In 1923, the newly created Thomas Jefferson Foundation fulfilled its primary purpose by acquiring Monticello to preserve it in Jefferson’s memory. But now it had another problem: money. Faced with a large mortgage and impending repairs to the main house, the new owners had to move fast to hire staff and find novel ways to pay for it all. Along the way, the Foundation would employ ingenious fundraising, stage some very unusual publicity stunts, and in the end, help restore not only Jefferson’s home but his reputation as one of America’s Founders.
David Thorson: Hello, my name is David Thorson. I'm a digital guide at Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello. You're listening to a special podcast series called "Sharing History: 100 Years of Telling American Stories at Monticello."
What we're going to talk about today is that everything we take for granted about Thomas Jefferson and about Monticello wasn't always the case. At one time it was a privately owned house, and then a group of very dedicated people acquired the house to preserve it in Jefferson's memory. And getting there wasn't easy. It required creative fundraising, it required restoring Jefferson's reputation as a founding father. It required a mail order catalog. I hope we're going to entertain you with some of the novel ideas and interesting characters who pioneered Monticello as a place of public history in the early days.
I'm joined today by my colleagues Dianne Pierce and Chad Wollerton.
A Great Beam of Light
Dianne Pierce: In 1927, Charles Lindbergh made the first solo transatlantic flight, the first talking motion picture was released, and the greatest beam of light in the world was aimed at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. This light was as brilliant as the sun at noon, visible up to a thousand miles away, the hottest spot on earth when lit, literally a light beamed on America's past.
This dazzling publicity spectacle began with a tiny flashlight in the hand of the daughter of Foundation President Stuart Gibboney, which she pointed at the head of the bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson in New York's City Hall. Improbably, inside the sculpture, a newly invented selenium cell was connected to wires that sent relay signals to Charlottesville, almost instantaneously, lighting the massive searchlight on top of the Monticello Hotel, aimed at Jefferson's little mountain three miles away. If that wasn't enough, the light was then relayed back to New York to shine on a photo of Monticello on the wall of City Hall.
David Thorson: Monticello's illumination was one of many efforts to raise awareness, generate funds to repair and present Monticello to the public after the foundation acquired Jefferson's home for a half million dollars in 1923.
Dianne Pierce: It was an unprecedented size of a debt for an American historic house.
Chad Wollerton: I think, actually, that would be five, ten million dollars nowadays. Plus it's not just the price of the house, it's all the repairs, work on the landscape, hiring staff. It's a huge, huge undertaking.
Chad Wollerton: So there are two men at the forefront of these efforts. One of them is Stuart Gibboney, whose daughter held the flashlight in New York City.
David Thorson: Stuart Gibboney is this classic, right out of Hollywood casting southern gentleman.
Chad Wollerton: Yeah. He is exactly the person that you would expect to be leading a foundation like the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation. He is a native Virginian. He went to law school at the University of Virginia, and then he moved to New York, became a very prominent lawyer. He is there at the actual creation of the foundation, and he becomes its president and its leader for 20 years.
Shortly after creating the foundation, Stuart Gibboney hires a man named Fred Kuper, Theodore Fred Kuper. Kuper's very different.
David Thorson: He's just this classic rags-to-riches immigrant story.
Chad Wollerton: His family was Jewish. He was born in the 1880s, and when he was five years old, his family left Russia to avoid persecution. He becomes a lawyer in New York. And he has this real love for Thomas Jefferson. He deeply admired Jefferson for his views on religious freedom and education. And he said, "only an immigrant who witnessed, even at five, a government with tyranny and religious persecution can understand and appreciate the United States and the principles with which Jefferson reminds us by an inscription on his tombstone."
David Thorson: The inscription that Jefferson himself wrote. It says, "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia. So for Kuper, religion and education....
Chad Wollerton: Yeah. Big things for him. He wrote one of the first scripts for giving a tour of Monticello, and he also trained some of the earliest guides, and he decided to start with the tombstone. He thought that's how you needed to open when you're talking about Thomas Jefferson, because these are his great achievements.
Dianne Pierce: And many of us guides do that still today.
