In 1924 Monticello’s new owners began the process of restoring the gardens Jefferson had designed for his mountaintop home. But after a century of differing uses—and sometimes outright neglect—by various owners and caretakers, very little evidence remained of Jefferson’s original plans and plantings. It was a daunting task, and it could have ended quite differently were it not for the perseverance, personalities, and ingenuity of several individuals committed to restoring Jefferson’s vision.
In this episode of our In the Course of Human Events podcast, Monticello’s Curator of Plants, Peggy Cornett - with help from colleagues Monticello Senior Historian Ann Lucas and guide Elizabeth Lukas - tells the story of how two relatively young organizations, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation and the Garden Club of Virginia, worked together to restore Jefferson’s unique vision for his flower gardens and laid the groundwork for future historic landscape restoration projects at Monticello and elsewhere across the United States.
Peggy Cornett: Garden restoration is a curious science because we're trying to put into place a time, but you can't really stop nature.
Elizabeth Lukas: My name is Elizabeth Lukas and I am a guide at Monticello.
Ann Lucas: And my name is Ann Lucas. And as far as I know, Elizabeth and I are not related. I'm a historian here and have also worked in our development and curatorial offices.
Elizabeth Lukas: And welcome to the podcast, "In the Course of Human Events."
Ann Lucas: It's important to understand that the restoration of Monticello's gardens was a process and it took 15 years and had an incredible cast of characters and We've had this incredible partnership with the Garden Club of Virginia and they were among the first people to respond to the call to restore Monticello's gardens and grounds with cash and commitment and passion. They have been stalwart supporters since 1923. And the progress of restoring the gardens continues still to this day.
2. Fiske Kimball and the Early Foundation
Peggy Cornett: My name is Peggy Cornett and I' m curator of plants at Monticello. I'm going to tell you the story of the restoration of Thomas Jefferson's flower gardens by the Garden Club of Virginia, which begins in the early days of the foundation.
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation was formed in 1923, as a private, nonprofit organization. And soon after, UVA professor Sydney Fiske Kimball was named Chairman of the Monticello Restoration Committee. He and his wife Marie Kimball, she was the first curator of Monticello. And so, they were quite a power couple.
Ann Lucas: Fiske Kimball was an architectural historian who's credited with being the first scholar to really drill down on Jefferson as an architect. And when Kimball first publishes his folio, "Thomas Jefferson, Architect" in 1916, people still don't even believe that Jefferson designed the University of Virginia or Monticello. They'll attribute these to other architects. And the foundation was begun by primarily lawyers and politicians, not people with a decorative arts or architecture focus or interest, necessarily. They wanted to preserve Monticello as a shrine to Jefferson, the politician, the visionary, not so much necessarily to Jefferson the architect. So, Kimball is the one who really elevates the conversation and because of his background in architecture and in the drawings, Kimball sets a precedent for restoration at Monticello relying upon documentary evidence.
So, what I love about Fiske Kimball is he's an imposing and impressive presence. He can excite people to participate in the restoration of Monticello by showing them Jefferson's drawings and saying to them, "Look at this. Don't you want to join with us in realizing Jefferson's vision?" And so, we see Kimball's leadership, not just in the gardens, but elsewhere at Monticello in the early restoration years.
He's also aware of the fact that he's a Northerner and he's, he's smart about recognizing that Northerners and Southerners don't always do and see things in the same way.
3. A Yankee Landscape Architect
Peggy Cornett: Here's where two important members of these garden club organizations come into the story.
Susanne Massie was president of the Garden Club of Virginia, and she was the real head of the whole project. But the person on the ground was a woman named Hazlehurst Perkins.
In 1926, with involvement of Massie and Perkins, the Garden Club of Virginia donated $7,000 to rehabilitate the 13 remaining venerable, but neglected Jefferson era trees. The following year, this would be in 1927, Kimball was still appealing to the Garden Club America for donations and help restoring the Monticello flower gardens. They stipulated that Monticello hire the services of Amy Cogswell of Connecticut. Now Cogswell was one of the first female landscape architects in the United States.
She remains well known for designing colonial revival gardens. And back in the early part of the 20th century, people were very nostalgic about garden history, about the colonial period. And so the colonial revival gardens were just kind of made up and they were meant to be our idealized vision of what gardens were like in the 1700 and 1800s.
Kimball had wanted to carefully introduce Cogswell writing to Massie and Perkins that he hoped they will find her "a most delightful companion." But apparently, they were not impressed with this Yankee garden designer. Upon her arrival, it is not fully clear what transpired, but she apparently began staking out flower beds on the lawn, referring to Jefferson's early 1770 drawings for the gardens. And she complained that trees and the existing conditions of the landscape were in the way of her design.
The association ended with Cogswell withdrawing from the project, writing to Kimball that "things in the South move much slower than they do up here." She wrote back 10 years after this whole fiasco and she said, "Would not a Southern woman be more acceptable than a Yankee? And then she added to that, "I think so. Or better still a man."
