The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The enslaved artisan behind Thomas Jefferson’s newly restored Va. estate

Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest estate in Forest, Va., by Lynchburg, is nearing the end of a 34-year restoration process. (Travis McDonald)
9 min

BEDFORD COUNTY, Va. — When the first phase of the 34-year restoration of Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson’s private retreat in rural Virginia, is celebrated Friday, it will reveal more than the third U.S. president’s gifts as an architect.

It will also lift a veil on the complex relationship between Jefferson, who enslaved more than 600 people over the course of his life, and John Hemings, the finish carpenter who carried out his enslaver’s wishes in walnut, poplar and pine.

Poplar Forest, completed in 1826 near Lynchburg, Va., is far less known than Monticello, partly by design — Jefferson didn’t want people following him there — and partly because it remained in private hands until 1984. But it was Jefferson’s most intimate space, where he spent much of his post-presidency time, and it’s recognized by preservationists as the first full-sized octagonal house in the United States.

“It fills in a large missing chapter — 14 years — of his retirement,” said Travis McDonald, director of architectural restoration at Poplar Forest. “It was his most perfect and idealistic work of architecture.”

McDonald was hired in 1989 by the Corporation to Restore Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, a nonprofit formed in 1983 to acquire the much-degraded property and rebuild it to resemble its original state. It was meticulous work. Over three decades, McDonald, his staff, a pair of architectural consultants and an advisory panel restored the exterior and took the interior down to bare bones, then slowly realized Jefferson’s vision. To fill in the details, they looked to correspondence between Jefferson at Monticello and his workers at Poplar Forest 93 miles south — especially Hemings.

The former president, his family and his favorite joiner enjoyed a relationship that was unusually respectful for enslavers and the enslaved. Jefferson’s granddaughters taught Hemings to read and write. “He was very well regarded, and may have held Jefferson’s family in very high regard, even in the condition he was in — that condition being slavery,” said C.J. Frost, senior craftsman and supervisor of restoration work at Poplar Forest.

McDonald added, “The fact that Jefferson trusted John Hemings to work at Poplar Forest independently without supervision says a lot, since Jefferson always wanted to supervise even his best workers.”

In one letter from Monticello to Hemings at Poplar Forest in November 1819, Jefferson was specific about how their long-distance correspondence would work best:

“Write to me every Wednesday and put your letter the same day into the post office of New London or Lynchburg and it will be sure to be in Charlottesville on Saturday evening. In these letters state to me exactly what work is done, and what you will still have to do, and endeavor to guess at a day by which you think it may all be finished, that I may be ready to send for you by that day.”

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For his part, Hemings worked sunrise to sunset on the 5,000-square-foot, four-bedroom retreat, as noted in his letter of November 1821:

“I am at worck in the morning by the time I can see and the very same at night. I have got the cornice nearly don. I am bout the tow last members dentil and quarter round. I should put an architrave on the skie light frame befour I take the Scaffold down.”

Hemings was born in 1776, the year Jefferson declared that “all men are created equal.” He was the 11th child of Betty Hemings, who was enslaved at Jefferson’s primary residence of Monticello. His father was Joseph Neilson, a White British joiner who worked there. Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s enslaved mistress, was his older sister, born in 1773.

In his teen years, Hemings learned carpentry and finishing skills from some of the best artisans in Virginia, all employed at Monticello. At 17, he was trained by Englishman David Watson. By the 1790s, he was picking up more refined touches from Irish joiners James Dinsmore and John Neilson, who was unrelated to his father.

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Hemings earned privileged status at Monticello with his work on interior trim, fine furniture and even a Jefferson-designed landau carriage. While most enslaved people were required to help harvest the fields, Hemings was exempt at least on one occasion. Jefferson wrote to his overseer in 1808: “At harvest, give your whole force to Mr. Randolph, to assist in his harvest, the nailers, as well all the rest, except Johnny Hemings and Lewis.”

