Monticello Guide Holly Haliniewski looks at the Levys, who owned and preserved Jefferson's mountaintop for nearly a century.


This podcast was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.

Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton.

Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.

Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.

The most famous family to live at Monticello was Thomas Jefferson's. But did you know that there was another family that almost single-handedly preserved the history of the site, and that they did so for almost a century? They were the Levys.

Holly Haliniewski is an Associate Guide and Supervisor at Monticello.

Holly Haliniewski: Right now we're standing on the West Lawn of Monticello looking up at probably the most famous view of Thomas Jefferson's home, the west side of the house, featuring the dome. This is the famous view that's featured on the back of the U.S. nickel, and this house is more than 200 years old.

And one of the things that's so incredible about it is that it remains so well-preserved, even today. The structure of Monticello is about 90 to 95% original to Jefferson's time.

The construction of Monticello took more than 40 years to complete, but when Jefferson died in 1826, he was very heavily in debt and his family had to sell the house.

Although the first new owner didn't last terribly long, Monticello quickly entered a state of disrepair. Thankfully, in the mid 1830s, a man named Uriah Phillips Levy purchases Monticello.

And Uriah levy was a very interesting man. He was a veteran of the War of 1812. He was a Commodore in the U.S. Navy. And Levy was Jewish.

This is important to the story because Uriah Levy knew about Thomas Jefferson's strong belief in religious liberty. Jefferson believed that every American should have the freedom to worship as they choose. Jefferson believed that so strongly that he wrote a document called the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, putting that belief into law.

And it was Jefferson's ideas about religious freedom that allowed a man like Levy the freedom to worship in the Jewish faith. Uriah Levy also chose to serve his country and he was the first Jewish Commodore in the United States Navy.

And so Uriah Levy buys Monticello with preservation in mind. He assembles workers, both free and enslaved, and makes repairs to the home and restores the landscape.

It's the Levy family that holds onto Monticello on and off for the next 90 years. And when they finally do sell Monticello in 1923, they sell it to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. So all thanks to the Levy family, because without their stewardship, we would not still have this amazing American treasure so well-preserved.

Olivia Brown: This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Kyle Chattleton: This episode of Mountaintop History was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and the Virginia Audio Collective.

Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at Monticello.org.