Fancy Footwork: Meandering to Monticello

As you pull into the small parking lot near the bottom of the Thomas Jefferson Parkway (a.k.a. Route 53), the bright sun's glint on the windshield beckons you from your car's snug warmth to a wintry walk. Fine gravel crunches beneath your feet as you set off on the broad Saunders-Monticello Trail, an expanse of green to your right and a hill of tall pines on your left. After walking a few hundred yards, you notice a small sign by your right foot bearing a cigarette with a slash through it so discreet, so tasteful.

As you turn to begin the gentle ascent of Carter's Mountain toward Monticello, bare-limbed young dogwoods and redbuds flank the trail. The air smells of damp earth and fallen leaves. You stroll through a series of lazy switchbacks, first lined with pines and then with oaks, until you round a bend to come upon a glassy pond where Canada geese doze or peck along the bank.

Above the pond, winding through the forest, a gracious boardwalk rises and falls with the contour of the land. The trail merges with the wooden walkway, and you notice another discreet and tasteful sign, pointing out that dogs are not allowed beyond this point. The boards softly resonate with your footfalls until you stop to lean on the rail and gaze across Route 53, beyond the pond, taking in the panorama of Charlottesville below the distant Blue Ridge Mountains.

But something is missing.

Power lines, for one thing. The black cables that used to hang along Route 53 are nowhere in sight. The mountain's sweeping vistas are beautifully unobstructed.

Something else that's missing is a huge multi-million-dollar office complex, complete with giant asphalt parking lots and heli-pads that was supposed to be here. But in Albemarle County, where the sprawl along 29 North creeps relentlessly forward like a column of army ants decimating the countryside, the story of the Thomas Jefferson Parkway is of a different kind of community development.

Its origin goes back to the late 1980s, when the University of Virginia, which owned the land at the base of Route 53, proposed building an $11-million complex on the site. Among other organizations, the Virginia Department of Forestry (now located in the Fontaine Research Park) planned to set up house in the new office project.

The proposal immediately raised eyebrows at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which worried that the modern buildings would produce an unsightly entrance to Monticello and further compromise the views from the mountaintop (with previous development on Pantops serving as an unfortunate example). The Foundation went to work to find an alternative.

Few people realize that Monticello is not publicly owned. In fact, the estate belongs to the private Thomas Jefferson Foundation, whose 16-member Board of Trustees supervises its programs and management. Working with the support of Albemarle County, the Foundation proposed to buy the threatened land from UVA.

Board member R. Crosby Kemper, a Missouri banker who first became involved with Monticello when he helped the Foundation acquire a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Jefferson, stepped forward with a $500,000 check. Kemper's half-million secured 89 acres extending to Michie Tavern on the south side of 53, plus a 16-acre buffer on the north side of the road. (The gift also secured his name on the grassy park that now sits at the trailhead.)

Ironically, just north of the buffer lies the abandoned Blue Ridge Hospital, currently at the center of a new preservation controversy involving UVA and The Thomas Jefferson Foundation. The former sanatorium closed in 1991 (the same year the Foundation sealed the deal with UVA for the property along Route 53), and the Commonwealth of Virginia entrusted the site to UVA in 1998.

Two years ago UVA announced plans to build another gargantuan research park. This time, however, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation would lease part of the development for Monticello's new visitors' center. But architectural historians such as UVA's Daniel Bluestone jumped in to point out the historical significance of the tuberculosis treatment center, arguing that its buildings should be restored rather than demolished, a position supported by previous architectural assessments.

Responding to the outcry, UVA and the Foundation hired architectural preservation specialist Doug Gilpin to evaluate the rehabilitation prospects for a handful of Blue Ridge Hospital buildings, including the barns on the site slated for Monticello's new visitors' center. Gilpin provided his reports– which focused on the cost of saving and re-using the designated structures– earlier this year, but it's unclear how they will affect project plans. Bluestone, however, says he has the impression Monticello may now be backing away from its commitment to participate in the development– a move which Bluestone believes could cost the Foundation $3 million.

The last time the Foundation differed with UVA on land use, the pendulum swung toward preservation. But the question in the early 1990s was what to do with the 105 acres along Route 53 now that it had been saved. Board chairman Robert Carter argued adamantly for the creation of a parkway. Foundation president Dan Jordan recalls, "His reasoning was straightforward: If George Washington has a parkway, which he does, then so should Thomas Jefferson!"

