Trip report -- Charlottesville, VA

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Nov 29th, 2018, 05:00 AM
  #1
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Trip report -- Charlottesville, VA

One day

Normally, I would have been reluctant to consider a visit from Charlottesville to James Madison's home Montpelier, but given that I flew in and the airport is located well north of the town, decided to go since the cab fare wasn't going to be as much as if headed there from downtown. Turned out this place was well worth seeing. The house has a lovely view of the Blue Ridge Mountains from its front porch and upstairs rooms. It was a plantation residence, and the main house itself was very nice, brick outside with Doric columns on its good-sized front porch. The tour given here was decent, concerned mostly with Madison family history and the slaves who worked here. The interior is fine, with attractive wallpaper and interior detailing in the major downstairs rooms, more plain elsewhere. They have a few original furnishings and other items, though most things are "of the period." The basement is given over to exhibits about slavery here and elsewhere in the South. Outside is a pleasant walled garden that dates from a later time when the DuPont family owned the place; at this time of year, there weren't many flowering plants, just shrubbery. There are recreations of several slave cabins also. Madison and his family are buried in the family cemetery a short walk from the house. The visitor center shows a brief film, as well as containing two luxuriant rooms dating from the DuPont era that were removed when the house was renovated to better reflect Madison's time.

Back in town, found that I had enough time to visit the tiny Kluge-Ruhe Museum on the eastern edge of Charlottesville. The collection is tiny but really interesting, devoted to Australian Aboriginal art of the 20th century. It all has an agreeably folk art oriented look to it, some of it painted on bark or wood. A few of the paintings have the spiraling hypnotic look of Op-Art -- arresting, well-made stuff.

Another day

This was a very full sightseeing day, and the big reason to come to Charlottesville, and I made good use of the hotel's area shuttle as there's no public transportation in this part of the town. Spent the morning and early afternoon, about 4 1/2 hours worth of time, at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home. It's on a small mountain top, and while the main house is not gargantuan, it's really enjoyable and most unusual. There are lots of eccentric touches: triple sash windows, skylights, tandem opening parlor doors, and the like. The lack of a grand staircase in the front hall is unique for a house of this time, as is the location of Jefferson's study and bedroom on the first floor with his bed built into the wall between them. There's a surprising amount of detailing and woodwork, attractive molding and archways, parquet floors, and mantelpieces (one of which has Wedgewood inlay). Jefferson designed the home himself, basing it on Italian models, even incorporating different Palladian orders throughout the house, the Doric outside columns being only the most obvious example. There are two gardens, a sizable flower garden out back and a huge vegetable garden to the side over by the slave quarters and trade areas (a few of these are recreations while others are original). A large tunnel runs under the house showing an extensive underground area of kitchens, storage areas, and carriage nooks as well as information on the plantation slaves including his Black mistress Sally Heming. Took tours of the house, gardens, and slave areas, all polished and nicely given. Jefferson is buried just down the hill from the house under a big obelisk in the family cemetery. The visitor center has a small museum with some artifacts that tell the house’s history in some detail. A must.

Headed next down the road to Michie Tavern. Took a tour of the old tavern building, which reminded me a lot of the Rising Sun Tavern in Fredericksburg. It's quite functional in feel, with an upstairs private sleeping quarter and large hall, and downstairs kitchen and tavern space and communal sleeping area. Out back are reproduction buildings: a privy, well, outdoor kitchen, smokehouse, and icehouse. The tour guide, an older woman, was a hoot, full of stories and good humor. Also had my main meal of the day here. This is still a fully functioning eatery serving buffet style lunches: baked or fried chicken, pulled pork, coleslaw, stewed tomatoes, black eyed peas, green beans, beets, mashed potatoes, corn bread, and biscuits. The food was hearty, basic stick to the ribs fare, not fancy but worthwhile.

Ended up at James Monroe's Highland (formerly called Ash Lawn-Highland), the third of the local presidential homes. What was originally Monroe's residence burned to the ground sometime in the mid-19th century, and what remains is a rather modest-sized guest house from Monroe's time attached to an 1870s Victorian house. The old guesthouse is not that large but is still impressive inside, done up as if it were Monroe's primary residence and containing lots of original furnishings and colorful wallpaper. There's a fairly extensive network of lower-level outside rooms that includes a kitchen, still room, and storage areas. The tour was good. The 1870s house has two downstairs rooms open containing Monroe family items such as dresses, weaponry, furniture, sculpture, and paintings. There are also a few recreated slave cabins out back, a large statue of Monroe, and a small garden mainly given over to bushes and hedges.

One more day

Turns out there isn't a lot else to see in Charlottesville besides the three big presidential homes, though the University of Virginia was actually quite nice. Much of the campus was designed by Thomas Jefferson, and the big "Academic Village" complex is particularly attractive. This is the college's central quad, enclosed fully by brick colonnaded buildings linked by dormitories with a large rotunda at one end, all tied together with covered walkways reminiscent of Italian examples. One of the dorm rooms is left vacant and visible, the spot where Edgar Allen Poe stayed during the brief time that he attended the school. The rotunda itself is an impressive brick-domed building; inside is an exhibit on the edifice's history, several rooms with brass chandeliers and attractive molding, and an open-feeling top floor with the plain dome as ceiling and encircling balcony level. Nearby, the stone Chapel has a pleasing wood and stained glass interior, the latter dating from both modern and earlier periods. The Fralin Art Museum is not far from these, and has a small but enjoyable collection that features paintings by O’Keeffe, Stella, LeWitt, Poons, Bellows, Cassatt, Benton, Davis, and Hassam as well as sculpture by Noguchi and Arp, the latter outside the museum's front entrance. There are tiny holdings of Native American, Greek, Egyptian, Medieval European, and African pottery and sculpture. A walk down West Main Street to downtown yielded several attractive university buildings as well as a large commercial strip with student-type eateries and bars.

The few downtown attractions weren't much. The Albermarle County Courthouse is a nice-enough brick building surrounded by a small park with Confederate statues and cannons, and nothing of interest inside. The Albermarle-Charlottesville Historical Society had a tiny foyer exhibit dedicated to the old Dolley Madison Inn and African-Americans from the region. The McGuffey Arts Center is an old repurposed school building with a large number of working artist studios and lots of forgettable local artwork produced by the studio inhabitants hung and standing throughout. Perhaps most interesting was the Historic Downtown Mall on East Main Street, loaded with restaurants and shops that were fun to poke around in.

Last edited by bachslunch; Nov 29th, 2018 at 05:33 AM.
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Nov 29th, 2018, 12:00 PM
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Thanks for this also, bachslunch. Jefferson was pretty interesting, eh? When you get a chance, visit La Rotonda:

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Nov 29th, 2018, 02:23 PM
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Nice report, thanks for posting. The last time were were at Monticello, they were doing extensive repairs and had it encased in scaffolding. Good to know it is back to beauty.
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Nov 29th, 2018, 02:47 PM
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Originally Posted by emalloy View Post
Nice report, thanks for posting. The last time were were at Monticello, they were doing extensive repairs and had it encased in scaffolding. Good to know it is back to beauty.
it does look great, have to say. I know a friend who said she wasn’t impressed with Monticello, but I don’t agree.

Boy, don’t you hate when a building you want to see is covered in scaffolding? Nowadays, I call ahead to make sure any architectural attractions I want to experience are free and unencumbered. I realize repairs and upgrades do have to be made at some point to any building, but I’d just as soon wait until the needed work is done.
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