Elizabeth Lukas: So Amy Cogswell was using an old, outdated design. The 1770 drawing is pretty sparse. It's just basically two rectangles at the corners of the terraces. But Jefferson doesn't even list any plants, so we don't really know what he had planned. It's very unclear. So I'm guessing that Amy Cogswell would've put in some of her own ideas for what would have been there. And this colonial revival design is quite different than what we have at Monticello today. They're just very linear gardens, lots of angles, and very sort of deep dense beds, and you know, arbors with roses, and things like that. And so she's probably very skilled in this type of design, but it sounds like there was some resistance here from the, the women at the Garden Club of Virginia and perhaps sort of the clash of cultures as well.
Ann Lucas: One of the things that strikes me about the early foundation, that's hard for us maybe to wrap our brains around now is that the foundation was based, not in Charlottesville, but in New York City. So, there was already some sense of tension between the local community at times and these Northern outsiders. So, it can't be overstated that Kimball already is a Northern outsider. And Hazlehurst Perkins and others who are local might also have been just responding to that impulse, that they were feeling cut out of the process or disconnected in some way.
So after Kimball is rebuffed in the efforts with Amy Cogswell, it takes another decade before he cautiously approaches the Garden Club of Virginia. And he wrote to their president Sue Massey, this is what he says: "I think today we all feel more kindly to the idea of putting things back the way they were, irrespective of whether we ourselves wanted to do them just that way or not. And Kimball found a sympathetic partner in Hazlehurst Perkins who affirmed, "We are not landscaping Monticello on our own, but carrying out Mr. Jefferson's plans in detail. It has no interest to me or value unless we work in the original plans."
4. The Researcher
Peggy Cornett: Thus, a third key figure entered the scene: Dr. Edwin Morris Betts.
Ann Lucas: Edwin Betts was a Professor of Botany at the University of Virginia and he collaborated with Hazlehurst Perkins. And Betts matters to us because of his work editing Jefferson's Garden Book. You can think of Betts as the Kimball equivalent-- so if Kimball's elevating Jefferson's status as an architect, now we have Betts, who's doing the same for Jefferson as a gardener.
Betts's botanical knowledge and his collaboration with Hazlehurst Perkins was a critical factor in the restoration of the flower gardens. He and Perkins would co-author Thomas Jefferson's flower gardens at Monticello published in 1941. And he would go on to edit his landmark work, Thomas Jefferson's Garden Book. The 1944 publication of Betts's research, like many of his era, was an incomplete and problematic, but if it were not for his scholarship, subsequent rigorous scholarship may never have occurred. Betts was the one who brought to light Jefferson's April 1807 sketches for the oval flower beds, which he discovered at the Pennsylvania Historical Society.
In addition, the committee had in hand Jefferson sketch for the winding walk and accompanying flower border around the west lawn, which had been drawn on the back of a letter to his granddaughter Ann Cary Randolph. In his letter to her, dating from Washington, on June 7th, 1807, Jefferson wrote, "I find that the limited number of our flower beds, will too much restrained the variety of flowers and which we might wish to indulge. And therefore I have resumed an idea of a winding walk surrounding the lawn before the house with a narrow border of flowers on each side. This would give us abundant room for a great variety." The following year on February 16th, 1808, Jefferson would again write to Ann Randolph from Washington saying, "The first time I come home, I will lay out the projected flower borders round the level so that they shall be ready for the next fall. We shall then have room enough for everything." It is this 1808 planting of Jefferson's scheme for the winding walk and flower borders, that informed the garden club's design for their restoration.
Elizabeth Lukas: There are no angles in the 1808 drawing. Everything is curving lines, oval beds, quite different from the 1770 drawing. And I think, the 1808 drawing seems much more in keeping with Jefferson's idea of sort of working with the natural landscape. And, you know, this is after he's taken his tour of England with Adams and they've explored all of these various English gardens and farms and collected ideas to bring home. And so, it seems like a much more complete vision of what he was looking for.
5. The “Williams Experiment”
Peggy Cornett: So how did they decide to approach laying out the winding walk on the West Lawn? Here another figure enters briefly: Morley Jeffers Williams, a well-known archaeologist and landscape architect.
Ann Lucas: Fiske Kimball actually encouraged archaeology. He's wise to the fact that a drawing might not always reflect what was executed. And he sets the standards that Monticello is known for and still relies upon today for restorations that have a basis in documentary evidence and physical evidence.
Peggy Cornett: Williams was interested in determining the locations of walks and flower beds. He therefore took level readings at intervals on a grid pattern and was able to determine that there was evidence of two sets of high points arranged in parallel curving lines around the outer edges of the lawn. When these were drawn on paper, it showed the winding walk outlined similar to Jefferson's 1808 plan. So this was quite a revelation.