Chad Wollerton: That's right. When considering everything that Jefferson did in his life, from being President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Minister to France, Governor of Virginia, behind the Louisiana Purchase, so many things, that these things stand out and there's a reason for it. They're the core values of the United States as Jefferson saw it, and as many people have seen it since.
Kuper's initially hired just to do legal work, but they're all very worried that they might actually have to foreclose on the mortgage if they can't raise enough funds. So he spends his first year traveling across the nation trying to fundraise, and he comes back dispirited. And he writes, " Thomas Jefferson was the forgotten man then. People had inherited hatred. There was no interest in saving public places. I witnessed marvelous historic places going to ruin. "
David Thorson: All the things we take for granted today, you have to just forget that and put yourself back in the time. Jefferson is seen, not because of his writing of the Declaration of Independence, but because of his writings in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, in which he argues the case that you can secede from the government if the government is failing you. Confederate leaders look back to Thomas Jefferson. And he gets the blame, after the Civil War, as being the intellectual founder of the idea of the Confederacy.
Dianne Pierce: Yeah, I think the Confederacy was looking for a rhetoric, and the idea of a second revolution. It was just a reliving of the first go around in which Jefferson features large. And what is that Jefferson quote--a little revolution is always a good thing? Something along that line.
Chad Wollerton: Yeah. It's like a storm that clears the atmosphere. He had this idea based on what each generation owes to the next, and he basically believed that those future generations don't owe anything to you. They can change things if they want to.
David Thorson: It's the dual legacy problem that we all deal with with Thomas Jefferson.
Dianne Pierce: At least dual. Many. Everyone finds what they're looking for in Thomas Jefferson, as we see with Gibboney and Kuper. Many aspects of Jefferson to latch onto.
Chad Wollerton: He doesn't have a reputation as an architect at this point. He doesn't have much of a reputation as the innovator, the inventor that people come to see him as later on. He isn't appreciated in that way. And that's going to come actually a lot from what the people who own Monticello for this next century will do at Monticello.
Wacky Fundraising Schemes
Chad Wollerton: Fred Kuper, actually, doesn't think that just going and asking people for money, there's not an appetite for that. Something big has got to be done.
David Thorson: Kuper is the architect of these wacky, outlandish, fundraising schemes. He's tapping into this 1920s era desire for novelty and entertainment, and I'm curious, Chad, give us a couple of examples of these sorts of stunts that Kuper comes up with.
Chad Wollerton: One of the first ones was a spiritual pilgrimage to Monticello, where guests at a dinner on a train, it's parked, actually, in Grand Central Terminal, they could buy tickets at 1 cent per mile, while watching a film about the glories of Monticello, a film that I wish we could find, that would be amazing.
There was a transcontinental railroad tour planned from New York City to San Francisco in 1925 with 25 stops along the way, with speeches to be given by figures such as Governor Trinkle of Virginia, University of Virginia president Edwin Alderman.
Maybe because these events didn't really feature any real physical connection with Monticello, these fundraisers did not produce the grand sums hoped for.
In 1924 and 1925, boys and girls in New York collected money for the Monticello cause, receiving one vote for each 10 cents raised. Those with the highest number of votes were given trips to Monticello, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia for the boys, and to France for the girls.
During a Jefferson week in New York, and then across the nation, there were essays, lectures in theaters, classroom birthday parties for Jefferson, and penny drives. I think actually at one point they raised 3.5 million pennies for Monticello, which sounds like a lot, but then you do the math and I think it's what, 35,000?
Dianne Pierce: It's a lot of pennies, though.
Chad Wollerton: It's a lot of pennies, though.
In 1926 New York City School children were asked to make a Patriot's Pledge of Faith in the Declaration of Independence and donate money to Monticello, and the Patriot's Pledge of Faith was written by Fred Kuper. It was his baby all the way through.
David Thorson: I think it's interesting, this whole idea of school children becoming the ones who contribute. In Fred Kuper's vision of the future, this future generation of patriots is going to learn about Thomas Jefferson and then contribute money to the cause of preserving his memory, but also this idea of Jefferson as a secular saint, and the temple to this secular saint is Monticello.
Chad Wollerton: Reading about these kids raising money this way took me back to my days as a Cub Scout, raising money, selling magazines, and earning enough points to get some kind of prize, which was always fraught with anxiety, but you felt like you were doing something good.
