When facing Jefferson’s villa retreat at Poplar Forest, you can envision a well-crafted landscape perfectly blending in with the architecture. This was all by Jefferson’s design. The architecture of the house was inspired by Andrea Palladio, an Italian Renaissance architect whom Jefferson had studied since his years as a student at the College of William and Mary.
Palladian architecture draws heavily from classic Greek and Roman architectural traditions which favor balance and symmetry. If you see this comparison between Palladio’s Villa Barbaro and Poplar Forest, you can clearly see how Jefferson is emulating Palladian design. However, Jefferson attempts to incorporate landscape architecture into his design. Instead of two hyphens coming off each side of the house, Jefferson has one constructed to the east (called the Wing of Offices) and on the west, a double row of paper mulberry trees to balance out the east. In Palladio’s villa, both hyphens adjoin the main house with a two level pavilion. Here, at Poplar Forest, the two hyphens connect with a mound of dirt on either side of the property. In this fashion, from afar, the basic silhouette of the Villa Barbaro is visible, but in a less traditional manner blending landscape with the architecture.
Jefferson’s design at Poplar Forest is the culmination of a lifelong study in architecture and was unachievable without enslaved labor. While Jefferson hired white workman such as Hugh Chisholm to lead the construction of the house, enslaved master craftsman, John Hemmings, was responsible for most of the finish woodwork in and around the house. The roofline, entablatures, doors, and other features made from wood would have been made by Hemmings or one of his apprentices: Beverly, Madison, or Eston Hemings. These apprentices were Hemming’s nephews and Jefferson’s sons by his enslaved chambermaid, Sally Hemings.
Enslaved workers also transformed the grounds surrounding the house to create the landscape architecture Jefferson designed. Looking toward the two story side of the house, you can see the sunken South lawn which was part of Jefferson’s design. The creation of the South Lawn and the two mounds of dirt on either side of the house was undertaken by at least one enslaved man named Phill Hubbard. Jefferson wrote to Chisholm in 1807, “if you would engage the negroes to dig and remove the earth South of the house...I would gladly pay them for it. But it is only with their own free will and undertaking to do it in their own time.” A year later, the digging had started as Chisholm wrote to Jefferson, “I set Phill to digging, and I mean to keep him at it as long as I am hear [sic], for I think it as necessary a job as can be done to the Building.”
This lawn allowed for access into the lower level of the house while maintaining the look of a one story house on the North side. The south lawn was inspired by bowling greens; large, flat, manicured lawns Jefferson saw in many formal gardens in England when he toured with John Adams in the 1780s. The upper surrounding lawn would have been planted with shrubs and trees to create a vista from the house looking out over the natural landscape. And now you can move toward the Carriage Turnaround for your final stop before heading into Jefferson’s retreat.