Charlottesville: Virginia As It Should Be

The college town of Charlottesville epitomizes all that swing-state Virginia ought to be. Historic, progressive, arty and beautiful.

I love dead Presidents. Well, not all of them. Just Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, whose homes surround the graceful Virginia haven of Charlottesville, and whose Revolutionary spirit seem to infuse everything about this town of 40,000.

Charlottesville is a small blue city tucked into a mostly red state. Gay bumper stickers are on cars parked near the Downtown Mall, the pedestrian-only part of Main Street lined with antique stores, music venues, bookstores and restaurants—and the office of the Charlottesville Democrats.

Unlike Richmond, an hour to the east, or the Shenandoah Valley, an hour west, no Civil War battles were fought here. No Revolutionary War battles either, though in 1781 Hessian soldiers did come knocking on the door of Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation, only to find that he had been warned away by the South’s version of Paul Revere and had fled the Redcoats just an hour before.

But this is the area where the main thinkers behind the Monroe Doctrine, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence wiled away their hours, mulling over the startling ideas that would lead to the founding of our country (ideas they didn’t always practice themselves, as they were slaveholders). That independent spirit lives on. The Charlottesville City Council consistently supports gay rights, and Charlottesville voters tend to support gay issues overwhelmingly, even though most Virginians don’t.

It is likely that this has a lot to do with the progressive University of Virginia, designed by Jefferson, whose grounds (insiders know the school’s buildings and property is never called a “campus”; it’s a fussy local tradition) reins over the city’s heart and center. The charming neoclassical buildings (and the cuties playing Frisbee or studying on the Lawn) make the university a fun place to tour on a bright afternoon.

You have not seen Charlottesville, however, if you haven’t toured the surrounding Presidential houses. James Madison’s Montpelier, about 30 minutes north, is undergoing renovation, but if you’re a fan of HGTV you won’t want to miss seeing this $60 million project up close. The house has been stripped down to the lathing, and teams of experts are painstakingly working with original materials to bring the house back to 1820. They’re not working with original tools, but you can see what the original builders used in a comprehensive exhibit – and get a taste for Madison and his wife Dolley’s lavish life as well.

James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland is still a working plantation (though this time it is staffed with paid employees and volunteers, thankfully). Pay a visit to the peacocks strutting the grounds, or sigh over the French Empire furniture inside.

But the crowning glory of presidential houses is Monticello, which is Jefferson’s mind in brick and glass. A compass spins in the porch ceiling; a calendar propelled by weights tells the day in the entrance hall; books in six languages line the library; windows are triple-hung and slide up to let the mountain breezes in.

Tour guides encourage you to try a few of the native, heirloom fruits and vegetables in the garden – some figs to sustain you on your walk, or a crisp, crescent-shaped pepper.

While you walk the grounds, you can meditate on the Jeffersonian idea that we are all entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – in this corner of Virginia, it all seems possible.