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Review: Touring the Virginia home of James Monroe, fifth U.S. president Special

By Leigh Goessl     Aug 25, 2012 in Travel
Charlottesville - Ash Lawn-Highland was where the home of the fifth U.S. President, James Monroe, was located. Born in Virginia, but well-traveled due to his various public service positions, eventually James Monroe and his family settled down in Charlottesville, Va.
Monroe purchased this property at the urging of good friend Thomas Jefferson, who wanted to form "a society to our taste" in the rural region. The Monroes lived on the plantation from 1793 to 1826, when they moved north to Leesburg, Va.
The home was originally named "Highland" according to the website dedicated to the house. The property today is called Ash Lawn-Highland, as the home was renamed to "Ash Lawn" in the 1840s, under a later owner. It was clear the house had been altered, and further research by this writer tells a fire occurred at some point.
The property was bequeathed to the College of William & Mary (Monroe's alma mater) by Jay Winston Johns in 1974 with instructions "to operate this property as a historic shrine for the education of the general public." And the school has done just this, as it operates the home today, which is open to visitors, having restored it to James Monroe's time.
Tours run frequently through the day and visitors can view the interior of the first floor of the home through a guided tour. The first two rooms upon entry contain many possessions of the Monroes and also period pieces. Visitors are free to walk through these rooms and view these items. There is a second floor where stairs can be visible from the entry room, but this is not open to tours and no description of the rooms upstairs was provided on my visit. Due to the late hour of the day I visited, there was not an opportunity to ask. Presumably, it is because this portion of the home was not part of the Monroe's original dwelling. According to National Parks Service, one wing of the Monroe house was damaged by fire and partially removed, the current Victorian style was built over the damaged section of the home in 1880.
While the exterior of Ash Lawn-Highland is not what I'd describe as "elaborate" in comparison to the architecture of some of the other historical homes I've visited in Virginia, the inside tells another story.
The affluence of the Monroes is evident throughout the interior of the home. James Monroe spent most of his life in Virginia, but also spent many years in France as a public servant. His love and influence of European décor is evident throughout the house. Visitors are not permitted to take photos inside, but you can see some photos of the rooms on this web page.
While I don't have any photos of the home's interior, the inside of one of the outer guest houses, while not as elaborate as the main house, gives a general idea of style and taste of the Monroes.
Since I arrived late in the day to Ash Lawn Highland, after a visit to Monticello, there was not nearly as much time as I would have liked to walk around the exterior of the main house before the property closed for the day. However, I did get the chance to self-tour some of the outer buildings, the basement and the immediate grounds before closing. The oak tree is said to be from Monroe's time, however it is not clear to this writer if the belongings in the basement rooms belonged to the Monroes' or if they are period pieces.
While generally these tours are focused on the properties and histories of the house itself, I found I learned much more about President Monroe and his political career than I did about the plantation during the visit. Monroe, a lifelong public servant, spent his life serving the new country before becoming the nation's leader in 1816. As another interesting tidbit, our group learned that there was a connection between the Monroes and the Napoleons. Some of the pieces inside the home were gifts from Napoleon.
This trip was not part of the plan for the day, but when I saw the signs directing on the roadway, could not resist a late day visit.
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