David Thorson: The most pressing concern in those early years was paying off the $500,000 owed Monticello's former longtime owner, Jefferson Monroe Levy.
Dianne Pierce: There is negotiation with the Levy estate back and forth when they can't make the requisite payment, could we hold off on this, could we pay less? At multiple times, board members actually step up and write checks.
Chad Wollerton: Yeah, that comes up in some of Fred Kuper's writings. They were really worried that they were not going to be able to make payment on this mortgage. That lends a lot of energy and urgency to their efforts.
David Thorson: Fred Kuper, he has to rethink things. My sense is that he concludes, "I need tangible objects. I need Jefferson's stuff to get people excited about him. If I have some of that stuff and I can take it on tour all over the country." And he gets the phaeton seat.
Chad Wollerton: A phaeton is a sporty carriage. We have a video about Jefferson's obsession with riding and driving fast. It was one of his favorite riding vehicles. He actually helped design it and was known to ride it during his presidency, so it had some special significance. And the seat, the place where Jefferson actually sat, was all that was left of the Phaeton. And it went on this kind of fantastic tour. There's a photo of a huge crowd gathered in New York. It's like a sea of people, with a man sitting on the phaeton seat. He looks like he could just hop off and do a mosh pit from there.
David Thorson: We talk about the power of place, that the actual place where historic events happened has a power in its own right. I think the phaeton seat, you know, it's the power of an object. You can touch the actual object that Jefferson designed and that he rode in.
Dianne Pierce: And we talked earlier about this disconnect between some of these fundraising events that were not presenting the actuality of Monticello. This is where you start to literally transport Monticello to the people.
David Thorson: We've touched on this idea of this sort of religious themes, and many religions have relics, things that you touch and you worship. The phaeton seat, here's this sacred secular relic that can go to the people and then encourage the people to, hey, you know, I want to see more of this. Let's go to Monticello.
Dianne Pierce: That tactile experience of Thomas Jefferson, and that's what is happening at Madison Square Garden.
David Thorson: For whatever reason, the Phaeton seat becomes an iconic object. We've got a photograph, I think it's of Stuart Giboney and Fred Kuper, and one of them is sitting in the phaeton seat. I think it's just come back from its tour. And right behind them is a Pierce-Arrow parked in front of Monticello.
Chad Wollerton: And speaking of interesting vehicles on the West Lawn, 1931, a little bit later than some of the things we've been focused on, but there's a fascinating incident that occurred at Monticello.
Dianne Pierce: We have this wonderful photograph of an autogyro, which is a small aircraft with a large helicopter-like rotor. It landed on the West Lawn at Monticello. President Herbert Hoover apparently sent this autogyro and along with it the Patriot's Pledge of Faith.
Chad Wollerton: That's right. He signed the Patriot's Pledge of Faith.
Dianne Pierce: Yes.
Chad Wollerton: It was there for a celebration of freedom of speech and there were speeches given on the West Lawn after they received this message from President Hoover.
Dianne Pierce: I think it's a lot like the searchlight. It's the use of the latest technology, the gee-whiz factor to bring attention to this very important subject. And it is very emblematic of the 1920s, I think.
Chad Wollerton: And it really is a gee-whiz machine. It looks like an early plane got together with an early helicopter and had a baby. It's crazy looking. They probably sent that because rather than just hand delivering a message, it had some drama to it, but it could actually land on the West Lawn because it operated like a helicopter, it didn't need a runway, so it was a relatively safe way to get right up next to Monticello.
Dianne Pierce: It's worth noting that all of these efforts produced a lot of goodwill and publicity, but they didn't necessarily bring in all of the funds that were needed.
In another effort to find gifts in larger amounts, in thousands of dollars rather than in pennies, they formed an honorary group of what they called Monticellians. This was for donors of a thousand dollars or more, and this effort actually produced, in eight years, about $113,000, which was a substantial portion of paying off that debt.
Chad Wollerton: Absolutely. We still have some of those bonds that we would give to people. It was like, here is your piece of the debt that you have retired, you are now a Monticellian, which is a name that's precious.
Dianne Pierce: A made up word.