Although Carter died in 1995, the preservationist's influence on how the project unfolded was substantial, according to Jordan.

"More than anyone [Carter] deserves to be called the father of the Thomas Jefferson Parkway," Jordan says. (So it's fitting that an offshoot of the trail now leads to Carter Overlook.)

Albemarle County agreed to designate Route 53 "The Thomas Jefferson Parkway," and the Foundation invited leading landscape architects around the country to submit proposals for what the Parkway should be.

"We wanted a firm that shared our preservation values and that could propose to some difficult terrain issues," says Jordan. In 1993, the Foundation offered the job to hometown team Rieley and Associates, which had received an American Society of Landscape Architects Merit Award for a study of Acadia National Park's carriage roads in Maine.

"One of the things we said at our interview and at the dedication," explains architect Will Rieley, "is that a parkway is not a road but a park that contains a road. If you don't have a park, you don't have a parkway."

Rieley and Associates proposed burying all overhead wires between the entrance to 53 at Route 20 South and Michie Tavern. They also wished to create a 75-acre park and arboretum at the bottom of the mountain and a wide, gentle trail to take pedestrians and cyclists from the park to the entrance of Monticello.

"In the initial studies," Rieley says, "we realized, much to our surprise, that we could get from the bottom to the top with only a five percent grade." The five-percent figure is magic for wheelchair accessibility because it signifies a gradual rise that doesn't require handrails.

The tricky question was how to get the handicapped-accessible trail across the mountain's formidably steep slopes without cutting, leveling, and sacrificing a large number of native trees. The Rieley solution: Build a series of boardwalks passing through the trees where the terrain's pitch exceeds a 33 percent grade. The wooden walkways would both preserve the forest and allow hillside drainage to remain natural. When Peter Hatch, Monticello's Director of Gardens and Grounds, saw the blueprints for the elaborate trail construction, he was amazed. "It didn't seem conceivable, didn't seem possible," he says.

But in his role as project manager, Hatch quickly became a believer.

"Will Rieley presents the nuts-and-bolts skills of an engineer with the architectural skills of a designer," he notes. Hatch now calls the path "the Mercedes of trails."

Obviously, building a high-end trail for a high-end parkway requires high-end funding.

To augment private donations, the Foundation applied to a federal program called ISTEA (the acronym for Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, pronounced "ice tea"), which encourages efficient, environmentally sound means of transportation. Over the coming years, thanks to ISTEA, the Parkway would drink in a cool and refreshing $3.5 million.

The project team hired A.G. Dillard to handle the surface sections of the trail and Abrahamse & Company to build the boardwalks. They broke ground in 1995. The yellow pine walkways presented an unusual challenge because, unlike traditional boardwalks which are straight and level, Rieley envisioned his curving in and out of ravines and wrapping around the mountain, rising and falling with the terrain. The builders and architects developed a special spreadsheet to figure out the board measurements by plugging in the radii of the curves. Rieley says the Abrahamse workers also invented tools for the task.

The construction was painstaking. With forest preservation always a priority, the project team wasn't about to bring behemoth ditch diggers and cement trucks into the woods. Instead, workers dug each hole for the supporting posts by hand, then rolled wheelbarrows with concrete to the edge of the section, and passed five-gallon buckets one by one down to pour the cement footings.

"You just could not have had a less intrusive construction project," says Rieley.

There was a moment of high drama, though, according to Rieley and Hatch, when a heavy rain caused a small landslide where the trail crosses the Carter's Mountain Orchard Road. The destabilized area put the trail's course in jeopardy. The project team brought in Gooch Engineering and Testing, which removed the unstable material and rebuilt the affected section like an earthen dam. "That," Rieley recalls with a wry smile, "was a harrowing moment."

Although most of the trail construction finished up by the end of 1998, the Saunders-Monticello Trail didn't officially welcome walkers, cyclists, and joggers to its 1.65-mile stretch until 2000. When visitors reached the end of the last boardwalk at the top of the mountain, however, they encountered a padlocked gate with a nicely lettered sign informing them that the final leg of the trail to Monticello was not yet complete very discreet, very tasteful. And for many trail users, very disappointing.

