Alcove Beds

Jefferson's Alcove BedJefferson introduced the alcove style bed into his redesign of Monticello that he began in the 1790s. He admitted his partiality for this spatial arrangement in a letter to James Madison: "Indeed I varied my plan by shewing what it would be with alcove bedrooms, to which I am much attached."[1] He included recesses in the interior walls of all the new bedrooms, however, in his own bedroom which was located in the older portion of the house; it was necessary to augment an already existing wall in order to accommodate a bed alcove. He chose the interior wall separating what would become his bed chamber and study, centered the alcove on an existing doorway, and built out into the larger of the two rooms to create the alcove. He placed a new doorway at the foot of the alcove.

In his remodeling notebook he included notes on the size of the alcoves, "7. feet being the soffites [sic] of the doors, those of the alcove for beds should be the same, and their architraves the same with those of doors, as to both breadth & height. Leiper's alcove was 6 f. 8 1/2 I. long & 4.f. wide, but it was at least 3.I. too narrow. They may be but 6.f 3.I. or even 6.f. long if no headboard."[2] "Leiper's alcove" would refer to the house Jefferson rented in Philadelphia during his tenure as Secretary of State from Thomas Leiper. The house was not completed when Jefferson began negotiating the rental in the summer of 1790, and he requested additions to the property including a "book gallery" across the back, a stable and garden house. There is no direct mention of an alcove for a bed; however, Jefferson did state that, "...I shall be obliged to appropriate to myself the room over the kitchen, which must therefore be well finished..."[3] and then later wrote to Leiper, "...I find it will make considerable odds to me that in the room over the kitchen, the door be placed in a corner of the room..."[4] By insuring the door was in a corner, the wall could have been appropriated for a bed alcove and so served as a prototype for the future alcoves at Monticello.

The legend that Jefferson designed his alcove bed at Monticello to be hoisted out of the way during the day and lowered again at night cannot be verified either through written documentation or remaining physical evidence. This allegation, however, cannot be simply dismissed, as there have been many references to this "invention" of Jefferson's. Fiske Kimball, a recognized authority on Jefferson architecture, wrote in Thomas Jefferson, Architect, "The bed alcove, placed between the dressing-room and the study, was accessible from both, and so devised that the bed itself could be drawn up, out of sight in the daytime, leaving a broad passage connecting the two rooms."[5] What led Kimball to this interpretation can only be surmised. When he published this work in 1916, Monticello was privately owned by Jefferson Monroe Levy, and repeated on-site inspection could have been limited. A photograph taken during the Levy era looking from the study into the bedroom clearly shows the alcove being used as an open passageway between the two rooms with no bed visible.[6] This could have contributed to the interpretation of the bed alcove serving as a passageway. Whatever the origin of this interesting anecdote of Jefferson's inventiveness, there is no remaining evidence to support it as fact.

The height of the alcove along with the structure of the bed itself works against the theory that the bed was designed to be raised during the day. Jefferson followed his remodeling notes in that the bed alcove in his chamber at Monticello was made seven feet in height. The bed was actually built into the recess with large staples fixed into the four corners of the alcove, the side rails hooked into the staples, and rope stretched between the rails to support the mattresses. The bed was not a single unit which would lift as a piece, and even if it could be hoisted to the top of the seven foot alcove, considering the depth of bed and bedding, little headroom would be left for a passageway underneath. Or, following Fiske Kimball's assertion that the bed was drawn up out of sight, it might be assumed that the bed was raised into the space above the bed alcove. Jefferson referred to this space as a "closet." In a letter to his daughter Martha, he requested that clothing items, a wolf-skin pelisse and fur boots, be sent to him: "In the closet over my bed you will find a bag tied up, and labelled [sic] 'Wolf-skin pelisse,' and another labelled [sic] 'fur-boots' wherein those articles will be found."[7] If the bed were hoisted into this space on a regular basis, what of the displaced items in Jefferson's "closet"?

Visitors to Monticello mentioned the placement of Jefferson's bed but made no comment on the bed being raised to create a passageway. In August 1807, Englishman Augustus John Foster visited Monticello and was shown through Jefferson's private suite of rooms. He noted, "It was divided into three compartments, in one of which the President had his bed placed in a doorway." In addition to the bed, Foster went on to describe the recess where Jefferson hung his clothes, "And in a recess at the foot of the bed was a horse with forty-eight projecting hands on which hung his coats and waistcoats and which he could turn round with a long stick, a knick-knack that Jefferson was fond of showing with many other little mechanical inventions."[8] If the clothes-horse was demonstrated to Foster, it would seem that a bed which could be raised and lowered would have been demonstrated as well and might have warranted more comment than a revolving clothes-horse. Margaret Bayard Smith visited Monticello in 1809 and when shown through Jefferson's suite, she noted, "His bed is built in the wall which divides his chamber and cabinet."[9] She makes no mention of the bed moving.

There was, however, one portion of Jefferson's bed arrangement designed to be lifted horizontally, and this was a mahogany screen which closed the bed alcove from the study. In a letter to his master builder, James Dinsmore, dated December 30, 1808, Jefferson instructs, "The folding mahogany sash which closed the alcove of my bed is too heavy and troublesome. I wish you to make a folding frame to fit the alcove and to be covered with paper on sides." Jefferson goes on to describe and diagram how he wants the new screen constructed and includes, "observing first that it is to open vertically, and not horizontally as the mahogany one does." Jefferson wanted the new screen hinged to open easily, "...so as to let them get at the bed to make it up."[10] If the large mahogany sash were lifted daily to make a bed, it is possible that in memory it could have been confused with the bed itself in later recountings of daily life at Monticello. The bed being hoisted cleanly out of sight during the day is an intriguing thought, but if ever considered by Jefferson, no proof remains.

- Gaye Wilson, 6/98; revised Anna Berkes, 8/10/11

Primary Source References

1802 September 18. (Anna Thornton). "When we went to bed we had to mount a little ladder of a staircase about 2 feet wide and very steep, into rooms with the beds fixed up in recesses in the walls..."[11]

1822 January 10. (Martha Jefferson Randolph to Virginia Jefferson Randolph). "I have at last succeeded in having My alcove turned into a closet and you have no idea how much it has added to My comfort I laid regular siege to Papa who bore it in [. . .] dignified silence for some time, but I gave it to him [. . .] for breakfast, dinner, and supper, and breakfast again till he gave up in dispair at last. and when it is painted it will not disfigure the room at all..."[12]

1833 October 27.  (Martha Jefferson Randolph to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge).  "Jefferson and Lewis went up to gether when the papers were moved, and every drawer, press, closet, and cranny of the room were thoroughly searched and emptied, even the little closet above the alcove."[13]

1856 February 22.  (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Henry S. Randall).  "My grandfather had his bed-chambers fitted up with alcoves, a french fashion not often adopted in America."[14]

Further Sources

Footnotes

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