Poplar Forest was rescued late in the 20th century, long after most presidential sites had been restored and opened to the public. Beginning the restoration and interpretive process at Poplar Forest at this time enabled the board of directors and staff to begin with ideal intentions and techniques, putting the conservation of historic resources The entire restoration has been shared step-by-step with the visiting public.
Staff and consultants work with a six-person advisory panel of restoration experts. This team approach has become a model for other sites. The principal restoration guideline is that “the preservation and integrity of the Jeffersonian artifact (Jefferson era buildings) is of highest priority in decisions about how the building should be treated and used.”
An example of this philosophy is the installation of an innovative heating and cooling system that was designed for the conservation of the house and not for its contents or people. Ducts, grilles and equipment have been kept out of the historic fabric of the house; equipment is 350 feet away from the house hidden in an underground vault. Regarding this system conservation consultant William Rose commented: “The most striking aspect of the building is the authenticity of the restoration, such that a casual investigation of the building (exterior, interior, basement and attic) discloses only elements that would have been in place in the early 1800s. In my opinion, the dedication to this aim and its achievement ensures that Poplar Forest will remain a landmark building of the highest national stature.”
In providing for some level of climate control for reasons of conservation, the restoration team’s goal was to respect the historic fabric of the house and to avoid damage by installation or operation of a mechanical system. The challenges were to keep the house feeling like a natural house, to avoid any modern visual intrusions, and to get systems into a house that had solid brick walls.
The design provided minimal heat and cooling to the house in an innovative manner. Mechanical equipment was located 350’ away from the house in an underground vault. Heating and cooling is assisted by nine geo-thermal wells. Hot water is pumped to the house to radiant heat tubes that have been installed under the lower brick and upper oak floors. The ceiling of the basement looks like the Jefferson-era boards that filled the space with brick and mortar noggin, but actually hide the modern heat system. A non-historic space under the north portico was designated as a mechanical room, hidden from view.
Two large tubes at the base of each stair pavilion send cool air into the house on two sides, avoiding any equipment, grilles or ducts in the house. One pavilion acts as a return duct when necessary. The lowest level of cooling is to use the ground temperature in the wells to cool the coils, providing cooled air. The air can also be chilled during the warmest summer months. However, the the level of cooling in the house is for the conservation of the house. Louvered blinds on the exterior of the house are used to control the sun. Furniture in the house is reproduction and can be touched and used by visitors, allowing the windows to be opened for a realistic feeling.