Historic Structures

Poplar Forest - Thomas Jefferson Retreat, Forest Virginia

Date added: January 4, 2022 Categories: Virginia House

Thomas Jefferson displayed throughout his life a fascination with unusual architectural shapes and volumes. In this he shared an interest with the professionally trained architects of his age. Both the oval rooms in the rotunda of the University of Virginia and octagons and semi-octagon incorporated into the final version of Monticello are fine examples of this.

Between 1806 and 1819 Jefferson decided to build a retreat in the rural seclusion of Bedford County Virginia. He named his hermitage Poplar Forest, In its design he gave full reign to his fancy and planned a one story octagonal house over a raised basement. In plan the house has four perfectly symmetrical principal spaces in the shape of elongated octagons arranged around a large square central room lit by a central skylight. In planning the grounds Jefferson was also his most fanciful and created miniature hills in the garden to screen the view of the octagonal out-houses from the main house.

Jefferson visited Poplar Forest as much as four times a year, often remaining there as long as a month. Originally the house had been designed for Jefferson's daughter, Maria, to be built in Albemarle County, but she died in 1804.

Poplar Forest was completely gutted by fire in 1845 and immediately repaired. However no attempt was made to recapture the original decoration. Only the basic shapes of the rooms remain. The roof was reconstructed without the skylight or the original balustrade.

When Jefferson died in 1826, the estate was left to his grandson, Francis Wayles Eppes, who sold it two years later. It then remained in the interrelated Cobbs-Hutter family for 118 years. In 1845 the house burned, and although the extent of the damage has not been determined, the present roof (which departs from Jefferson's design) as well as the interior trim, date from this time. From 1946 to 1979, Poplar Forest was the home of Mr. and Mrs. James O. Watts, Jr. In 1983 the property was purchased by the Corporation for Jefferson's Poplar Forest to restore the house and open it to the public.

Poplar Forest is a brick one-story building, octagonal in shape, set on a high basement with tetrastyle pedimented Tuscan porticoes, on low arcades, on the entrance and rear facades. As a result of the fire in 1845, only the walls, chimneys, and possibly the columns are original. From a drawing, circa 1820 (now in the Alderman Library, University of Virginia), by Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter, Cornelia Randolph, the original design of the exterior can be reasonably, determined. The drawing shows the house crowned by a deck on an octagonal hipped roof surrounded at its base by a balustrade. Below the balustrade is a Tuscan cornice which encircles the entire house.

The original interior plan of the house is intact, and consists of four elongated octagonal rooms around a square central hall which was originally lighted from above. Two of the rooms were divided in the middle by bed alcoves, similar to that in Jefferson's bedroom at Monticello. Unfortunately, there is almost no evidence indicating the appearance of the original woodwork.

Jefferson refers to an office wing, 110 feet long " . . . in the manner of those at Monticello, with a flat roof in the level of the house." While no trace above ground remains of this wing, a kitchen and smokehouse still stand. On either side of the house, the two original octagonal privies are discreetly hidden by artificial mounds.