Poplar Forest

WWTJD_1312 Poplar Forest.jpg
All the rooms are octagonal or semi-octagonal, except the main dining room, which is a perfect cube.
— Clay S. Jenkinson portraying Thomas Jefferson

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The following is a rush transcript.

David Swenson: 00:12 Good day, citizens, and welcome to What Would Jefferson Do?, our weekly opportunity to discuss current American events with President Thomas Jefferson. Good to see you, Mr Jefferson.

Clay S. Jenkinson as Thomas Jefferson: 00:13 Good to see you, my dear citizen.

DS: 00:15 Mr Jefferson, I recently had a very enlightening conversation with a young man from Lynchburg, Virginia. Serves on the city council there, sir.

CSJ as TJ: 00:25 Well, that was the home of my second house, Poplar Forest. My most productive farms were in Bedford. I used to go out there once or twice a year to supervise the management of those farms, largely tobacco farms. Those properties came to me in my marriage to Martha Wayles Skelton on the first day of January 1772, and so I made a pilgrimage a couple of times per annum, and eventually I decided to build a home there so I would have more comfortable quarters. It's an octagonal home called Poplar Forest.

DS: 00:57 Yeah. I was going to ask you about that. Now, I don't know if you're aware, Mr President, but in in my time, that second home of yours has been restored as accurately as possible to the time when you occupied it, and it's open to the public. People can go tour it and see it and it's somewhat of an architectural anomaly. It's very unique. You said eight-sided, right?

CSJ as TJ: 01:20 It's octagonal. It's a bit of a gimcrack. I was fond of the octagon just because it's a fascinating geometric design, but also because it's a great light gathering design. You have more walls for more windows, and I just was doing it in a kind of whimsical creative way, and it didn't have any of the necessity of conforming to architectural models or precedents that Monticello had, and so I really let my imagination run free in the ways that I designed Poplar Forest.

DS: 01:53 Did it not have windows in the ceiling, sir?

CSJ as TJ: 01:56 Well, there were skylights. There are 13 skylights at Monticello.

DS: 01:59 Thirteen!

CSJ as TJ: 01:59 Those were experimental things that I saw during my five-year residency in Paris and France, but there's a huge skylight in the central room at Poplar Forest, so all the rooms are octagonal or semi-octagonal, except the main dining room, which is a perfect cube. It is a perfect solid from geometry, but to get light into a room within an age before electricity inspired me to create a long and very intricate skylight above that central cube.

DS: 02:31 Yeah. I suppose citizens during my time, Mr President, we just take light for granted. We walk in a room and flip a switch and we are illuminated so to speak. But in your time you really had to design things with thought towards daylight, correct?

CSJ as TJ: 02:46 Oh yes. We lived by day and at night we perhaps had candles. Sometimes we had lamps filled with oil, often whale oil. But these were expensive things and they were cumbersome technologies unlike the access to light that you take for granted in your own day. And so we maximize natural light. That's why Georgian windows, 18th century windows, are so large. And that's why Poplar Forest is designed as an octagon, so that it is an ideal light-gathering space.

DS: 03:16 As I said earlier, Mr President, this has been restored by historical societies, and it's open to the public to tour now. I have not been there and I would like to see this Poplar Forest, this house you designed. If you and I were to go there together, say, what would you look for first Mr President? Or what would you point out to me to notice?

CSJ as TJ: 03:39 Well, I would urge you to look at the design. There's a dome, so it's not dissimilar from Monticello, and the central dining room, the cube is something that I'm very proud of because I like orderliness and there was a kind of a rage for geometric order in my life. And so that room I think is a sort of an epitome of what I stood for. I also would like to show you the fields there. This was my most productive land. Unfortunately, it's been absorbed by suburbia in your time.

DS: 04:12 I believe Lynchburg has overtaken Poplar Forest.

CSJ as TJ: 04:15 The people who have restored it have done a marvelous job of helping it to look more like what it was that I designed. It wasn't finished until 1809, and in the course of my life, I probably didn't spend a whole year there, but it was a wonderful place to go during these retreats, and these management moments at my farms there, and towards the end of my life I gave it in my will to my grandson, Francis Eppes.

DS: 04:43 You had great times with your granddaughters there as well.

CSJ as TJ: 04:45 It was lovely. They would beg to come with me for a month or two months at Poplar Forest.

DS: 04:50 Thank you very much, Mr Jefferson.

CSJ as TJ: 04:53 You are most welcome sir.

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