His work was superior to other joiners, McDonald said, and equal to that of Dinsmore and Neilson. He used Jefferson’s tools at Monticello and Poplar Forest, and was paid an annual gratuity of $20. He had access to Jefferson’s books, including “The Four Books of Architecture” by 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, prized by Jefferson as the “Bible.”

“Hemings was master of the joinery shop at Monticello — a first-rate production shop equivalent to any in Charlottesville or Richmond at the time,” Frost said. “It was full of joiners and had the best tools and lathes to do anything he needed or wanted to do.”

From 1815 to 1826, when Jefferson died, Hemings regularly made the trip from Monticello to Poplar Forest by wagon or cart, initially bringing with him the window sashes, moldings and doors made in the shop. Later he would set up shop inside the retreat. He also brought with him his apprentice nephews — Madison, Beverly and Eston Hemings — all Jefferson’s sons by Sally Hemings.

Hemings’s literacy — in Palladian architecture, in fine woodworking, and in reading and writing — meant his work at Poplar Forest could be documented on paper for his enslaver. It also gave us lasting records of his work and relationship with Jefferson. And it played a key role in the recent restoration of the early 19th-century villa, which began in 1989 and was completed earlier this year. (Still to come are future landscape projects surrounding the retreat). In one instance, McDonald initiated the restoration of a Chinese railing on top of the house based on its mention in a letter from Hemings. Consulting architect John Mesick designed the details using existing railings by Jefferson elsewhere.

Poplar Forest was started in 1806 while Jefferson was still president, but his plan was to start using it when he left public life in 1809. He traveled there two to four times a year, and stayed from two weeks to two months each time. “Add that up over 14 years and it is a large unknown chapter of his late life,” McDonald said. “He typically went with one enslaved servant, Burwell Colbert, and after 1815 with his two granddaughters.”

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The house was designed in a personal style that McDonald calls Jeffersonian Classicism — Jefferson’s own brand of Neo-Classicism, a synthesis of Palladio’s work in the 16th century, the British Palladians of the 18th century and contemporary French influences. “Jefferson is considered the father of Neo-Classicism — architecture with roots in Roman sources — in America,” McDonald said.

In 1823, Jefferson turned Poplar Forest over to his grandson, Francis Eppes. Hemings installed the finishing touch, the parlor entablature, or ceiling molding, in 1826 when Jefferson was near death.

In 1828, two years after Jefferson died, Eppes sold it. The house and surrounding farmland were owned by a succession of individuals and families for more than 150 years, and the house suffered extensive damage. In 1845, it burned down to its brick walls. It was rebuilt but dramatically altered and constantly modified over the years.

“Nobody knew what Jefferson designed and built because it disappeared in 1845,” McDonald said. “We read letters and got a sense for what he was designing. The letters were very explicit and detailed.”

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McDonald kept the house open to visitors during its lengthy rebirth, and he has left parts of the interior in bare brick and wood, exposed for guests to see. On display is one of two surviving walnut doors that Hemings made by hand. It served as a model for replicas by modern-day artisans who have recreated all of Hemings’ work on the house, inside and out.

A feeling of intimacy permeates the restored interiors. “It has all the right proportions — it’s the scale of Jefferson’s privacy,” McDonald said. “He made it for himself, and he wanted every little bit of it to be just right.”

Jefferson wrote his last letter to Hemings in August 1825, concerned mostly with the roof and interior entablature. In his final letter to Jefferson, Hemings wrote in 1825 to request a cart and mules be sent from Monticello. He would be bringing back to Monticello, he wrote, tools that had been at Poplar Forest for some time.

Jefferson died at Monticello on July 4, 1826, and was buried in a coffin made by Hemings. In his will, he freed his master craftsman, gave him “the tools of his shop” as well as the service of Eston and Madison Hemings. John Hemings lived at Monticello until the house was sold in 1831. He died in 1833.

J. Michael Welton is the author of “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand” (Routledge: 2015). His articles have appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Metropolis, Dwell and The News & Observer in Raleigh. He is editor and publisher of the digital design magazine