This last section proved to be the biggest challenge since it entailed building a bridge across Route 53 to connect the Parkway's trail with Monticello's grounds. Rieley's original proposal featured an impressive stone arch bridge for this purpose because, as he says, a stone arch bridge is the hallmark of a good parkway. Nevertheless, as the Parkway's costs escalated in the 1990s, the Foundation began to think a more modest bridge might work just as well. Rieley's associate Roxanne Brouse recalls they considered all kinds of options for the site, ranging from recycled railroad trestles to prefabricated metal crossways to covered bridges.

Never one to back down, late Foundation chair (and resident mover and shaker) Carter insisted they shouldn't be swayed into taking the cheap route. Jordan remembers, "He certainly was a champion of a bridge worthy of Monticello.... He had a vision and a stubborn commitment to its realization." Foundation members also realized they had at last the opportunity to get rid of the hazardous left turn into Monticello off Route 53. With a big enough bridge, cars and tour buses now have a right turn and a "permanent scenic entrance" to the great estate.

Thomas Jefferson himself discussed a plan to build a bridge linking his upper and lower lands in his 1804 "General Ideas for the Improvement of Monticello." Taking Jefferson's idea to heart, Rieley began to research: What would Jefferson do?

"Will did the equivalent of a Master's thesis on Jefferson and bridges," laughs Jordan. Rieley discovered that Jefferson had a particular passion for the stone arch bridges he had encountered in Europe. In particular, he admired architect Jean-Rudolph Perronet's Pont de Nuilley in Paris, referring to it in several letters, among them his famous "Dialogue between my Head and Heart."

Rieley's team produced a design reminiscent of Perronet's masterpiece, featuring 65 precisely cut granite stones or voussoirs, which fit together to form the arch, and a face of roughhewn fieldstone, "much like the stonework Jefferson did himself."

If the path up the mountain was the Mercedes of trails, surely this would be the Rolls Royce of stone arch bridges. But such a bridge came with a hefty price tag in this case, an eye-opening $3.2 million and the Foundation found itself in need of another sizeable gift. Board member Tom Saunders and his wife, Jordan, rose to the occasion with $1.5 million to cover a little more than half the bridge's expense. Hence the name Saunders Bridge.

Construction began in 2000, with Espina Stone and English Construction using bridge-building techniques that hadn't been used in over 100 years, according to Hatch. Whereas most contemporary bridges use scaffolding as support, an earthen berm covered over with plywood girded this arch while workers laid stone and poured concrete. The granite for the seven-sided voussoirs was harvested in Maine and cut in Quebec. Rieley says Brouse went over each stone with a fine-tooth comb, measuring and re-measuring to make sure the fit would be exact.

"That was the most nerve-wracking part of the project," he recalls. " I lost sleep thinking about whether those stones would fit together."

The fieldstone was another story. For that, they turned to a Highland County man named Roy Grant, whose wife had won the lottery a few years back. Instead of retiring rich, stone-loving Roy Grant spent some of the winnings on a mountain of rock, which he spends his time quarrying. For months Grant loaded and hauled the fieldstone by himself, driving back and forth across Afton Mountain in his little Toyota pick-up.

Finally, with the project lagging far behind schedule, the engineers sent a crew with a backhoe and a dump truck to speed up the job. Nevertheless, Hatch says Grant's little truck served as a "major prop" at the bridge's dedication.

But before the bridge could be dedicated, it had to be "decentered," the engineering step that removes whatever has supported a bridge during construction to see if it will stand on its own. In the case of Saunders Bridge, decentering involved tunneling the dirt out from under the arch. For the first time, the stone masons could see the result of their months of labor. And, fortunately, the bridge stood solid and firm.

Although Saunders Bridge officially opened to traffic last July, the Foundation formally dedicated it on November 2 in a ceremony with music by John D'earth and remarks by no fewer than 14 speakers. The gate at the end of the trail's last boardwalk finally opened onto the stretch of trail that crosses the bridge and ends at Monticello's visitors' parking lot (where a sign discreetly and tastefully informs trail users they must purchase a ticket to visit Monticello).

But the opening of Saunders Bridge does not mark completion of the Parkway. At the other end of the now 2.2-mile trail, Peter Hatch and Parkway Manager Will Meyer are hard at work developing the arboretum. Hired in 1998, Meyer is responsible for maintaining all aspects of the Parkway, but the trail has turned out to be "pretty maintenance-free," he says. That leaves him more time to work on the arboretum, his true love.

Eventually, the arboretum will contain an example of every plant species native to Albemarle County, about 180 in total, according to Jay Kardan, who leads seasonal Sunday nature walks along the trail. Meyer and Hatch have grouped these native collections into thematic "rooms."

