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Discoveries in the North Passage

Diane Ehrenpreis

People today often forget how flexible rooms were in the past. The North Passage on the 2nd floor of Monticello is a prime example of multi-functionality. Of course it was a corridor, but it also acted as a storage area, work room, and as sleeping quarters for visitors and enslaved workers.

This passage, approximately 8' wide by 27’ long, offered a considerable amount of useable space in the crowded household. The window on the north wall offered light and ventilation, modulating temperature.

View of the partially reinstalled N. Passage, note the bedroll in the far right.

Two bedrooms and the north stairway open onto this space, linking it to the dependencies, rooms below, and bedrooms above. Given this geographic location in the house, it could justifiably be described as the “crossroads” of the 2nd and 3rd floors.

As with homes today, older furniture was relocated upstairs in the 19th century, away from public view. With this in mind, today an 18th century Monticello high chest of drawers, which would have provided storage for bed linens and clothing, anchors the space. A travel trunk at rest and a “sofa bedstead” echo the presence of temporary guests. A paper-covered folding screen shields the commode stool from view, a modicum of privacy in a public space. A recently studied document confirmed that 17 year old enslaved house servant Patsy Fossett was, “asleep in the passage window” at least one night during the winter of 1827. Today, a cinched bedroll behind a pair of Windsor chairs indicates the presence of enslaved domestic workers sleeping in the North Passage.

Over time, Jefferson may have commissioned as many as six sofas that doubled as beds for extra visitors. In the coming weeks, the North Passage will be ready to welcome visitors to its confines once again.

The Mountaintop Project is made possible by a transformational contribution from David M. Rubenstein. Leading support was provided by Fritz and Claudine Kundrun, along with generous gifts and grants from the Sarah and Ross Perot, Jr. Foundation, the Robert H. Smith Family Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. John H. Birdsall, Mr. and Mrs. B. Grady Durham, the Mars Family, the Richard S. Reynolds Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Charlotte Moss and Barry Friedberg, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, the Cabell Foundation, the Garden Club of Virginia, and additional individuals, organizations, and foundations.

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