Storied history: Clifton a gift from TJ

Long before it made headlines with the profound tragedy of last week's fire, Clifton had earned worldwide accolades for its hospitality. The property's storied history, however, goes back to Thomas Jefferson.

When his 17-year-old daughter, Martha– "Patsy" as Jefferson called her– married the son of his best friend in February 1790, the future president bestowed 1,000 acres on the young couple.

Thomas Mann Randolph Jr. and Patsy began their family of eight children on that farm, called Edgehill.

In addition to the land, Jefferson gave the young couple 25 slaves who planted the fields with tobacco.

Jefferson's son-in-law made a name for himself by advocating "contour" or "horizontal" plowing to lessen the chance of erosion, according to "Thomas Mann Randolph: Piedmont Plowman," a 1951 article in the Magazine of Albemarle County History. According to author William Gaines Jr., Randolph was probably taking a cue from Jethro Tull, the British agronomist and inventor whose landmark 1733 volume, Horse-Hoeing Husbandry, revolutionized agriculture.

With all that tobacco, Randolph needed a warehouse. According to the National Register of Historic Places, the original single-story building that came to be known as Clifton began its life early in the 19th century as a warehouse in what Randolph hoped would become a thriving port called North Milton. From the Register:

"Randolph and several partners planned the town adjacent to the Milton Canal to support the agricultural and commercial development occurring in the area and to compete with the then-prosperous but now extinct community of Milton across the Rivanna River."

The Register says the warehouse eventually became the Randolph residence. The eight children, however, left with their mother to live at Monticello, hilltop home of the by-then retired president.

Like his famously insolvent father-in-law, Randolph racked up extensive debts. He lost Clifton and the rest of his farm to a debtor's auction in 1826, according to Thomas Jefferson: A Life by Willard Sterne Randall.

History took another turn in the Civil War when, according to the Clifton Inn's website, John Singleton Mosby– the former UVA student who became the "Grey Ghost" of the Confederacy– delivered supplies to a secret hiding place on the Clifton property to avoid Union troops lurking near the house.

Old newspaper clippings suggest that in the 1920s, as the Colonial Revival architectural craze was sweeping the nation, the building was expanded and renovated in that style.

It remained a house until 1985 when it was converted to the inn, followed by the restaurant, which opened in 1991.

Owner Mitch Willey, a UVA law grad, based in Alexandria, could not be reached for comment, but his marketing director, Veronica Uhryniak, says Clifton is part of Time and Place Homes, an assemblage of upscale accommodations in such places as Paris, Palm Springs, and Nantucket.

"Mitch does certainly plan to rebuild," says Uhryniak, "but the timeline is too early to know."