Moving a mountain: How Monticello got Montalto back
"What a view!" says U.S. Senator George Allen, who lived on Brown's Mountain in the 1970s while attending UVA's School of Law. "There's no other place where you can drive down a mountain and say hello to Mr. Jefferson."
But does Mr. Jefferson really want to say hello to more traffic? That proximity had long been bothering Monticello boss Dan Jordan. From any point on the lawn side of Monticello, Brown's Mountain, looming 400 feet higher than TJ's house, is a constant presence. Jordan has spent a large part of his career preserving Jefferson's environs and returning them to their appearance in the 19th century, when the Sage of Monticello held about 5,000 acres.
So imagine Jordan's chagrin in mid-January when he learned that visitors might soon be looking up at 24 "McMansions."
Some quick calls and some high-dollar assurances from top donors mean that the peak Jefferson dubbed "Montalto"– Italian for "high mountain"– is coming back to Monticello. Here's how it happened.
How Montalto went astray
When Jefferson died on July 4, 1826– 50 years after the Declaration of Independencehe left behind a new nation and a new concept of liberty. But historians say that Jefferson also left his relatives about $100,000 in debt. Deeds on file at the Albemarle County courthouse show that after selling Monticello itself, Martha and Thomas Randolph, Jefferson's beloved daughter and son-in-law, sold the 439.5-acre tract that included Montalto in 1832. The sale, for $5,110, helped put a dent in the debt.
The return of the mountain will not be so cheap, and Monticello's current leaders might wish their predecessors hadn't turned down their opportunity to buy the property in the mid-1970s when the price was just a little over $600,000.
By contrast, the deal consummated last month will cost $15 million, and could eventually mean the end of the Charlottesville tradition known as Kite Day, and an end to life on the mountain for an ever-present crew of law students. That's the bad news.
The good news is that Monticello's boss is already lining up eager donors and talking about extending nature trails up the hill. But for now, it's business as usual at this private property, and the signs are clear: Keep out or face arrest.
The harshly worded signs, says Rick Jones, president of Management Services Corporation, are meant to protect the privacy of the people who live there. Interlopers, he says, are a constant problem.
"You would not believe the people who call and want to go up there," says Jones. "They want to get married, they want to take a picture, they want to look at Monticello."
For Jones, the property is more than just an assemblage of rental units his firm has managed since September 1990. "It's unique in the world," he says. "Where else can you actually look down on Monticello?"
Jones particularly likes the names of the converted farm buildings– which definitely rank among the zestier apartment names in town: "The names are what those were when it was a farm. The 'Silo' was the silo. The 'Corn Crib' was the corn crib. The 'Pig Sty' was the pig sty."
"I hope we'll continue," says Jones. "I'm hoping they don't want to be in the business of managing rental income property."
One management headache is the paucity of water. Jones says two wells– one about halfway up the mountain and the other at the base– feed a system of pumps and pipes carrying water to mountain-top tanks that serve the renters.
The mountain-top apartments, which range from $600 to $1,000 a month, are available to anyone, while the "manor house"– renting for just under $3,000– it typically grabbed by law students.
As for the secret of how an ever-changing band of law students is able to rent the manor house year after year, Jones says it's no big conspiracy, but a mutually beneficial relationship.
"They keep it like any other apartment in Charlottesville," he says. "You find out that your friends are graduating, and you get them to renew. It's a convenience for us and for the owner. It's expensive to find new residents."
What's in a name?
The so-called manor house is actually a large stucco bungalow, a summer place built by Philadelphia land baron James A. Patterson shortly after he bought the land in 1904.
A succession of owners, including Martha Jefferson Hospital, held the property for short bursts in the 20th century until the Browns came along.
Lois and Nelson Brown traded their five acres on Watson Avenue in Charlottesville along with $12,500 for this then-230-acre farm in 1950 when their daughter, Susan, was 10 years old. "We are the only family who made it a year-round home," says Susan Brown Craig, now of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
When her parents bought the place, many locals were still calling it "Patterson's Mountain," but Patterson himself had dubbed it "Repose," a name mostly lost to history, unless one counts the brass plaque now tucked away in Craig's house. Her parents, she says, never called it "Brown's Mountain." They named it "Mountain House."