Chad Wollerton: So in addition to all these fundraising efforts, there were a few individuals who stepped in at key moments to make generous donations. One of them was Felix Warburg, Daddy Warbucks, as people remember him through the Little Orphan Annie comics. He was a prominent banker and philanthropist. He was probably the largest individual donor to Monticello at the time, another Jewish American. These ideas of civil liberty and religious freedom and education really seem to resonate with that community.
David Thorson: I think that's really important, Chad, because most of these people are first-generation or second-generation immigrants. They leave the persecution in their own country of origin to become Americans, and we just take these things for granted. Doesn't everybody live that way? And turns out the answer is no.
Dianne Pierce: And It makes me think of the naturalization ceremonies today on July 4th on the West Lawn and people wanting to take that oath of citizenship here.
David Thorson: And you hear the same story. The Fred Kuper story is the story you could hear this summer on the West Lawn.
Chad Wollerton: Fred Kuper actually came to one of those events. There's a great photo of him standing next to the tombstone that has that inscription that he admired so much. He said, as myself a naturalized citizen, I was blown away by the ceremony. It was really cool to see him come back later on because he was actually dismissed summarily in 1935, given no cause.
Kuper is Dismissed
Chad Wollerton: By the thirties, fundraising has become difficult. Things aren't great financially, but people are coming and the foundation is starting to find its legs. It's still being run by Stuart Gibboney and he and some of Monticello's advisors are really trying to bring in a new kind of professionalism.
Whether it's because Fred Kuper's Jewish, or because he had been such a showman, he seemed to have fallen out of favor. Don't know why, precisely. But later, he expresses his heartbreak at having been let go with no word and almost finding out, I think, through a second party rather than being told directly.
David Thorson: He was the legal counsel for the New York City Board of Education and the mayor, then, LaGuardia, gets into a battle with the Board of Education over control of New York City schools, and LaGuardia wins the battle eventually, but Fred Kuper becomes a casualty of the war. I've always wondered if, because he fell out of favor politically, if then it becomes advantageous for Stuart Gibboney to say, Hey, we got to cut ties with this guy because he's going to become a burden rather than a benefit as we go forward.
Chad Wollerton: I did wonder about that as well. And yet, he helps work on the 200th celebration of Jefferson's birthday in 1943, and he lives long enough to help with the Bicentennial Commission in 1976. And ends up getting a word of commendation for his work by President Gerald Ford at Monticello.
He doesn't give up on Thomas Jefferson. It's a great story. He doesn't give up on education. He stays involved in education throughout his life. Works for the Board of Education in New York City. He works for City Colleges of New York, helps create the Fashion Institute of Technology. Even with the disappointment of being let go from the foundation, the organization that he helped so much to create and sustain, his love of these ideals never goes away.
A Self-Sufficient Monticello
David Thorson: In the 20s, the foundation did begin paying down the purchase debt and it generated revenue to restore Monticello. But the stock market crashed in 1929, and the Great Depression that followed threatened the very survival of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation.
In the 1930s, there are notes from the board meetings where they're like, we're going under, Even with the generosity of Jefferson Monroe Levy's heirs saying, yeah, okay, we understand you can delay the payment. There's this constant fear that the foundation is going to lose Monticello. The Board explored every avenue to keep Monticello solvent. The operating budget was reduced to the bare minimum, and the Foundation sought government assistance. The New Deal, Civilian Conservation Corps, the Department of Agriculture, the Works Progress Administration, the Virginia Emergency Relief Bureau, they all undertook several infrastructure road building projects at no cost. The entrance and exit road that exists today was built by these New Deal projects.
Chad Wollerton: The ambition of the foundation, these events that we were talking about and the events that they tried to have at Monticello, all those seem to diminish for the next few decades.
David Thorson: For the visiting public, the most visible donation of assistance in the 1930s came from the Garden Club of Virginia, whose resources and expertise culminated in the restorations of the gardens and grounds at Monticello. We actually have a podcast, Restoring Monticello's Flower Gardens, that talks about this amazing effort.
Chad Wollerton: Following the garden restoration, most of the foundation's energy goes into major restoration and reconstruction projects that really took Monticello back to very close to how Jefferson at least had wanted it to look. We'll talk about those transformative efforts in a later episode. But after that, things start to slow down here at Monticello, and it really just meant you come to Monticello, all we do for you are the tours here. It wasn't until the 1970s and the bicentennial in 1976 that it really started to wake up again.
