A visit to a famous historic home can be an enjoyable way to spend a day admiring beautiful architecture and landscaping. It can also provide unique educational opportunities and a great gateway to experiencing the past. It so happens that Virginia produced more United States Presidents than any other state in the Union: 8 in total including 4 out of the first 5. Luckily for us, 3 incredible presidential estates are located within 30 miles of each other in and around the Charlottesville area. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Monroe’s Highland and James Madison’s Montpelier all offer tours sure to entertain, inspire and provide insight into history.
Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home, which translates to “Little Mountain”, is located just outside of Charlottesville, a mere 5 miles from the University of Virginia (which he designed as well). Jefferson modeled his house in the neoclassical style based on the works and principles of the Italian renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. In all he spent over 40 years building it, redesigning and rebuilding it during his lifetime. The result is the iconic building whose image graces the back of the nickel and the two-dollar bill. As a horticulturist as well as an architect, Jefferson’s gardens were used for experiments in plant breeding as well as for food production.
Today, both the home and the gardens are available to tour. Visit monticello.org for tickets and information.
Located 2 miles away from Monticello, James Monroe referred to his home, known as Highland, as his ‘cabin-castle’. Its proximity to Monticello and Montpelier is no coincidence. In fact, Monroe Jefferson and Madison were fast friends who frequently enjoyed each other’s company; often playing chess and conversing about various political matters. Though the main house burned down around 1829, Monroe’s guest house (dating to 1818) still stands as well as additions built in the 1850s and 70s by subsequent residents.
Currently managed by the College of William and Mary, visitors can tour the refurbished guest house and outdoor spaces. Tickets and information at highland.org.
The home of James and Dolley Madison sits in Orange county, Virginia, just 30 miles from Monticello and Highland, and dates back to around 1764. The former president and ‘Father of the Constitution’ did much of his research here while Dolley lavishly entertained important guests earning her own larger-than-life reputation. The Georgian-style mansion underwent a huge restoration from 2003 to 2008 revealing and refurbishing the original brick as well as restoring the interior to recreate the interior room settings that would have been present during the Madisons’ time.
Guests here can tour the 2,650 acre property as well as the mansion (including the upstairs library). Information and pricing at montpelier.org.