Today, the place is officially known as "Mountaintop Farm," another name that hasn't stuck. An undated Stevens & Company real estate brochure touting the property before the Brown purchase called it "Carter Ridge Farm."
Craig isn't sure how her parents decided to trade away their north downtown property, but she's glad they did.
"For a 10-year-old this was big stuff to move to a place where there were horses," she says. But for all the oohs and aahs over Brown's Mountain today, Craig points out that the horses were workhorses, and the condition of the property was less lofty than its site.
"There was not one electrical switch in the house," she says. "It was all strings hanging down from the middle of the ceiling."
And water, she says, was truly undependable: "If it was a dry summer in Charlottesville, we just didn't have water." That created a big problem when fires struck.
In the summer of 1958, a lightning strike ignited the tallest building on the property, a water tower near the house. "Fortunately," reports Craig, "the wind shifted, and it came back on itself."
That was lucky for the Browns, because word of the fire spread like well– wildfire, and cars were suddenly converging on Route 53. "It could have been put out sooner," says Craig. "People were causing such traffic jams."
That wasn't the first fire to plague the Browns.
In 1931, the Browns rented a storefront in the 300 block of East Main Street and began what was to become a Charlottesville institution: Brown's Gifts. But not without setbacks. On New Year's Eve 1932, the night they chose to celebrate a year in business, their first store was gutted by fire, and an "incorrectly written" insurance policy– according to a family history by Lois Brown– left them uncompensated.
They reopened just three months later at another location, the southeast corner of Fourth and Main. Now a banking lobby and office building, the structure became a veritable department store, offering picture framing, women's sportswear, a soda fountain, antiques, and bridal gowns. It also featured an atrium that gave it big-city flair.
But around 10pm on February 13, 1954, fire struck again, completely demolishing the building. The catastrophe, however, provided Charlottesville bargain hunters a way to visit Brown's Mountain, as the family decided to sell its salvaged merchandise from the mountain-top barn. The three-day Easter weekend sale was such a hit that they operated the "Barn Gift Shop" from August to December of that year.
In 1960, the Browns came up with another novel way to share their mountain– and create a steady revenue stream: They converted the farm buildings into apartments. "My dad named all the apartments," says Craig, "and my mother made all the drapes."
Charlottesville artist Andrew Smith considers his year on Brown's Mountain "one of the coolest experiences I ever had." His $630-a-month apartment was in the "Pig Sty."
"You could tell it actually was a pig sty," says Smith, "because it was a series of low stalls. You couldn't smell them, but you could sense that pigs had been there."
Smith was reluctantly forced off the mountain by his ailing ride, a 1964 Comet, which had a tendency to fail on the steep, nearly mile-long driveway. Worst was the time it stopped on one of the blind curves of Route 53, when only a bumper-to-bumper push from a friendly man in an SUV saved Smith from a collision, he believes. His Comet was so feeble that he often commuted on foot, sometimes cutting through the old Blue Ridge Hospital grounds to downtown Charlottesville.
Smith says that when heavy snowstorms closed the serpentine road, he'd find himself "gladly trapped." He even occasionally rode a sled to the bottom. The road's hairpin turns, however, proved more than inconvenient one fall night over 20 years ago.
Fire everyone could see
On September 22, 1982, a fire began in one of the apartments. According to a Daily Progress story, firefighters had the blaze under control when a newly arriving tanker, lumbering uphill, jackknifed, blocking the driveway for 45 precious minutes and allowing the fire to flare up again. Six firefighters were injured, and 20 residents were left homeless in the blaze, which was visible to thousands of Charlottesville residents.
Charlottesville Battalion chief Britt Grimm remembers the night well. He and other top officers had gathered for the monthly meeting of the Jefferson Country Fire and Rescue Association at the East Rivanna Fire Company– then located by the post office in Keswick– when the alarms started coming in.
"That pretty much ended the meeting," says Grimm. Although he was off-duty, Grimm headed up the mountain in his "personal vehicle."
"I didn't want to miss out," he explains.
