After my experience at Colonial Williamsburg, I have to admit I didn't have high hopes for Monticello, my next and nearly last stop. If a place devoted to multiple founding fathers sidestepped important issues like slavery, how could one focused on Thomas Jefferson (who owned slaves and whose stance on slavery shifted throughout his life) do any better?
And here is where I was pleasantly surprised. The guide of my first Monticello tour, the main tour through the ground level of the house, brought up Sally Hemmings before anyone on the tour could ask, and the official Monticello position was that Jefferson probably did have children with Hemmings. The plantation tour, which I took next, went even deeper into the slavery issue, telling fascinating and often sad stories of the slaves that lived on the plantation and their relationship with Jefferson.
Overall, I felt the experience was very balanced. There was plenty of coverage of Jefferson's accomplishments as well, and on the grounds of Monticello, it's easy to see what an accomplishment the house itself is. I toured a lot of typical colonial houses in Williamsburg, and, well, Monticello really stands out after you've seen a lot of those. Filled with innovations and architecturally distinctive, the genius of Jefferson is evident inside and out.
I took an additional house tour that went up on the second floor, and although it cost more, I was glad I did. The tour featured a smaller group, and we were allowed to take photos (I realized that the no-photo rules on the ground floor were probably more about moving tour group after tour group after tour group through than any historic preservation reasons). The bedrooms on the second and third floors were mostly unfurnished, but in them I could see how what looked like a one-story house on the outside was actually three. On the second floor, windows were near the floor, so they were immediately on top of the first-floor windows. On the third floor, skylights provided the natural light.
The highlight of the whole tour was the rotunda room, the room inside the rotunda that makes Monticello look so distinctive. When our group walked in, I think every single person either gasped or said, "ooh!" It's painted a vivid yellow, and an enormous, bold space. Unfortunately, prior to the days of air conditioning, it could get up to 140 degrees inside during the summer, so it was mostly used for storage — its primary purpose was in fact to provide the distinctive rotunda.
I also enjoyed the self-guided portions of Monticello, wandering around the support areas. Rather than being in different buildings scattered across the grounds, all of the support areas were housed in a U shape, hidden underground behind the house. Everything from the kitchen to the wine and beer cellars to the horse stables were hidden from view. Again, it was a sharp contrast to the buildings of Williamsburg.
After I finished up at Monticello, I made one more stop, to Jefferson Vineyards, just down the street. I'd had their cabernet franc before at a wine bar, and really liked it, so I did a $5 tasting (unfortunately the cabernet franc is not included), and left with a few bottles of wine and a souvenir glass, the latter included in the tasting. It was a lovely way to wrap up my Virginia trip.
Here's a link to all of my Monticello pictures on Flickr.