David Thorson: Yeah. But you know, it's funny too when you think about the original group of the organizers and founders, despite all the obstacles that are in the way, they really do have this sort of Jeffersonian optimism that, you know, it's going to be fine. It'll all work out. How can you maintain this positive and cheerful attitude when reality is staring you in the face?
Chad Wollerton: They do not want to fail. They'll look at every means necessary in order to not fail.
Dianne Pierce: By 1940, they've paid off the mortgage, which is remarkable. During the '30s, it's still chipping away at that. And it required some, not just creative fundraising, but creative refinancing and creative moving money around, as Jefferson was known to do.
Dianne Pierce: From the moment it was open to the public, it was thinking of ways to make money by selling things. In addition to tickets, they were selling little leaflets of patriotic history and information about Jefferson. They also started a post office where you could buy your postcard and then have it postmarked with the Monticello postmark.
They very quickly realized that reproductions of Jefferson's own furniture could be a money maker. Books by historians, including our own Fiske and Marie Kimball, who were overseeing the restoration and refurnishing of the house, and all of these are being sold in the store.
Chad Wollerton: In another interesting point about Fred Kuper, he actually wrote a book called Thomas Jefferson the Giant. It's a very florid look at Jefferson's achievements.
David Thorson: The interpretation of Jefferson in that era is a little bit different, arguably, than the interpretation we have today, where we tend to see Jefferson more as a flawed human being with truly admirable qualities and ideas. But back in the Fred Kuper era, Jefferson is this towering figure who can do no wrong.
Dianne Pierce: This is the beginning of some serious scholarship around Jefferson, too. You think about Marie Kimball and her seven-part biography, so detailed in its research and not a hagiography. And very often overlooked as a reliable source for information about Jefferson because it is very bloodless. It is not trying to make any particular point. It's just very factual.
David Thorson: I think that's a really good point, because it speaks to Chad's comment earlier about professionalizing the interpretation of Jefferson. People like Fred Kuper, they may be pioneers in setting the stage for other, more serious historians like the Kimballs and Dumas Malone to say, wait a minute, let's take an honest historian's look at who this guy is and whether he's relevant to the present and to the future. And more books and scholarly articles have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other figure in American history. But number two is the "forgotten man." Thomas Jefferson then takes the stage.
Dianne Pierce: Remarkably, the last payment was made on the Levy debt in 1940. And then in the post-war period, you have increased leisure, and you have discretionary income, and that meant that Americans were traveling to places like Monticello. They're taking in for themselves the glories of the national past.
David Thorson: See the USA in your Chevrolet. I remember getting packed into the back of my dad's Oldsmobile Super 88 and off we went.
Chad Wollerton: We had a Ford station wagon. My family moved up from Texas and as we did, we went to Colonial Williamsburg, we came to Monticello, and went up to Mount Vernon. It was kind of a have-to-do trip.
Dianne Pierce: It's clear that it was a small group of people who, with creativity and persistence and generosity, just tireless efforts, worked to pay off an enormous purchase price. That group were also working to establish it as a public history site. And the early decades of the foundation created a very solid fiscal foundation for the preservation and education mission of Monticello that continues today. Although it is worth saying that the fundraising today is maybe not quite as inventive as it was in those early years.
Chad Wollerton: There was no blueprint. The people running Monticello at the time period were writing the book about historic preservation in a lot of different ways, from actual physical preservation, restoration, to how do you run an organization in a way that makes it self-sufficient?
The only other organizations doing anything like this at the time were Mount Vernon, which was well established by this point and had grown up in a different era, and Colonial Williamsburg, which was just getting started in the mid 1920s, thanks to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. And both of those sites had very different models for how you run a historic site.
David Thorson: That's a good point, because this whole era in the '20s and early '30s is this America beginning to reckon with the idea that it does have a past. We're legitimate now. We've been around long enough that we too have a past.
Dianne Pierce: There's this moment in 1876 where there's this realization, oh my goodness, a hundred years. That means we actually do have a story. We have a past, and then by the '20s it's really taking shape and taking form and Monticello's part of that.