"It was dominating the skyline," adds Grimm, comparing the scene to a 1968 film starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood: "It was like the final scene of Where Eagles Dare."
The spring of 1975 was a momentous time for George Allen. The son of the head coach of the Washington Redskins and a stand-out UVA quarterback in his own right, young Allen was about to graduate from Mr. Jefferson's University and was weighing a professional sports offer. The World Football League, an upstart trying to compete with the NFL, promised some exciting innovations, such as moving the goal-posts to the back of the end zone. At the height of 1970s fashion zaniness, the League briefly experimented with putting decorations on each player's pants to clarify his position.
But for Allen, a new offer that he says arrived on Mr. Jefferson's birthday, April 13, helped him make up his mind. He was going to UVA Law School. The momentous decision paved his way to becoming Virginia's governor and a U.S. Senator. Moreover, it paved his way to Montalto.
The future politician spent his first year in law school living in a cottage on Route 20 South, but he knew that classmates enjoyed digs on higher grounds. While Brown's Mountain had changed hands a year earlier, Mr. and Mrs. Brown continued to live in the manor house for two more years as renters– and trying to keep out the riff-raff.
"My father wouldn't allow motorcycles," says Susan Brown Craig. "He was kind of picky about who he rented to." Craig says this is how the tradition of law students on the mountain began– with her father's selectivity.
"He only wanted to rent to graduate students because they were a little more mature," she says. And there was another bonus. Because students were only there nine months of the year, says Craig, "My parents got their privacy back in the summer."
Allen recalls putting on a coat and tie to make a good impression on Mr. Brown, "and I passed the audition," the Senator says proudly.
"The actual living quarters were not all that great," recalls Allen. "I was there for the view."
Allen thinks the rent he and his roommate paid for "The Shed" ran just under $200 a month. But the heating bills were a constant worry. "It had that electric baseboard heat, which is inefficient," says Allen, "so we wore sweaters."
Allen says he enjoyed his two years on the mountain, including his dealings with the new owner's representative, John Haskell, who found a place for the hunting enthusiast and future politician to shoot deer. He credits his Ford 150 pickup truck for getting him up and down the mountain and successfully dodging cows.
Allen also dodged a trespassing incident in 1985, when he was serving in the House of Delegates. On New Year's Eve, Allen surreptitiously returned to the mountain top with a female friend– now widely known as Mrs. Allen.
"I got down on my knee and proposed to Susan," says the Senator.
Was he trespassing?
"Yes, I must admit I violated that sign down there that says something like 'Trespassers will be shot or arrested.' But I trust Mr. Haskell would have appreciated and understood."
Like latter-day protectors of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson himself worried about his "viewshed." As early as 1771, according to William Beiswanger, Monticello's director of restoration, Jefferson coveted all of the mountain overlooking his own. He wanted to buy all of his viewshed plus a buffer of 100 yards "beyond the line of sight."
In 1777, he was finally able to consummate a deal with owners Edward and Sally Carter for 483 acres for £190. Edward Carter's father had patented the land, part of a 9,350-acre tract from the king of England, in 1730.
It was in the last days of the 1770s, Beiswanger believes, that Jefferson drew plans for the tower he hoped to build on Montalto.
Beiswanger calls Jefferson's first design a "sham" or "eye-catcher." The 100-foot-tall structure, to be made of stone, was designed merely as something to be seen from Monticello and was undecorated on its sides. "The amount of masonry involved would have been mind-boggling," says Beiswanger. "I don't see how it could have stood, narrow as it was."
Next for Montalto, Jefferson proposed a 120-foot tower consisting of four stacked cubes– diminishing in size as they climb– crowned by a battlemented parapet.
"I don't know what was in his mind," says Beiswanger of this mysterious design that abandons classicism and foreshadows abstract cubism, an artistic fad of the early 20th century. Beiswanger believes it may have simply been a structural approach.
Perhaps the greatest curiosity of the streamlined tower o' cubes was a single room at the top whose vaulting had to support two feet of earth– "the purpose of which," Beiswanger notes wryly, "is never explained."
Neither tower was built, nor was Jefferson's final tall design for Montalto: a giant column.
