Through the years, Jefferson’s retreat underwent many changes as the families who lived in the house remodeled to meet personal needs and changing fashions, and provide modern conveniences.
In the 1840s, the Hutter family who owned the house took advantage of a fire and replaced Jefferson’s Roman Revival balustrade on the roof with a Greek Revival style and dormers. They also converted Jefferson’s rotunda space in the dining room to two stories, and tore down parts of the wing of service rooms on the east side of the house.
Still, the house retained its original octagonal design and walls, and parts of the wing and its foundation survived.
The restoration of Jefferson’s villa is being done in phases for two reasons. In-depth research precedes all hands-on work, and funding from mostly private sources is secured before the start of a major project.
Research, stabilization and investigation were the primary goals of this phase.
An important first step occurred in 1985 when an existing record of the house was made by an Historic American Building Survey team led by Timothy Buehner. This resulted in measured drawings and medium format black-and-white photographs by Jack Boucher. These materials are part of the HABS collection in the Library of Congress.
Documentary research by S. Allen Chambers started in 1986, gathering information from hundreds of Jefferson’s letters and documents regarding the construction of the house and the Poplar Forest property.
The critical restoration team was put in place with the establishment of an Architectural Advisory Panel, the hiring of professional staff, and a contract with a consulting architect. The team then oversaw an emergency stabilization project and the process of physically examining and analyzing the original buildings on the property. An analysis of this information allowed the team and board to confidently decide to restore the house to Jefferson’s original design and form.
Before restoration could begin a major conservation project was required to keep the house stable and dry. A dual drainage system around the house was installed after the outer brick walls were waterproofed and underpinned with concrete footings, repairing once and for all a number of problems present throughout the house’s history.
First Restoration Phase, 1995-1998
The first phase of restoration work began where Jefferson’s process did, starting with the lower brick walls and working upward, restoring window openings to their original size and place. Brickwork was conserved or restored using lime mortar and custom-made reproduction bricks.
Simultaneously, carpenters were preparing a new roof. Over the cube room the Jeffersonian flat “terras” roof framing was formed using large timbers of antique old growth pine into a series of ridge and gutter joists spanned with shingles. Set in the middle of this roof framing was the 16-foot long skylight that added one of the most modern touches to Jefferson’s retreat. With the central cube room walls up to full height, the surrounding roof rafters and joists were constructed of white oak using traditional heavy timber frame construction techniques. Completing the top of the house was the terras deck and the Chinese railing.
With the completion of tinned stainless steel shingles covering the roof, the massive classical balustrade and Tuscan entablature trim at the top of the wall finished the principal roof features of the house. Reproduction double and triple-sash windows with louvered exterior blinds completed the main house exterior restoration in 1998 and receiving recognition from the National Trust for Historic Preservation with their prestigious Honor Award.
Second Restoration Phase, 1999-2009
By 2001, the restoration of the house reached a milestone when interior structural restoration was completed with new oak floor joists, polished oak floors, and the conservation and restoration of fourteen fireplaces and hearths. To complete the upper level floor plan back to the original configuration required the reconstruction of the east and west staircases, the east and west bed alcoves, and the north entry passage walls.
Following Jefferson’s original sequence of construction, plaster ground boards and hand-split plaster lath were installed on walls and ceilings in preparation for traditional three-coat lime plaster directed by a craftsman from the Scottish Lime Centre. Ceilings were done first, and then walls, with plaster applied directly to brick walls in most cases. In order to continue to interpret the original construction process, two rooms are being left unfinished on the east side, including the northeast room where the frame passage wall will reveal its many layers.
Conservation and restoration of both octagonal brick privies brought these domed neo-classical temples back to their delightful original form and detail, including a roof covering of chestnut shingles topped with a lead cap.
The most ambitious project in this phase was putting the east wing of service rooms back together, involving all types of preservation work: conservation of surviving fabric, and reconstruction of two of the four rooms that were missing altogether above ground, and restoration of architectural details and features.
With the masonry walls, floors, kitchen features and brick colonnade back, the carpenters began the very labor-intensive process of constructing a Jeffersonian “terras” roof system. From the massive ridge and gutter white oak joists sitting on old growth poplar plates, to the old pine hand-crafted shingles and ridge caps, the roof system slowly revealed the nature and difficulty of Jefferson’s innovative hidden roof that supported a usable flat deck above. A classical entablature, with protruding gutter scuppers for rain water run-off, helped the deck blend in with the details of the main house. To prolong the roof several modern measures were introduced: a waterproof membrane over the shingles, and Ipe wood sleepers attached with stainless steel screws to the underside of the quarter-sawn while oak deck boards. The final steps included installing site-made doors and windows with hand-made reproduction hardware consisting of wrought H-L hinges, Suffolk thumb-latches, and wooden-cased stock locks.
The final feature of the deck is a modern one. Jefferson had no railings on his decks but to meet modern codes we will have to have a safety railing. Our solution is a minimal stainless steel post and cable system that will be as invisible as possible when seen from a distance, feel as open as possible when on the deck, be clearly understood to be a modern necessity, and be low maintenance. A stairs and an inconspicuous wheelchair lift will complete the exterior features of the wing.
Final Restoration Phase, 2009-Present
The final phase will again follow Jefferson’s original sequence. After building the wing in 1814 he slowly finished the architectural trim on the interior of the house. Slave craftsman John Hemings and his crew of assistants executed all the finished trim on the site in each room. This is what we intend to do. Restoration craftsmen will work in each room using hand tools to make the neo-classical moldings for walls, ceilings and fireplaces. Piece-by-piece the finished interior will unfold just as it did in Jefferson’s time. Jefferson had great patience to wait for something special to be done correctly. We need that same patience for the masterpiece to reveal itself in all its details.