Connected to the Dining Room, with its bright yellow walls and dumbwaiter systems, is another smaller room called the Tea Room. It served as a sitting room where family and guests came to read or socialize, despite it being one of the coldest rooms in the house, albeit glorious on a sunny day. At times it offered overflow seating at meals when the house was full. In the home of an architect like Thomas Jefferson, you may not expect to find a quick, non-traditional repair to a damaged object, especially in such a public space. In this episode of our Mountaintop History podcast, Monticello guide Olivia Brown talks with Diane Ehrenpreis, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts, and Lucy Midelfort, Architectural Conservator, about what uncovered in Monticello's Tea Room.
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.
Olivia Brown: Monticello still holds on to a few mysterious parts of its past. Stories that are waiting to unfold. This week on Mountaintop History, we're going behind the scenes to learn about a recent discovery in Thomas Jefferson's plantation home.
Connected to the Dining Room, with its bright yellow walls and dumbwaiter systems, is another smaller room called the Tea Room. It served as a sitting room where family and guests came to read or socialize, despite it being one of the coldest rooms in the house, albeit glorious on a sunny day. At times it offered overflow seating at meals when the house was full. In the home of an architect like Thomas Jefferson, you may not expect to find evidence of a failed repair, especially in such a public space. That, however, is exactly what we've uncovered in Monticello's Tea Room.
Here to tell us a little more about the Tea Room itself is Diane Ehrenpreis, Monticello's Associate Curator of Decorative Arts. What can you tell us about this space?
Diane Ehrenpreis: So the Tea Room is part of what we call around here sort of Monticello I. It was a semi-octagonal space that Jefferson had fixed to the almost perfectly square Dining Room that you might recognize today. Many of you know it, the bright yellow Dining Room that we have here. Surprisingly that space was always part of the house. When Jefferson comes back from France, and he spends time in New York and Philadelphia, he's formulating how he wants to rebuild Monticello, the Monticello we see today with the dome. We know from those workbooks and plans that he started identifying that space as the Tea Room, which I sort of took for granted for years, not really questioning that assigned title. In working on this project, it was surprising to me. It's a very unusual name for a room, especially in the United States at this time. I couldn't find another comparable. The only comparable space that is called a Tea Room, you might find in Bath at some of the spa buildings, and those structures had a room assigned as a Tea Room. The other comparable would be tea houses were more common. So for whatever reason, he decided to call that room the Tea Room.
Olivia Brown: Our story continues with the brackets that hold the four busts Jefferson displayed in the Tea Room. What do we know specifically about these brackets that are on the wall?
Diane Ehrenpreis: The room has a pair of windows and the center door, and so that creates four segments where art could be organized, very rationally, carefully spaced. At the top of each one of these segments was a plaster bracket. I shouldn't say was, there are four plaster brackets. They came to the Foundation with the house, meaning they have been in place whenever Jefferson installed them. They are molded plaster. They're what would be classically called a console bracket, so they have very handsome volutes, molded acanthus leaves, and husk drops. Then, of course, they have a function. They are flat on the top, so they are essentially what we might call a hanging shelf. Sometimes in great houses, they might've held Chinese vases, sculptures, and in this case indeed, it was sculpture. We know that there were portrait busts that Jefferson acquired in Paris. We know quite a bit about approximately when he got them, how many he acquired, who these visages or portraits were of, and how much he paid for them. So, from his art list, we know who these figures were that sat on top of the brackets. We had John Paul Jones, we have Ben Franklin, we have George Washington, and lastly we have Lafayette.
Olivia Brown: Do you think that the Tea Room brackets were made here in the United States, or that Jefferson possibly got them somewhere else?
Diane Ehrenpreis: That is something that I have been doing research on, and they really don't have a good comparable here in the United States, even from other Americans who imported other examples of sculpture. So, increasingly, I turned my attention to France where Jefferson bought the bust and it's really not clear, but my sense is that these were probably acquired from the sculptor at the same time. By that, I would mean the studio of Houdon, who created the busts. It makes good business sense to also provide brackets, socles, and other parts of sculpture that you might need to have your ensemble ready to go.