Beiswanger supposes that in 1786, while he was serving as minister to France, Jefferson probably saw the 115-foot-tall octagonal column designed by Lancelot "Capability" Brown for Lord Cobham in Stowe, England. Built in 1746 (and still standing), Cobham's tower offered the lord of the manor the ability to survey his extensive land-holdings and might be what led Jefferson to conclude that a column "will be preferable to anything else."
Unlike the two distinct towers, Jefferson left no drawing of his proposed column, but he wrote that it should be 200 feet high, should be crowned with a balustrade around the top of the capital (presumably to keep visitors from falling), and should have a five-foot-wide "hollow" in the center to hold the stairs.
"That's quite a tight twisting little stair," notes Beiswanger.
Because none of Jefferson's ever-changing plans advanced to construction, Beiswanger doubts that the Foundation will build any of the imagined structures.
One exception to the Foundation's build-only-what-TJ-built rule is the Foundation's completion in 2002 of Saunders Bridge, which gives Monticello and Montalto much safer entrances from the perilous curves of Route 53.
The bridge was designed to recall the Pont de Neuilly, which Jefferson admired while in Paris. Moreover, Saunders Bridge accomplished one of Jefferson's goals from his circa 1804 "General Ideas for the Improvement of Monticello," a notebook where he jotted plans for his properties and the crossing at Route 53, which he called the Thoroughfare:
"The north side of Monticello below the thoroughfare roundabout quite down to the river and all Montalto above the thoroughfare to be converted into park & riding grounds, connected at the Thoroughfare by a bridge, open, under which the public road may be made to pass so as not to cut off the communication between the upper and lower park grounds."
Once Monticello officials get title to the land, they want to see if they can find the spring Jefferson wrote about in his document about making Montalto a park and riding grounds: "The spring of Montalto either to be brought to Monticello by pipes or to fall over steps of stairs in cascade, made visible at Monticello through a vista."
That will be a fun project.
For hundreds of Charlottesvillians, the most coveted invitation in town is a ticket to Kite Day, an annual outdoor celebration on top of the mountain. Admission is free– but an invitation is required.
Susan Brown Craig reveals that the event began in 1963 when a group of law students held a catered breakfast in, of all places, the barn lot. "My mother got the biggest kick out of that," she says. The breakfast, curiously, was originally a black tie affair for the residents and significant others. The kite-flying involved hundreds of guests in the afternoon– in casual attire.
Flying kites might have been fun on Kite Day, but it wasn't an activity to be recommended at other times. Ted Ruml, a UVA graduate student in the '70s and now a professor at UC San Bernardino, recalls the glory of watching storms approach the mountain.
"Thunderstorms were particularly remarkable," he says, "since you could see them advancing bit by bit."
Other residents, including Susan Craig, recall seeing the storm "eye to eye," surely an experience unique to those lucky enough to have called Brown's Mountain home.
How I got that mountain
The impending sale is the biggest land deal in Albemarle County history, save for the 2001 purchase of 1,400-acre Enniscorthy, widely alleged to have been financed by $17 million in "funny money."
Or unfunny money. Enniscorthy is a now court-ordered frozen asset, and the owner– Tyco's former chief financial officer, Mark Swartz– has been on trial in New York City since October on charges that he and company chief Dennis Kozlowski illegally gutted Tyco to the tune of $600 million.
The contract to buy Montalto gives the trustees of Monticello 45 days to study their purchase. As Dan Jordan tells the story, it's a nail-biter. He says the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns Monticello, had made several quiet requests to buy the property in recent years.
"A year ago," begins Jordan, "it came on the market for $20 million, and select brokers were notified. There wasn't a lot of activity.
"We'd been on good terms with the seller," he says, "and were a little surprised we weren't notified."
Then, a month ago, he says, the seller dropped the price to $15 million. Along with the lower price, Monticello saw something new: an appraisal valuing the property at $22 million based on division into building lots. In one scenario, the land could have been divvied into 24 parcels.
"That was the catalyst," says Jordan. "Once we got calls that developers were moving rather rapidly, we knew we had to go for it, and the stars– luckily– were aligned."
