ON ARCHITECTURE- Name recognition: Using TJ as a marketing tool
Unbeknownst to him, Thomas Jefferson has sold a lot of real estate in this town. Using the name of Charlottesville's most celebrated citizen– not to mention architect and designer– as a marketing tool (or to promote just about anything) is apparently too tempting to pass up.
For example, Virginia Estates attempts to lure homebuyers to the area by touting the "venerable tradition of social and economic stability" that prompted Jefferson to call Albemarle County "the Eden of the United States." Never mind that Jefferson wasn't talking about the economy when he wrote those words, but about the Piedmont's lush landscape– or that most of the rest of the country was a vast wilderness at the time. These historic properties have to be sold!
In addition, McLean Faulconer Inc.– boasting of its commitment to promoting conservation easements– suggests that it preserves the lifestyle Jefferson admired when he extolled the "situation of Charlottesville ...in a delicious climate" and described the area as a "good society and free as the air in religion and politics."
In Amelia County, another real estate company touts the fact that Thomas Jefferson's cousin was the architect and builder of Winterham Plantation (yours for a mere $1,499,950). In fact, selling historic Virginia properties is such big business that 26 of the 56 historic properties listed for sale in the Jan/Feb 2006 issue of Preservation magazine are located in Virginia.
Even some national real estate companies have jumped on the Jefferson bandwagon. ERA, a world-wide franchise brokerage company, rallied the troops recently with this Jefferson quote: "This, you will say was in rule, to fall in love with a fine woman: but, with a house! It is out of all precedent! No, madam, it is not without a precedent in my own history." What an inspiration for real estate agents to know that in falling in love with the properties they sell, they're just like Thomas Jefferson!
Not only is Jefferson good for a quote, but the fact that he designed such a wide range of projects– from Monticello and UVA (who's never shy about using the founder at every juncture) to the Richmond Capitol, from dozens of private homes in Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania to apartments in Paris and jails in Lovingston– makes claims of a connection almost ubiquitous.
As UVA architectural history professor Richard Guy Wilson pointed out recently, hundreds of people worked on UVA and other Jefferson projects, and many of those people, inspired by their boss, went on to do their own jobs across the state. As a result, Wilson joked, "Almost every building around with red and white trim" is rumored to have been designed by Jefferson.
Take, for example, a bold assertion in Roy Wheeler Realty Company's February 5 Daily Progress ad for Mount Pleasant Plantation, a colonial manor house on nearly 2,500 acres listed for $28 million. The house, the ad claims, was "reputedly designed by Thomas Jefferson."
On murcielagofarms.com, the current owner's website– where Mount Pleasant is also offered as a luxury rental– the claim is even bolder: "designed by Thomas Jefferson."
As luck would have it, Jefferson saved nearly every scrap of paper he put his pen to. And there's no document or drawing connecting him to Mount Pleasant or its design, according to Calder Loth, senior architectural historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
"Of course," says Loth, further confirming Wilson's theory, "many of the workmen who worked for Jefferson on Monticello and UVA learned the rules of classical architecture while on the job.
"...and they continued to use properly executed classical detailing on the many works they built in the region," he adds. "I suspect that Mount Pleasant may be the work of one of Jefferson's disciples rather than TJ himself."
Mount Pleasant's owner, Thomas Sullivan, is no stranger to controversy. A former wireless telecom mogul, over the past two years, he has infuriated many of his neighbors by paving and widening Blenheim Road and attempting to sell farms and farmettes in the area. His website now lists properties ranging from 22 acres for $295,000 to 234 acres for $2.2 million– all the way to the whole Sullivan shebang of 3,950 acres– that's over six square miles– for an even $50 million.
Ironically, Mount Pleasant may be unique in the way it deviates from Jeffersonian design. According to Loth, the Tuscan portico on the end of the house that follows many of the classical rules characteristic of Jefferson's works (i.e. column and cornice detailing) is unusual in that it has only three columns.
"It's the only tri-style portico that I know of in the State," says Loth.
That may be true, but it's the "designed by Jefferson" tag that cools the sting of that multi-million dollar price tag.
For $28 million, this so-called Jefferson-designed farm can be yours!
PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR