Off Montalto: "It's all downhill from here"

Four hundred feet above the rooftops of Thomas Jefferson's manicured estate, Dr. John Lanham waits impatiently for the sun to drop behind the Appalachians.

His neighbors soon will emerge from their mountaintop farm houses to wiggle their toes in the lawn. They'll likely have gin and tonics and a game of Frisbee before the day is over. Everyone will be mesmerized by the sun.

"Look, just look at how much you can see from here,'' says Lanham, 53, still impressed after 15 years of a horizon-to-horizon view. "Intoxicating, isn't it?''

It's important to savor the moment– the mountain will return to Jefferson's Monticello in June. And in the name of historic preservation, the organization that runs the estate wants residents to leave.

"We're not in the rental business,'' says Dan Jordan, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which spent $15 million for the 330-acre property.

The mountaintop, which Jefferson called "Montalto,'' or high mountain, has lured a generation of musicians, students, and young professionals with the finest view in the city. One previous resident was U.S. Sen. George Allen. Reached by a private mountain road, the community has the tranquility of a resort town that's disturbed only by an occasional airplane and the chattering of birds.

About three dozen people live in clusters of converted farm houses, each marked in front with names like "Corn Crib'' or "Pig Sty'' to show what they once were. They call their home Brown's Mountain after a 20th century owner.

Most had hoped to stay while the foundation decided what to do with the property. But Monticello has refused, and with the June 24 move-out date approaching, residents can do little more now than take photos of their quaint stone houses and reminisce about community events such as "movie night,'' when they'd drag a TV outside and watch Casablanca under a mimosa tree.

"We'd all dress up like Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman,'' Lanham says. "There were always more Bogarts than Bergmans, unfortunately.''

Before they leave, Brown's Mountain residents flew kites together one last time at a spring party the community has organized every year since 1965.

Kite Day, on May 31 this year, became so popular in recent years that residents printed admissions tickets to control the rush of city people who want to take part.

"I've had the best place to live for eight years,'' says Keith Donnelly, a 35-year-old University of Virginia employee who is reluctant to explore Charlottesville's tight rental market. "It's all downhill from here.''

Montalto was once part of a heavily wooded tract that Jefferson purchased in 1771 while preparing to clear room for Monticello.

The land inspired him. He sketched designs for various observation towers with cupolas and columns and enough space for a study.

Jefferson thought of connecting the mountains with a bridge and building a device to pipe Montalto's runoff all the way to a pond near his house.

"This is typical of a visionary,'' says William Beiswanger, Monticello's restoration director. "These are ideas that he dreams about... they stimulated his mind.''

None of his sketches actually was built.

Six years after Jefferson died, family members sold the land for $5,100 to pay off some of the former president's lingering debt. Montalto passed through numerous owners over the years. In the 1950s, it was renamed Brown's Mountain after the family that bought the mountain and added apartments.

To preservation-minded officials downhill at Monticello, the Brown's Mountain community has long been an eyesore. The farm buildings poke out from the canopy of trees as a constant reminder of how the world has changed since the 18th century.

"If you're on the west lawn, this is the thing you see,'' Jordan says.

When Monticello officials learned that the property was going on the market and commercial developers were interested, they quickly offered the owners the asking price.

By the end of the year, Jordan says, the foundation will decide what to do with the parcel. The buildings could be torn down and replaced with the kinds of trees that grew on the mountain in Jefferson's time. The foundation might also connect the property to a system of hiking trails Monticello maintains for visitors.

"We also might use the mountaintop for educational purposes, say, a summer camp for kids,'' Jordan says.

Meanwhile, Brown's Mountain residents are having trouble finding new accommodations they like as much.

"We've been a little spoiled,'' says Matt Hammond, a 25-year-old elementary school teacher who, with his wife, has lived on Brown's Mountain for two years. "The style of living we've become accustomed to here is unmatchable.''

Many residents say they're happy Monticello is taking over the property instead of a commercial developer. Nevertheless, they say, it's unfair that they aren't being allowed to get out of their leases early if they find another place, forcing them to pay for two apartments at the same time.

"I do wish Monticello would be a little more generous,'' Lanham says. "We're suffering in the wake of a very big boat.''

Brown's Mountain residents celebrated one last kite day on May 31.