On Friday, January 16, Jordan assembled his "dream team": the chair of the Foundation, a corporate attorney with real estate expertise, a donor to lead the fundraising campaign, the Foundation's chief financial officer, the development director, and one of Central Virginia's "best known realtors."
"We called all these people," says Jordan. "Every one of them had a conflict, but every one of them rearranged their schedules."
A lunch-time meeting with the dream team on Monday, January 19 went on for nearly six hours. The next day, Jordan assembled the board's executive committee by conference call and arranged another conference call with a quorum of the full board.
Jordan was giving his annual start-of-the year speech to the tour guides at the visitor's center on the evening of the 20th.
"One of the guides asked, 'Are we going do anything about Brown's Mountain?' All I could say was that it was on the market, and we had a keen interest in it. Ten minutes later, I was pulled out of the meeting to initial the contract."
Although the trustee of the land trust selling Brown's Mountain is John C. Haskell Jr. of Richmond, reliable sources say the owner is his ex-wife, Ann Carol Robins Marchant, daughter of the late E. Claiborne Robins Sr., who turned a tiny Richmond pharmacy into a medical giant known for much of its life as A.H. Robins Company.
A.H. Robins gave the world Robitussin, Dimetapp, and Chapstick. Unfortunately, it also gave the women of the world an ill-fated birth-control device, the Dalkon Shield. An inter-uterine device introduced in 1971, the Dalkon Shield allegedly killed 17 and injured about 200,000 women, and brought the company's once flourishing fortunes to bankruptcy in 1985. Four years later, Robins merged with Whitehall; it is now a division of Wyeth, one of the world's largest companies.
Despite the business turmoil, the Robins family managed to hang on to a total fortune estimated by Virginia Business magazine at $450 million.
Is the Browns' daughter upset that her family didn't hold on long enough to reap $15 million? Is she upset that her parents sold their mountain for $601,783?
"Oh, no," answers Craig. "It's none of my business. I think it's worth 100 times that." She notes, though, that shortly before selling the property in 1974, her parents approached the trustees of Monticello.
"They didn't want it," says Craig. Indeed, Monticello director Jordan confirms that the board minutes from the 1970s show Monticello considering and passing on the purchase of Brown's Mountain.
Who is Haskell?
For the seller, John Haskell is the prime mover in the Brown's Mountain deal. He's a Richmond investment advisor and trustee of the Mountaintop Land Trust. He's also the man who located and purchased the property back in 1974, personally managed it until 1990, and negotiated its dramatic sale on January 20.
In the early 1970s, Haskell identified the 330.462 acres on Route 53 across from Jefferson's "little mountain" as a good investment. Although the land wasn't then listed, he engaged a broker and purchased the parcel in 1974 from the Browns. Haskell has bucolic pictures of sheep grazing around the many farm buildings the Browns converted to apartments.
After a disappointing experience with an early hired overseer, Haskell took over and managed the property himself from 1978 until 1990, when the stress of the weekly trip from Richmond began to take its toll. Since 1990, the 20 units on the mountain have been managed by Management Services Corp.
What made him decide that now was the time to sell? "With real estate," he says, "there's a life to the cycle of ownership– it had reached the time."
As for the $15 million sales price, Haskell describes a fairly simple method of calculation. "How do you judge the value of something that's utterly unique? It's such an unusual property that we didn't have a clue what it might be worth. We chose $20 million simply to get the ball rolling."
While circulating that trial price to a few select brokers, Haskell commissioned a professional appraisal to look at the parcel from multiple perspectives.
"A really good appraisal will find comparables, but obviously this is a unique, one-of-a-kind property," he says. He hired Jay B. Call III and Associates of Richmond, who after six months or so, came up with a "modified subdivision analysis."
"You ask, 'What's the highest and best use for this property?' Haskell explains. "We looked at it from a sales perspective that shows what the property would market for and then we used an income approach, which shows what the rents would be if it were developed."
"But of course Albemarle County is not known for being hospitable to developers," he adds somewhat ruefully.
Finally, Call did an expense analysis, figuring the costs of grading the slopes and upgrading water and roads. Haskell calls this "almost a formal preplanning for a subdivision."
