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Jefferson's "Venetian" blinds: a Story of Investigation and Restoration

Bob Self

This year, the Restoration Department concluded their research into the design of Monticello’s original exterior “Venetian” blinds. The search ultimately led them from Monticello to the U.S. Capitol.

The National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol

Monticello’s current blinds date to the early 20th century and have reached the end of their serviceable life. Nowadays exterior blinds, or “shutters” as most people refer to them, are merely decorative. However, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, they were an essential feature of virtually every house. As the name suggests, blinds were used primarily to control light levels. In combination with opening the windows for ventilation, they kept the interior shaded and cooler in the summer months. The movable slats, specified by Jefferson for the lower sets, provided an extra measure of adjustment and also could have provided some protection in the event of a summer thunderstorm while still allowing the windows to remain open to take advantage of the cooling breezes.

Detail of Jefferson's 1804 memorandum on Venetian blinds

In 1804, Jefferson ordered Monticello’s Venetian blinds from Washington joiner Peter Lenox. Lenox also made window blinds in 1817 for the National Statuary Hall, the meeting place in the U.S. Capitol for the House of Representatives until 1857.  They still survive and, along with one of the original blinds made by Jefferson’s master joiner James Dinsmore for Montpelier, James Madison’s home in Orange County, clarified Jefferson's meaning of "laths moving on 2. pivots," as described in his 1804 memorandum.

Photographs of the West Front ca. late 1880’s by Rufus Holsinger

Photographs taken in the late 1880’s by Rufus Holsinger show what appear to be the original blinds still in place. These photos were crucial in making design decisions such as the number and spacing of the slats and the size of the stock used for the frames.

Measured drawing of the lower, movable-slat version by Gardiner Hallock

Measured drawings for the new blinds were produced in-house by architectural historian Gardiner Hallock and the Charlottesville millwork firm Gaston & Wyatt has finished producing them using heart pine, the same wood used originally. We expect them to be installed during the upcoming spring and summer. The last step will be a final coat of “verdigris green” paint based on paint analysis of an original slat in Monticello’s architectural artifacts collection.

Prototype blind at Gaston & Wyatt’s shop      Detail showing the blind mechanism

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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