According to Hazlehurst Perkins, Morley Williams determined depressions in the walk by shining headlights of his automobile across the West lawn. Perkins said that she herself confirmed the "Williams experiment." And she wrote, "to make doubly sure of the contour, a car was driven up in the lawn at night with the lights turned on. The curves and widths were even more distinctly visible. A gravel path was located, outlined by clumps of bulbs, including hyacinths and Narcissus coming up in the sod."
Elizabeth Lukas: It was sort of this detective work that they were doing because everything was pretty much destroyed. There had been crops planted back there. There had been cattle grazing there over time. So not much had survived. So they're working from Jefferson's drawing, but trying to determine where the winding walk was. And, this story of someone driving their car up at night, parking it in just the right spot, so the headlights would shine across the lawn, and they could see this depression of the winding walk. What I think was so exciting about it is that that walkway sort of lined up with the bulbs that had been popping up here and there on either side of it, so indicating that some of these plants, even 115 years after Jefferson's death, were still, still popping up.
6. The Restoration
Peggy Cornett: Hazlehurst Perkins's diary is really quite a vivid account of the restoration project. When they first started in 1939 they were grubbing out honeysuckle on the grounds at Monticello. "The honeysuckle," she said, "had encroached upon the West Lawn and had taken possession of an entire side of the East lawn." So apparently the ladies were out there working in the garden. And she talks about Jefferson's garden diary, where he writes about purple Hyacinths coming into bloom and the Purple Flag and Narcissus. And then she goes on to say in this report that she believed that the descendants of the same Purple Flags, Hyacinths, and Narcissus were "found escaping down the mountainside. They were captured in are now happily growing and blooming in the beds."
They did restore the gardens in a beautiful fashion. And they were quite proud of it when it was completed in 1941. And she talked about the way the gardens looked in in 1944, and she said, to quote Mr. Fiske Kimball, "If Mr. Jefferson himself were to return, he would find every plant exactly where his plan had planted it and would rejoice in the perfection with which all had survived, untarnished by time."
Ann Lucas: In 1954, Kimball writes to the president of the foundation. And this is what he says: "I think one of the great dangers at Monticello is that it might get Yankee-fied. Jefferson in his old age was a poor man. And it would be a mistake to try to realize all the earlier ideas he had, to say nothing of how things might be improved, but never were."
Elizabeth Lukas: Yeah, I mean on garden tours, you know, I talk about how everything on the landscape looks a whole lot better than it did in Jefferson's time. Jefferson is experimenting with so many things that just are not suited to Virginia. And water was a huge problem on the mountaintop as well. So things are likely struggling. Plants are likely struggling.
7. The Gardens as a Place for Learning and Connecting
Peggy Cornett: On a setting stone at the side of the roundabout walk is a bronze plaque on which is inscribed: " The gardens of Thomas Jefferson were restored and presented to Monticello by the Garden Club of Virginia in 1940. The work is done. May it mellow through the years and be enjoyed by posterity."
The Garden Club of Virginia has been a powerful force as far as preserving old gardens in the Commonwealth for almost a hundred years. And I think what was important is that they didn't want to just put in a, a little revival garden. They wanted to try to, to somehow show what Jefferson had in mind, which was a very unusual garden with a winding walk around the leveled West Lawn and oval flower beds adjacent to the house.
We have made some changes. We tried to grow a few more accurate plant species than might've been planted by the women at that time. But in a sense, we still have their basic plan, and that's what people are enjoying today as they come to Monticello.
Elizabeth Lukas: What I really love about the design, with these narrow beds lining the winding walk, is it's almost like a Botanic garden. So, Jefferson was known for taking people on tours of his gardens . And it's, it's part of the education that he thought was so important. So, pointing out various plants to people, and the way it's designed with these shallow beds, you can really see each plant well. And what I think is great about the garden tour, there's always something new to show someone you know, depending on the season. And that was all part of Jefferson's plan as well, having three phases to the flower gardens.
Ann Lucas: I think what's most rewarding to me, in all the years I've been at Monticello, is walking with people through the gardens after hours when it's quiet and you may be the only people there and the gardens soften everyone. They bring out the best in a conversation. They reveal a side of someone that you might not have known. They can be nostalgic and invoke memories. And so, it never fails to amaze me when you, when you take someone through, on a walk through the gardens that you'll come out knowing them a little bit better.
Ann Lucas: Peggy, thanks for telling us this amazing story and, and for your leadership at Monticello all these years. And Elizabeth, thanks for your insights as a garden guide and, and for being with me today.
Elizabeth Lukas: I have learned so much from Peggy over the 12 years I have worked at Monticello. She is a font of knowledge about gardening. And thank you, Anne, for all of your insights as well and your perspective as a historian, this has been really fun.
Thoughts to share about this podcast? Suggestions for other episodes? Send us an email!
Narrated by Peggy Cornett
Hosted by Ann Lucas and Elizabeth Lukas
Direction and editing by Joan Horn
Sound design by Dennis Hysom
Production by Chad Wollerton and Joan Horn
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.