"That's when we came up with the real estimate of $15 million, and that," he says, "was the offering price we gave to Monticello and other interested parties."
And that was the price and the prospect of 24 houses looking down on Jefferson's placid enclave that struck terror in the hearts of Dan Jordan and other Monticello bigwigs and sparked the frantic scrambling for consensus that led to the purchase, according to Jordan.
As Monticello officials and history lovers breathe a sigh of relief, what are Ms. Marchant's plans for her trust's $15 million windfall?
"That's something I will handle," Haskell says. "She won't be involved at all. She has all of her own interests and activities in life. She loves the property, but this was just another investment."
"We're fanatical about planning," says Monticello's Jordan, clutching, for emphasis, the 200-plus-page study that guided the Foundation's replacement of the house roof in 1992. "We never go into a project without a plan."
And so specifics about Montalto's future are tough to extract from this scholar-fundraiser-planner. But in an interview in his cramped but convenient office– which, like much of the mountaintop, offers a clear view of Montalto– he lets a few morsels slip.
"The fundamental impulse," says Jordan, "is preservation." And he's not talking about preserving early 20th century farmsteads. Another point he notes is that the property was probably "80 percent" woods, so one gets the hunch that this bald mountain may not be bald forever.
Monticello has spent millions in donor and taxpayer funds to create the Saunders-Monticello Trail. Since its opening in 2002, as part of a $7 million project that included the new stone bridge, the trail has attracted over 35,000 hikers, bikers, and wheelchair-riders along its gentle two-mile climb through the woods. And Jordan wouldn't mind seeing it extended up to Montalto.
As for one burning question of the moment– whether any realtors will reap a commission– Jordan pleads ignorance. "I honestly don't know how those things work," he says. According to The Hook's trusty calculator, a realtor reaching in for just three percent– half of the standard six percent fee– could be looking at a cool $450,000.
"I'm not talking about anything," says Steve McLean, one of the two brokers reportedly involved in the proceedings.
About the Browns
As for the Browns, Lois and Nelson Brown sold Brown's Gifts in 1979, and they died in the mid-1980s. The store bearing their name at the corner of Fourth and Main survived until the early 1990s. "I think," says their daughter, "that they would be so pleased that it's been returned to Mr. Jefferson's hands– to where it started."
As for Monticello– the non-profit that didn't even have an endowment until 1993– Jordan is confident that closing the sale will happen on schedule, even if it requires some financing. Monticello can probably get a loan, as its endowment now stands, Jordan says, at $53 million.
"It's a very expensive approach to viewshed protection," says Jordan. "We're not in the real estate business, but we felt we had to act to save our viewshed and protect a community landmark."
Montalto, more recently Brown's Mountain, looms over Monticello's kitchen garden and Garden Pavilion, the site of the cover photo.
Two of the three designs for tall towers Jefferson wanted to build on Montalto
Monticello's director Daniel P. Jordan says the lowest edge of Montalto may someday house a new "campus" for administrators. (Montalto's peak is at his right index finger.)
This stone dwelling was once a much taller water tower– until the lightning strike of 1958.
Land baron James Addison Patterson lived at 2047 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia and donated $100,000 to move Martha Jefferson Hospital to Locust Avenue. The fate of "Repose," his summer house on Montalto, is unknown.
This stone building was once twice as tall– until the lightning strike of 1958.
The $15 million mountain offers excellent views of Monticello.
This big bridge connects Jefferson's two "parks."
If Brown's Mountain residents get thrown out, fans of high views may throng to nearby Carter Mountain Orchard, located southwest on the same ridge.
This big bridge connects Jefferson's two "parks." One long-running operation, cattle grazing, stopped about a year ago, when the landlord couldn't find a herder willing to maintain the fields and fences in exchange for use of the steep pastureland. "If you're a guy who's gonna run a mower," explains Rick Jones, "it's kind of scary."
This is not the trespassing sign– just the landlord's ID sign.
One can see modern-day models of Jefferson's Montalto tower designs in this Route 20 South visitor center building. (Monticello recently renewed its lease here, but is planning a $60 million center on its own land at the foot Monticello.)
Rosalind Warfield-Brown contributed to this report.