Virginia is the birthplace of the most U.S. presidents — eight in total. Six of those Virginian presidents’ residences are open to guests. In honor of President’s Day this month, why not step back in time and visit one or more?
The most familiar presidential residence in Virginia is George Washington’s Mount Vernon, overlooking the Potomac River. George’s father originally built a modest pre-revolutionary home, although our first president expanded the house to 21 rooms and more than 11,000 square feet, over 10 times the size of the average colonial home. While the exterior looks like stone, it is actually rusticated wood. The plantation included extensive gardens and groves, four agricultural farms, many outbuildings (blacksmiths, storehouses, stables, etc.), plus more than 300 slaves who labored to maintain the estate and the lifestyle of Mount Vernon’s illustrious resident.
Admirers of architecture should certainly visit Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, in Charlottesville. Our third president designed the manor house to optimize airflow during hot summers and perched a signature octagonal dome atop. Although Monticello is expansive at 11,000 square feet, Jefferson incorporated space-saving notions such as dumbwaiters and beds built into alcoves. He also had the floor cloth painted ‘grass green’ to invite the spirit of the outdoors inside. Jefferson was also a slave owner, including his longtime mistress, Sally Hemings. Stories of enslaved families are told in the outdoor exhibit Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello.
America’s fourth president and Father of the Constitution, James Madison, lived in a stately mansion called Montpelier in Orange, Virginia. Visits to the estate include walking tours of the historic grounds and discussions on Madison’s life and accomplishments, as well as his worst regret, slavery. At the time of writing, house tours are not available due to social distancing requirements, although a link to a pre-recorded house tour is included with outdoor tours.
James Monroe, the fifth U.S. president, also had a residence in Virginia. Highland, a modest farmhouse, is within three miles of Jefferson’s Monticello. Monroe lived there intermittently, as his public service positions often kept him away. He sold the house and land in 1826 after his second presidential term and later owners renamed it Ash Lawn. In 2016, the name reverted to Highland, and archeological evidence found that the original manor house was much larger but burned in the mid-1800s. The current structure was a guest house for visitors but is furnished in original family collections.
Overlooking the James River in eastern Virginia, Berkeley Plantation was the birthplace of our ninth president, William Henry Harrison, and the ancestral home of his grandson and 23rd president, Benjamin Harrison. Berkeley also holds the distinction of being the site of America’s first official Thanksgiving in 1619. The mansion was built in 1726 and is the oldest three-story brick home in Virginia. Costumed guides lead tours of the antique-filled house and guests can stroll 10 acres of formal gardens and 100-year-old boxwood gardens.
Also in the Tidewater region near Charles City, Sherwood Forest Plantation was the residence of the tenth U.S. president, John Tyler. He purchased the circa 1720 home in 1842 and his grandson and family still live there. Sherwood Forest is the longest frame house in America, measuring more than 300 feet in length! The property includes 25 acres of terraced gardens and lawns, deemed the most complete surviving plantation grounds in America and is open for self-guided tours. House tours are available by appointment only.
Virginia’s presidents’ residences make history come alive and their grounds showcase the natural beauty of our state. Until you’re ready to travel farther afield, why not discover what’s right in our own backyard?
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