Located just south of Charlottesville, VA, Virginia, about 2.5 miles away from Thomas Jefferson's famous Monticello, is the former home of James Monroe, fifth President of the United States. Jefferson was Monroe's law teacher and longtime friend and mentor, and he urged Monroe to settle in his neighborhood. In 1793, Monroe bought a thousand acres of land adjoining Monticello for USD 1000. The property was then called Highland, but before Monroe could begin building a house, he was appointed Minister to France by George Washington.
While Monroe was away, Jefferson and James Madison (another notable area resident) worked with Monroe's uncle, Joseph Jones, to plan the house and gardens at Highland. Monroe called Highland his "cabin castle" because it was nothing special in design but filled with art and memorabilia he had acquired in Europe. Monroe and his wife, Elizabeth Kortright of New York, moved into the house in 1799. The working plantation grew grains and some tobacco and was especially known for raising Merino sheep for their high-quality wool. The Monroes had planned to retire to Highland, but were forced to sell the estate in 1826 because of Monroe's poor health and indebtedness.
During the next 150 years or so, the house was owned by several other people. The front part of the house burned down and was rebuilt in another style. The gardens were radically changed as well. One occupant planted ash trees around the house and renamed the property Ash Lawn. In 1974, the last private owner, Jay Winston Johns, gave Ash Lawn-Highland to James Monroe's alma mater, the College of William and Mary, which contines to operate its remaining 535 acres today.
Ash Lawn-Highland is open to visitors daily from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., March through October, and 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. the rest of the year. It is closed only New Year's Day, Thanksgiving Day, and December 25. Guided tours are offered every 10-15 minutes and these are excellent. Beginning in the reconstructed front hall and parlor, the guides explain various displays of artifacts as well as summarizing the private and political life of James Monroe. Moving into the surviving half of the original sitting room, guests can see some of the Monroe's furniture, a bust of Napoleon Bonaparte, and paintings of family friends. The next room is the dining room, set up as it might have been used by the Monroes and their guests. Next, guests pass into a room Monroe added on to the house and used as a study. It contains a replica of his writing desk and a copy of the portrait Jefferson gave to Monroe in gratitude for years of friendship. The Monroe bedroom contains some more original furniture and artwork. After leaving the house through the back door which faces Monticello, the tour continues under the house with a display of kitchen items and a discussion of colonial foods and cooking practices. (This was the most interesting part of the tour, for me. Imagine living through the winters on a monotonous diet of pickled vegetables and smoked pork, with the occasional bit of fresh game.)
Visitors are allowed to walk around the grounds as much as they like after the tour. There are several outbuildings near the house that were used by the Monroes, including a smokehouse, an overseers house, and servants' quarters. The Monroes owned platation slaves, of course, but they would have lived closer to the fields and not much is known about their living or working conditions at Highland. Behind the smokehouse there is a chicken coop and peacock enclosure which is still home to both kinds of fowl. There are herds of cattle and sheep in the fields around the house as well. In front, there is a large marble statue of James Monroe in the overgrown boxwood "maze" garden.
Near the parking lot, a gift shop offers books, toys, and other items to commemorate your visit to Ash Lawn-Highland. There are also restrooms and picnic benches for those who bring lunch along. Ash Lawn-Highland hosts many special events that are open to the public, such as outdoor symphony concerts, holiday parties, opera festivals, and other celebrations. The gardens are often used for weddings and receptions.
Admission to Ash Lawn-Highland is 8.00 USD for adults, with some discounts for children, seniors, and area residents.1 The Presidents' Pass (which can be purchased at the Visitor Center on nearby Route 20, includes admission to Ash Lawn-Highland as well as Monticello and Historic Michie Tavern for 22.00 USD.
1. Admission prices and hours of operation were accurate at the time of my last visit to Ash Lawn-Highland on August 31, 2002. Call ahead or check the following resources for more information.
2. Some information for this writeup was obtained from a brochure obtained at the property, from the Ash Lawn-Highland website at http://www.monticello.avenue.org/ashlawn, and from The New Virginia One-Day Trip Book by Jane Ockershausen, EPM Publications, (McLean, VA), 1996. ISBN 1-889324-00-0