103 or log onto www.visitcharlottesville.org.