Presidential homes usually provide the essence of the men who lived there, but none better than Monticello and Sagamore Hill.
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
Thomas Jefferson was a Renaissance man of the Enlightenment. He somehow managed to compress half a dozen careers into one lifetime – all simultaneously, but none guaranteed to provide him a fortune. He was a lawyer, a planter, an architect, an agronomist, an inventor and a political theorist. And a pretty fair writer with a particularly graceful way with words.
Jefferson was a long time widower when he finally finished building, rebuilding and tweaking his beloved Monticello situated on a mountaintop with a view of Virginia’s Blue Ridge. Although his married daughter and many grandchildren lived with him for decades, the classically structured mansion is pure Jefferson. He designed it himself. He labored over every inch and every detail of the Palladian structure. He claimed to be happier there than anywhere else on earth. Indeed, after he retired, he seldom left his home.
He surrounded himself with everything he loved. Even a casual visitor to the historic site can practically breathe in the spirit of Mr. J. His books filled the place. Not so many now, since he provided more than 2,000 during his lifetime to seed the Library of Congress. His inventions are visible throughout, mostly designed for his own convenience: the swivel chair, the auto-pen “copier,” the seven day calendar-clock, the dumb-waiter. His dining room was small, but it could be expanded. His wine cellar was considered one of the best in the country. His parlor contained sculptures and portraits of the people he admired or loved best. (Photographs were in the distant future.) His private gardens are a thing to behold. The kitchen garden alone is a football field of every type of vegetable. Flowers abounded. Jefferson the gardener planted, transplanted, grafted and experimented with his own garden of earthly delights.
But it is his entry hall that bespeaks the man in his breadth: the inquisitive intellectual reveling in the artifacts, the trophies, the specimens and relics, some from the ancients, and some from the Louisiana Purchase. One could easily picture the aging sage happily poring over every inch of the largesse he was sent from the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Theodore Roosevelt of Sagamore Hill
Theodore Roosevelt did not like or admire Thomas Jefferson, and said so many times. (Jefferson, having died several decades before TR was born, had no comment). In many ways, it is easy to understand. Their personalities and philosophies were diametrically opposed: TJ, the cool, intellectual deist with an idealistic view of humanity at its best; TR, the exuberant moralist, with a healthy skepticism of human nature. TJ the considered; TR the rambunctious. Interestingly enough, Theodore also was a Renaissance man, but one of the Industrial Age. He too enjoyed many simultaneous careers: prolific writer, natural scientist, cowboy, rancher, soldier, and above all, politician. None was guaranteed to make him a fortune, either.
If Jefferson physically and metaphorically is perched on his lofty mountaintop, Theodore Roosevelt is physically and metaphorically grounded. Sagamore Hill, is not far from the Long Island Sound in Oyster Bay, New York. Originally intended for his first wife who tragically died in childbirth at twenty-three, Theodore completed the sprawling late-Victorian mansion and moved in three or four years later, with his second wife. The family would include six children. Edith Carow Roosevelt had known Theodore since early childhood, and their tastes, though individualistic, were similar.
Like Jefferson, Roosevelt’s home is a monument to the masculine. Its wrap-around porch is a perfect setting for raising a large family dedicated to the strenuous life: plenty of open ground for play, adventure, exploring and everything else essential to Rooseveltian enjoyment. Although Edith had her own space and inserted some feminine touches, the home itself was dedicated to TR. Books of all kinds were everywhere – in book cases, on shelves, above-doorway nooks, corner crannies, and at bedsides. They were all prolific readers. There are portraits and photographs of his favorite people. Most of all, the house oozes fun, and you can practically see the ghosts of interesting people with compelling conversation. Life lived there was life lived to the fullest.
The dining table, accommodated at least eight regularly, and usually more. Guests were frequent and always welcome. Dinner conversation went in every direction – mostly all at once. Hunting trophies from Roosevelt’s various expeditions bore witness. Souvenirs and artifacts are everywhere. Some came from foreign dignitaries, given during his White House days; some from his ranching days, some from his beloved Rough Riders. Some from his childhood. The house is a testament not only to him, but to the Victorian penchant for personal clutter. Not an empty wall or a bare table. If one could imagine Jefferson inspecting the Lewis and Clark artifacts, one could just as easily imagine Roosevelt wishing he were Lewis and Clark.
TJ and TR: The Common Bonds
In retrospect, TJ and TR have more in common than in disparity. Now, as forever-neighbors in that rarified company on Mount Rushmore, they have eternity to symbolically explain themselves to each other.
Perhaps more than anything, they are bound by their love of natural science. Both could easily have pursued it professionally with distinction. TJ documented a lifetime of planting in his Garden Books; TR was a bona fide taxidermist by the time he was twelve. They both looked passionately at science as pure “dee-light.” TJ might tell TR about purchasing the land near Virginia’s Natural Bridge to keep that monument undisturbed by the intrusions of man. TR might tell of preserving millions of glorious acres for the same purpose. Had Jefferson known those places existed, he would surely have done the same.
But above all, they would share a great view of the America they both so loved.
· Hagedorn, Hermann, The Roosevelt Family of Sagamore Hill, 1954, The Macmillan Company
· Howard, Hugh, Thomas Jefferson Architect: The Built Legacy of Our Third President, 2003, Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.