Jefferson Monroe Levy (1852-1924) was a successful three-term New York congressman, businessman, and lawyer who purchased Monticello at a public auction on March 20, 1879, for $10,500. He owned and cared for the Monticello estate until it was purchased by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation forty-four years later, in 1923.
After the death of Uriah Phillips Levy in 1862, the Civil War and seventeen years of litigation over Levy's will left Monticello at the mercy of an indifferent public and the elements. In 1870 a visitor described the house as "moss-covered, dilapidated, and criminally neglected." When Jefferson Levy, Uriah's nephew, finally prevailed as sole owner of the house, the challenge to rescue Monticello had only just begun.
The Levy Family Saves Monticello
In the 1860s, Uriah Levy's grieving widow, abetted by much of Levy's family, challenged her husband's will, which had left Monticello to the U.S. government. After a suit that went all the way up to New York State's highest court, Mrs. Levy prevailed. While the suit was in litigation, Congress declined the gift — after all, aside from not knowing what to do with it, Monticello was firmly behind enemy lines. The Confederacy, in fact, confiscated Monticello as enemy property and put it up for auction in 1864. Benjamin F. Ficklin bid $80,500 — all in Confederate money, of course. After the war the Levy family had no problem regaining ownership, but it was unclear to one and all who in the family actually owned what. At one point there was a partition suit that resulted in forty-seven beneficiaries of varying degrees. Eventually, after a number of lawsuits in Virginia courts, one owner did emerge, and we shall turn to him in a minute. But first, we must look at the house itself, because when the dust had settled, the new owner must have wondered if his prize had been worth all the effort.
Joel Wheeler — the able overseer who worked for Commodore Levy — stayed on as the war came and went, growing older and more senile and cantankerous with the years. The Levy family did not pay him, so he started charging visitors, and did not care if they took parts of the house away with them as souvenirs. A young woman who visited Monticello in the summer of 1864 reported that, "The place was once very pretty, but it has gone to ruin now. . . . The parlour retains but little of its former elegance, the ball room is on the second floor, and has a thousand names scratched over the walls. There are some roses in the yard that have turned wild, and those are the only flowers." Wheeler allowed his pigs to ramble all over the estate, and moved his cattle inside in the winter. Loose shutters hung in the wind on broken windows, and bins of grain were installed on the magnificent parquet floors. Wheeler rebuffed every effort by George Carr, the Levy family's agent and lawyer in Charlottesville, to remove him from Monticello. As he grew more senile, Wheeler declared unto one and all that he was the true owner of Monticello.
Jefferson Monroe Levy was only ten years old when his uncle died in 1862. As late as 1875, when his father Jonas was still attempting to sell Monticello in order to liquidate Uriah's estate and divide the proceeds, there is no mention of Jefferson Levy in the extensive correspondence between Jonas Levy and George Carr. But on March 20, 1879, when Carr supervised the sale of Monticello at public auction, Jefferson Levy entered the winning bid of $10,500. Because of an ongoing lawsuit, however, he was not confirmed in his title until May 1, 1882.
Jefferson Levy never married and, during his residence at Monticello, his mother and later his sister served as hostess. He was wealthy — very wealthy — and was one of the leading real estate developers and speculators in New York City. He was rich enough to have needed and to have installed a ticker tape in his bedroom to follow the money markets while at home. In 1916 a New York Times picture identified him as one of Tammany Hall's "Big Four," and he served several terms as a congressman from the city. From an examination of speeches that he had printed, as well as his votes on various measures we can surely label him as conservative. While not an observant Jew, he did seem to take his Jewish identity seriously and as a responsibility. When the Russian pogroms broke out in the first decade of the twentieth century, Jefferson Levy was one of those who formed the protest group that eventually led to the creation of the American Jewish Committee.
By the time Levy gained full control, Monticello was but a pale shadow of what it had been twenty years earlier in 1858, when Uriah Levy had written his will. Where Uriah had bought surrounding property to build up the estate, his nephew Jefferson could only gain title to about the same holding that Barclay had passed on, the house and 218 acres. The house was in terrible shape, and the grounds had been untended for years. He bought up an additional 500 acres surrounding the estate. While not restoring the property's size to that at the time of Thomas Jefferson or even of Uriah Levy, the additional acreage gave Monticello greater breathing space. After several years of intense effort, Jefferson Levy finally managed to dislodge Joel Wheeler, and to secure as overseer a man who was as devoted to the restoration of Monticello as he was, Thomas L. Rhodes. The combination of Rhodes's engineering and architectural abilities and Levy's financial resources, gradually brought Monticello back to life. Windows were repaired, the house was repainted, internal and external renovations took place, and the grounds were replanted according to Thomas Jefferson's original plans.
