Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Levy Family and Monticello

I just finished reading an interesting book, Saving Monticello, by Marc Leepson. While visiting the new Crozet Library, the book caught my eye because of the forlorn image of Monticello on the cover. I'm a bit embarrassed to say that this is the first book that I have read relating to Monticello. Why is it that if something is nearby we tend to ignore it? Actually, I visit the gardens of Monticello each Fall during their Heritage Harvest Festival but I haven't toured the home that Jefferson built for probably 30 years.

Poplar Tree that had to be removed in 2008
As referenced in the book, Monticello changed hands many times after Thomas Jefferson's death. The first sale of Monticello, reluctantly, by the Jefferson heirs was in 1831 for $7,000 to a local Charlottesville druggist. After a short period, Monticello was sold to Uriah Levy and for 9 decades a Levy family member owned the property but not continuously as at one point during the Civil War the Confederacy seized Monticello. 

Monticello Heritage Harvest Festival
When one sees the current condition of Monticello, it is hard to believe that it almost fell into total disrepair and could have easily been lost forever. Very few of the property owners kept Monticello as their permanent residence and this mountain retreat was used as a vacation home or place to entertain dignitaries. Years of feuding over Monticello and a constant stream of tourists left the estate sad and weary. Property owners often left it up to a hired Farm Manager to oversee the house and grounds. Interestingly, at one point livestock lived in the basement and feed was stored upstairs!

A bit of detective work scored one of the Levy family Lions.
When funds were available the Levy family infused money into the upkeep of the property. During one such period, two life sized Lion statues were placed on the front entryway of the house. In the 1920's when the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation took over ownership of Monticello all of the Levy property was sold at auction. I was fascinated to read in the book that one of the Lions was still in Charlottesville on Canterbury Road (which just happens to be my favorite neighborhood in Cville) so I decided to take a drive to see if it was visible. I was so surprised to find the Levy Lion!

This fascinating book reveals that without the Levy family there might have not been a home standing at Monticello for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to preserve.  This estate which has so much meaning to so many, could have been lost forever.

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