Michael Beschloss has an interesting piece at The New York Times called “The Near Death, and Revival, of Monticello.” Read this article to find out what can happen to historic properties when their fate is determined by the real estate market.
Jefferson’s heirs had hoped they could auction Monticello for $20,000 (about $477,000 today). But the site was hilly and remote, and such iconoclastic Jeffersonian details as narrow staircases and ill-defined bedrooms struck some well-heeled Virginia couples as the enemy of gracious living.
The estate, reduced by land sales from about 5,000 acres to 522, sold in August 1831 for $7,000 to James Turner Barclay, an eccentric local druggist whom Martha Jefferson Randolph considered to be a madman. He grew experimental silkworms on the property before becoming a missionary and decamping for the Holy Land.
In 1834, Barclay sold Monticello to Uriah Phillips Levy, who braved anti-Semitism in the United States Navy to become the first Jewish commodore, and also helped persuade Congress to end the naval practice of flogging. Levy admired Jefferson as “an absolute democrat” who had helped to mold a republic in which “a man’s religion does not make him ineligible for political or government life.” He was imprisoned after his United States brig was captured by the British during the War of 1812, and he amassed a fortune in New York real estate.
When Levy died in 1862, he willed Monticello to the federal government as a school for Navy orphans, but in the heat of the Civil War, Jefferson Davis’s Confederacy seized and used it as a convalescent home for wounded rebel soldiers. Thanks to souvenir-seekers and vandals, the estate soon became, as one visitor recalled, “an absolute ruin,” with caretakers herding cattle during the winter into Jefferson’s old basement.
Read the rest here.