Poplar Forest Artwork by L. Diane Johnson
In September of 1773, Thomas Jefferson made his first trip to Poplar Forest following his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson’s inheritance of the land. For this first trip to Poplar Forest, Jefferson made the two to three day journey on horseback. By 1809, his visits started to become more regular and Jefferson mapped out the easiest route for a carriage to travel; however, this resulted in routes that were not always the shortest. Though the route he took increased the timing of his travels Jefferson noted, “…as direct as can be had tolerably level; for levelness is still a more important consideration than distance.”
Thomas Jefferson designed the landscape at Poplar Forest. Separated from the working fields by a curtilage fence, Jefferson’s “ornamental landscape” consisted of 61 acres in which Jefferson manipulated the existing natural landscape to create a unique villa retreat. Taking architectural inspiration from Andrea Palladio’s architecture, features of Jefferson’s landscape filled in for brick and mortar structures. Jefferson incorporated plantings such as trees, flowers and shrubs while also contouring the shape of the land. While no original Jefferson designed plantings survived, there are still Jefferson-era Poplar trees on property adding a historic touch to our restored landscape.
With initial construction of the house taking place in 1806, Jefferson kicked off his landscape design by having the south lawn dug out in mid-1807 creating a sunken lawn, or bowling green. By 1811, the dirt removed from the south lawn was utilized to create two symmetrical mounds on the east and west sides of the property that would symbolize pavilions within Jefferson's villa design. Both boasted numerous tree plantings including Weeping Willow and Aspen trees. Further enhancing Jefferson’s villa retreat, a double row of Paper Mulberry trees were planted on both sides of the house to mimic wing structures in late 1812; however, by 1814, Jefferson removes the southern row of Paper Mulberries on the east side to construct his Wing of Offices.
Though Jefferson’s ornamental grounds have experienced drastic changes since his ownership, Poplar Forest’s archaeologists are hard at work researching and excavating the grounds to fully restore Jefferson’s original design.
Research & images & much more are directly available from the Poplar Forest website - to begin exploring, go to poplafrorest.org.