Jefferson Levy was of two minds, however, as to how to decorate the house. On the one hand he apparently attempted to purchase Jeffersonian artifacts whenever possible. During the war, for example, vandals had carried off the handsome Wedgwood inserts in the Dining Room mantel. Levy contacted the Wedgwood factory and had a new set made. Levy maintained an agent in Europe for the purchase of furniture and works of art, though these seemed to have been divided between Jeffersonian period pieces and those of the late Victorian era. Unlike his uncle, Jefferson Levy did spend at least four months of every year up on the little mountain. It was his summer home, and in it he honored his uncle as much as he honored Mr. Jefferson. A full-length portrait of the commodore hung in the front hall, while nearby stood a model of the ship Vandalia, which under Uriah Levy's command had been the first ship in the Navy to abolish flogging. Thomas Jefferson's entertainment rooms, according to William Adams, "took on the over-stuffed appearance of a Parisian banker's country house during Napoleon III's Second Empire. Elaborate imported chandeliers, mirrors, sideboards, and a spectacularly bedizened bed √† la Madame du Barry decorated the Hall, Parlor, Dining Room, and Jefferson's Bed Chamber." Levy also kept up some customs from Jefferson's time. Originally the road up to the house was so narrow that only one carriage could pass at a time, so that whenever anyone went up or down the road, a servant would ring a great gong as a warning. Jefferson Levy built a back road so that people could go down in safety, but nonetheless kept up the custom of having the gatekeeper bang the gong whenever a visitor arrived. And, as he proudly told a congressional committee, he still burned candles at Monticello as had the house's original builder.
Although only a part-time resident, Levy took an active role in the life of nearby Charlottesville. In 1880 he restored the Town Hall, built in 1852, as a theater and renamed it the Levy Opera House. The structure is still standing. Every Fourth of July he held an open house for the residents of the community and, after he read the Declaration of Independence, there would be fireworks and refreshments. He allowed many groups use of the estate for events, and also was quite generous in allowing an almost unbroken stream of visitors to come up the mountain to pay homage to Mr. Jefferson. By 1900, some accounts report that as many as sixty people a day would show up at Monticello, almost 22,000 a year. By then, Levy and Rhodes had completed the bulk of their work, and Monticello was in better shape than it had been since 1809. If anyone deserves the title of "Savior of Monticello," it must surely be Jefferson Monroe Levy.
Jefferson Levy lived at Monticello for many years but, as early as 1897, signs appeared that others wanted Mr. Jefferson's home, if not for themselves, then as a national shrine to honor the third president. Problems had begun in the 1870s, almost as soon as Levy had taken clear title. The stone obelisk that Jefferson had prescribed for his tombstone had been chipped away by souvenir hunters, which prompted Samuel S. Cox, Democrat from New York, to propose a resolution authorizing the federal government to acquire the gravesite and build a new monument over Jefferson's grave. This resolution quickly ran aground as the graveyard had never been a part of the Monticello property but had remained with the Jefferson family. The heirs, now numbering nearly fifty, had no intention of relinquishing it to the national government. Nor did Levy intend to cede property right of way to the graveyard. (It should be noted that Levy never imposed any barriers on the family visiting the graveyard or making an occasional burial there.) In 1882 Congress deferred to the objections, voted money to erect a new obelisk over Jefferson's grave, and put a fence around the burial yard.
In the 1890s, Thomas Jefferson enjoyed a renascence in public popularity. In part, this change can certainly be attributed to the revival of the Democratic Party, which he had helped to found, from its tribulations during the Civil War era. Part is also attributable to the nation's new-found fascination with its founding fathers. The public was treated to a potpourri of articles and books on Jefferson and his ideas, and the stream of visitors to Monticello swelled into a broad river. By the first decade of the twentieth century, the number of visitors to Monticello was nearly 50,000 annually.
In 1897, William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic candidate for president, wrote to Levy suggesting that he convey Monticello to the government for a public memorial. Levy replied that all the money in the United States Treasury would not buy Monticello. At this point, there were only two historic home sites in America open to the public as museum memorials: George Washington's house at Mount Vernon and Orchard House, the Alcott home outside Boston. There was no historic preservation movement, and the Rockefeller interest in what would become Colonial Williamsburg was still three decades away.
Enter Maud Littleton, an attractive and far from retiring southern belle. Originally from Texas and married to Congressman Martin Littleton of Brooklyn, she first visited Monticello in 1909. She claimed that instead of being overwhelmed with the house, or even grateful that the owner of private property had let her tramp around his home, she had been devastated by the neglect and poor custodianship of its owner. "I did not get the feeling of being in the house Thomas Jefferson built and loved and made sacred, and of paying tribute to him. . . . My heart sunk." Mrs. Littleton now had a mission in life — to wrest Monticello away from Jefferson Levy and make it a public memorial to her childhood idol.