The Spring Flower room, for instance, runs along both sides of the trail as it begins its ascent out of Kemper Park. On the left are sun-loving dogwoods, redbuds, and magnolias; on the right, in the woods above, are shade-loving bloomers, such as rhododedron.

The Fall Viewing Room surrounds the pond, planted trees, and shrubs known for their vivid autumn colors. Currently, Meyer is busy planning the Winter Interest Room, located in a pine clearing just beyond the Spring Flower Room, which will showcase native plants that have unusual cold-weather aspects, such as colorful berries or winter flowers.

Although Meyer says, "I'd like people to know this is an arboretum and that there's a plan to what we plant," he's the first to admit that this aspect of the Parkway is not immediately obvious. "I'm responsible for what little interpretation there is right now. We've got a lot to do on that score," he says. Currently there's no signage to let visitors know they're walking through the "rooms," although labeling trees and providing interpretive explanations are on the arboretum agenda.

Both Meyer and Hatch take the educational aspect of the park seriously, considering it part of the Jeffersonian ideal. In addition to continuing the Sunday-morning nature walks next spring, they plan to build an outdoor classroom adjacent to the upper Spring Flower Room.

Meyer wants to take school groups on two- or three-hour programs "investigating trees and soils, even water flow on the property." He conducted the first such exercise this fall, instructing elementary school students in how to look for clues revealing past land usage. They examined plow furrows at the edge of the woods, pine trees planted in rows, and an old cement-boxed spring.

Meyer's pet project, though, is a little less serious and a little farther in the future: a Children's Garden that will occupy a hillside at the edge of Kemper Park. He gets excited talking about how children will be able to play in a tree tunnel, a maze with a hillock rising from the middle, a cave, a boulder garden, and a true tree house (the steep slope will allow safe entry by a ramp). Although the Children's Garden seems to capture everyone's imagination, the planning is still at the conceptual stage. Architect Brouse sums up the situation with a laugh: "We do the pretty drawing, and they try to raise the money."

Of more immediate concern is completing construction of the pedestrian underpass, which should solve the growing parking problem. A provision in the original purchase agreement with UVA restricts the trailhead's parking lot to a mere 12 spaces. As more and more people have discovered the Trail, they have resorted to parking cars on the grass, a situation that drives Meyer batty. The new underpass will carry visitors safely beneath Route 53 from an overflow parking area to be located near the current Monticello visitors' center.

So far, architect Brouse says, over 50,000 people have walked the trail. According to an informal survey by Meyer, about 80 percent of the parks' users are Charlottesville and Albemarle County residents (in contrast to Monticello, where 97.5 percent of the visitors come from outside the area), making it a true community park.

The weekend after Thanksgiving, despite high winds and intermittent rain, the Parkway was busy with locals showing off the trail and its serpentine boardwalks to out-of-town guests. The adjective used over and over to describe the trail is "terrific." Lynn Horwitz, of Charlottesville, walks with Joan Humphrey, who is visiting from Morristown, New Jersey. Horwitz says they first visited the trail on Thanksgiving, inspired by the prospect of eating too much food.

New to the trail are Jeanette and Mitchell Bieber, of Charlottesville, and Mitchell's mother, Arlene Ardizzone, who lives in Delray Beach, Florida. Ardizzone gushes, "I loved it because I'm a walker and a runner, and I love exercise." She adds the trail is perfect for someone her age because hiking some of the area's rougher trails is too taxing.

Sisters-in-law Debbie and Linda Wade have come to the trail with fitness in mind. Although it's Linda's first time, Debbie's hit the trail three or four times in the past week. She says, "A friend told me it was a nice, safe place to walk," but what she loves best is the "peace." A worker for 911 Emergency Services, she says, "This is a place where I can come relax a little."

Mary Cottone, of Ivy, and Ricardo Davila of Chesapeake are returning from their second outing on the trail. Cottone says she enjoys being able to walk up to Monticello since she's an advocate for more pedestrian-oriented travel. Davila can't get over the quality of the trail and the construction of the boardwalks.

Perhaps Davila speaks for everyone when he says, "Whoever did this, they're the real heroes of this thing.... Whoever was involved with this, please tell them that we thank them."

And to think it might all have been an office park.

Laura Parsons is a freelance writer living in Charlottesville. She is the former editor ot Blue Ridge Outdoors.