Olivia Brown: Understanding the Tea Room, and its place at Monticello, continues the story we're explaining today. When it comes to the actual discovery, it was the Restoration Team that found the strange feature. I'm joined now by Lucy Midelfort, Architectural Conservator here at Monticello. Lucy, it's great having you here.
Lucy Midelfort: Thanks so much for having me.
Olivia Brown: There are often mysteries to uncover here at Monticello, both inside the house and around the full plantation. You, and other members of our Restoration Department, are often the boots on the ground in our work to solve some of these mysteries. So, let's get down to it. What did you and the Restoration Team discover in the Tea Room, and can you tell us how you happened upon it?
Lucy Midelfort: Sure. Well, the brackets in the Tea Room each have a pendant hanging from it, which presumably is made of the same plaster as the rest of the bracket. But, the far left bracket, curiously, is missing its pendant and something funny is hanging from the bottom. To our quick eye, it looked kind of like a bone, and we thought, "Could that actually be a bone? What could it be? When did this thing get hung up there in place of the pendant?" It's definitely been a question of ours for sure.
Olivia Brown: Can you tell us more about how you were able to test this find to determine what it actually was, and if you could date it?
Lucy Midelfort: We were very lucky to be able to bring out a long time Paint Analyst, Susan Buck, who specializes in taking tiny paint samples from architectural elements and looking at each tiny layer to determine not only how the color of that element has changed over time, but even what material each paint layer is made of. So, is it an oil paint? Is it a distemper? Is it a lime wash? Then she can also tell what pigments are used to make the color of that finish. She can also determine the material of the substrate that the paint layers are on. So, what is the material that's been painted over so many times? Is it wood? Is it metal? Plaster?
Susan has been coming to Monticello to do paint analysis for many, many years. And she has sampled nearly every room. So, to answer the question about this odd looking feature in the Tea Room, she took a sample from it and compared the paint layers found on it to what she had found on the main bodies of the brackets, as well as the woodwork in the room. She also checked what the material is that was painted, and she found two really amazing things when doing her analysis.
First, she found that the paint layers on this odd thing hanging from the bracket matched up with the same early paint layers found on the rest of the bracket. There weren't more than a couple paint layers found on the bracket that weren't on this funny replacement for a pendant. That indicates that this thing has been hanging there a long time. We knew that whatever it is, it probably dates to late in Thomas Jefferson's lifetime, or perhaps very early in the period when the Levy family owned the house. It's not possible to date perfectly, but we know that it's been there for a very long time.
The second discovery was that the funny thing hanging is actually bone. It's actually a chicken bone, to be specific. So, it turns out that we have a chicken bone hanging from the bracket in the Tea Room, and it's been that way a really long time. It's pretty exciting stuff.
Olivia Brown: It definitely sounds exciting! So, how does it feel to discover something this strange here at Monticello?
Lucy Midelfort: It's exciting, you know, we work at a place that has been so studied for generations. A lot of people might think we know all there is to know about Monticello, but it's really not true. We are constantly finding out new things about this place, and it's really thrilling to be part of new discoveries like this.
Olivia Brown: Now the story of the Tea Room chicken bone may stop there by way of physical or documentary evidence, but are there any current hypotheses about how it ended up where it did?
Lucy Midelfort: Yeah, so bone is in fact a quite sensible material to repair broken plaster. The two materials are actually very similar in terms of the properties they have, and the rates they expand and contract when the temperature changes. So, our current working theory is that the original pendant on this bracket broke or fell off, and a repair was made using this bone as kind of an armature. The repair must not have held up very well though, which we know because the first layers of paint on the bone are so early. Dating, as I said, likely to late Jefferson era. So, what we can certainly say is that bone has been exposed, and was left to be painted over and over and over for a couple of hundred years.
Olivia Brown: While it may seem like all of history is in the past, there are still interesting stories to discover and tell to this day. The behind the scenes work of members of our Curatorial and Restoration staff help us bring forward these new - albeit strange - stories that we can share with others. People like Diane Ehrenpreis and Lucy Midelfort allow us to continue preserving Monticello while also learning more each and every day.
Thank you to both of them for sharing their experience today.
This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
Kyle Chattleton: 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.