Maud Littleton began petitioning Congress to buy the estate. She went back and dug up the all-but-forgotten will of Uriah Levy, in which he had tried to give Monticello to the nation. Under the pen name of Peggy O'Neal, she issued an attractive brochure entitled One Wish, in which she sketched out a melancholy history of Jefferson's home and called into play every patriotic emotion in the book. Even that hard-hearted Louisville newspaper publisher, "Marse Henry" Watterson, was moved. "I read it with my heart in my throat and tears in my eyes." The flinty senator from Massachusetts, Henry Cabot Lodge, admitted that he did not share Jefferson's political views, but admired the Virginian's love of art and architecture, and for that reason enlisted in the cause as well. Congress held a number of hearings over the next several years, most of them deteriorating into verbal duels between Levy and Mrs. Littleton. Levy's answer in the first set of hearings in 1912 was, "When the White House is for sale, then I will consider an offer for Monticello."
Mrs. Littleton claimed that all she wanted was for Congress to save Monticello and make it into a shrine to one of the country's neglected heroes. She accused Levy of standing in the way of the American people, of being selfish, of not caring for anything except his own comfort. She accused him of being a poor caretaker of the estate, who guarded it like an "Oriental potentate" refusing admission to those who would worship at the site. Levy had replaced Jefferson's portraits and mementos with his own, and had "commercialized" Monticello. Levy was at a disadvantage. The best he could do was object to the slander and point out that he had poured large amounts of money into preserving Monticello, that visitors were always welcome, that the house was very well maintained, and that he had kept Monticello not out of the "selfish and sordid purposes" that Mrs. Littleton ascribed to him, but by an "unceasing flow of the fountain of a heart filled with love for Thomas Jefferson."
Fortunately for Levy, a number of newspaper editors were not reduced to tears, as Marse Henry had been by Mrs. Littleton's crusade. In fact they objected to it very strongly, on two grounds. First was the general view of private property rights, and the notion that government ought not to interfere with those rights. Monticello was Levy's home; he had bought and paid for it, had maintained it and owned it, and had as much right as any man to be secure in his own home. Second was the fact that Mr. Jefferson himself would have objected to the government spending the people's money on such a project. With the exception of the purchase of Louisiana, President Jefferson had been parsimonious with the public purse.
Had not Woodrow Wilson been elected president in 1912, Levy probably would have kept Monticello; in fact he did keep it for another eleven years. But the handwriting was on the wall. The "Lady of Monticello," as the Hearst papers approvingly called Mrs. Littleton, intensified her campaign. William Jennings Bryan, now Secretary of State, eagerly signed on, and so did the Virginia-born occupant of the White House. In March 1914, the Virginia legislature endorsed the plan to have Congress buy Monticello and make it a national monument. The Senate Lands Committee reported a resolution to establish a joint congressional committee to investigate the feasibility of acquiring Monticello by purchase or — a word that Levy had fearfully anticipated — condemnation. He could always refuse to sell, but if Congress chose to exercise its power of eminent domain, he would be forced to give it up at whatever Congress deemed a fair price.
So Levy agreed to sell Monticello for $500,000, which he claimed was half its real value, and would make the other half-million a donation to the government. He liked, or at least said he did, Bryan's suggestion that the house could serve as a summer home for presidents, an idea, by the way, that Wilson had never endorsed. One wonders why the deal was not consummated, since Maud Littleton had drummed up an enormous amount of public interest and support. Moreover, a Democratic president, who had been able to get Congress to pass such controversial measures as tariff reform and the Federal Reserve Act, had endorsed the proposal, and on several occasions made his support known to key congressional leaders. The asking price was well within reason. Even as late as 1915 it looked like the deal would go through, but it did not. Congressional committees squabbled over details, the Daughters of the American Revolution decided that they should be the ones to manage the property, and then the First World War came and all other matters faded into the background. Levy's personal fortunes sank in the post-war depression, and now he wanted to sell the house to get the purchase price as well as to rid himself of the burden of maintaining it. In 1921 newspapers in the Washington area carried advertisements for "a dignified country home" overlooking Charlottesville.
In 1923 the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation executed a mortgage with Jefferson Levy, purchasing the estate for $100,000 in cash and a note for $400,000.
- Melvin Urofsky, 2001. Originally published as "The Levy Family and Monticello, 1834-1923," in Monticello Keepsake 70 (November 2001).
931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
Charlottesville, VA 22902