Virginia’s Presidential Places
Exude Power and Class
President Woodrow Wilson's birthplace at Staunton is a popular tourism attraction.*
By Sharon Cavileer
Though the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington is certainly grand, one could argue that it pales in comparison to the many private estates of the presidents born in Virginia. The Commonwealth of Virginia produced eight presidents—more than any other state in the Union.
Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Harrison, Tyler, Taylor and Wilson were elected “for the people, by the people” and made their mark on world history. Thanks to ongoing preservation efforts, their homes aren’t fusty-dusty museums but living, breathing memorials with tales to tell “in the house.”
One notable exception is Zachary Taylor, whose family relocated to Kentucky shortly after his birth. Instead of searching for the lost homestead, toast to the first career soldier president at the Barboursville Winery (540-832-3824 or www.barboursvillewine.com), Winery Road, Barboursville.
Washington’s Estate Along the Potomac
While Washington was described as “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” the Virginian was also first in real estate. Washington inherited a prime piece of Potomac property from his brother’s estate.
Eventually, Mount Vernon (703-780-2000 or www.mountvernon.org), 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy., Mount Vernon, expanded to include more than 8,000 acres. The estate encompasses a magnificent mansion, a series of farms, dock, distillery, gristmill, greenhouse and a flock of dependencies. Entrance fee is $13.
George Washington's Mount Vernon is one of Virginia's top tourist attractions.*
Late in 2006, Mount Vernon opened the elaborate, high-tech Ford Orientation Center and the Donald W. Reynolds Museum. Utilizing a multimedia approach with sculpture, holograms, music, movies and models, Mount Vernon uncovers the man beneath the myth.
In an 18-minute Hollywood-style film, “We Fight to Be Free,” visitors are engaged by young Washington’s courage under fire during the French and Indian War. They’ll see Washington flirt with the wealthy widow Custis in the Virginia countryside, then struggle at Valley Forge to salvage a flagging Revolution.
In March, visitors will see the spirited side of old George. For the first time in 200 years, spirits will flow from Washington’s Mount Vernon Distillery. In the early 19th century, his distillery produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey valued at $7,500, proving that George’s face has earned his place on the buck!
America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, was a true Renaissance man who loved literature, farming, architecture and family as much as statesmanship. His legacy includes the underpinnings of our democracy and the Louisiana Purchase, but he is beloved for his buildings: Monticello, the University of Virginia Rotunda, the Virginia State Capitol and his personal retreat, Poplar Forest.
Of Poplar Forest, Jefferson wrote, not so humbly, “When finished, it will be the best dwelling house in the state, except that of Monticello.” Opened to the public since 1986, Poplar Forest (434-525-1806 or www.poplarforest.org), Route 661, Forest, is the first octagonal building in America. Admission is $9.
In 2007, craftsmen will complete the restoration of the service wing of the main house. Jefferson based this section of the house on the original White House West Wing, which didn’t house the presidential office but the less lauded functions of laundry, food preparation and storage.
Poplar Forest hosts a series of special events from April to November, including a presentation of Jefferson’s conversation with Aaron Burr on May 5. New in 2007 is the Plantation Community Tour offered on Saturdays. The tour focuses on the lives of the enslaved residents.
Atop Jefferson’s scenic “little mountain”—the English translation of its Italian name— the 2,500-acre Monticello (434-984-9822 or www.monticello.org), 931 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy, Virginia 53, Charlottesville, is interpreting Jefferson in new ways. And with timed tickets ($15), the facility has made it easier to visit.
Thomas Jefferson's beloved Monticello is a bastion of style and architectural excellence.*
A World Heritage Site, Monticello is constructing a new 42,000-square foot facility to enhance the visitor’s experience. In the meantime, enjoy a tour titled “Endearing Connections—Family Life at Monticello.” This program explores the president’s complex biracial family.
Another choice is the Acoustiguide Tour for an additional $5 fee. Voiced by Virginian Sissy Spacek, the audio tour leads visitors across the landscape. You can learn about the plantation’s agriculture, horticulture, architecture and archaeology.
What’s old is new again at the 2,750-acre estate of our fourth president, James Madison. Montpelier (540-672-2728 or www.montpelier.org), 11407 Constitution Highway, Orange. Admission is $12.
The plain piedmont Palladian home had been upscaled by the du Pont family, who converted the 22-room plantation into a 55-room country retreat for the rich. Since 2003, in an effort to restore Madison’s legacy, historians and architects have undone the du Pont family’s changes to the historic structure at a cost of more than $23 million.
On March 16, a new visitor’s center and gallery will open to celebrate the president’s 256th birthday. It will house “The Treasures of Madison” exhibit, a theatre, a new café and museum shop. Madison, known as the “father of our Constitution,” might just recognize the old place.
Others Sites That Feel Presidential
Ash Lawn-Highland (434-293-9539 or www.ashlawnhighland.org), 1000 James Monroe Pkwy., Charlottesville: This home of President James Monroe is a working farm noted for festivals, concerts and park-like setting. It’s located just a hop, skip and a jump from Monticello.
Berkeley Plantation (804-829-6018 or www.berkeleyplantation.com), 12602 Harrison Landing Rd., Charles City: Birthplace of President William Henry Harrison in 1773, the site is better known as the site of the first American Thanksgiving in 1619. Move over, pilgrims.
Berkeley Plantation, birthplace of President William Henry Harrison and reportedly the site of the first American Thanksgiving in 1619.*
George Washington’s Birthplace National Monument (804-224-1732 or www.nps.gov/gewa) at 1732 Pope’s Creek Rd., Oak Grove. This working farm is interpreted by the National Park Service, and has a great waterfront trail.
The Museum and White House of the Confederacy (804-649-1861 or www.moc.org), 1201 East Clay St., Richmond. See the “other” White House, home to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his family.
The Homestead’s Jeffersonian Pools (540-839-5346 or www.thehomestead.com), Route 220, Hot Springs. Soak away a century of concerns just like Jefferson at Virginia’s most effervescent retreat.
Sherwood Forest (804-829-5377 or www.sherwoodforest.org), 14501 John Tyler Hwy., Charles City: Sherwood Forest was home to America’s 10th president, John Tyler. He lived at this remarkable estate from 1842 to 1862. The home is still owned by Tyler’s descendants.
Woodrow Wilson’s Presidential Library and Birthplace (888-496-6376 or www.woodrowwilson.org), 18 N. Coalter St., Staunton: Son of a Presbyterian minister, our 28th president was born in 1856 in a spacious and well-appointed manse on the Virginia frontier. The engaging home and library is located in artsy Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley.
Sharon Cavileer, a freelance writer and photographer, is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and Garden Writers of America. With 25 years experience in features and travel, her work has appeared in numerous national magazines, newspapers, and websites from AAA to Southern Living. She is the author of "Virginia Curiosities" (First and Second Editions by Globe-Pequot Press) and is a travel columnist for The Chronicle Newspapers and frequent contributor to Carolina Gardener, Virginia Explorer, and Carolina Explorer Magazines. Sharon specializes in luxury travel, gardens, equestrian topics and the South.
*All photos this page are owned, copyrighted and used by permission of the Virginia Tourism Corporation or by Susan J. Young. Photo of Woodrow Wilson's Birthplace by Richard Nowitz; Photo of Mount Vernon by Mark Downey; Photo of Monticello by Buddy Mays. Photo of Berkeley Plantation by Susan J. Young. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.