The Sacred Architecture of Thomas Jefferson

written July 4, 2010 (Katherine Neville’s July 4th Newsletter)

Thomas Jefferson Statute in Paris · photo: July 4, 2006


“Let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”
-Thomas Jefferson, July 4, 1826

On July 4, 1826–a date that, coincidentally, also marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence–Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died at their respective homes–Adams in Quincy, Massachusetts, and Jefferson here in Virginia, at Monticello. This snapshot of the Jefferson statue, taken when the statue was first unveiled in Paris on July 4, 2006, was sent to me by the wonderful Dan Jordan, longtime president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. I have had a long relationship with TJ (as we call him here in Virginia) ever since I moved here twenty years ago–and when I first learned that he had also designed another house, two weeks’ horseback ride south from Monticello, a house called Poplar Forest, which was designed in the shape of a perfect Octagon! I’ve always loved all things eight-related, so I rushed at once down to Poplar Forest back then and launched what would become my thousands of hours of researches into the works and mental workings of America’s most fascinating architect. On this July 4th, I decided to share some of the intriguing roles that TJ has subsequently played in my fiction. Also, below I’ve shared a paper I wrote in 2007–all about TJ’s own more esoteric architectural interests–a paper which I had originally prepared, and sent in the form of a letter, to my longtime friends and supporters: the Director of Poplar Forest, Lynn Beebe, and Poplar Forest architect, Travis McDonald.

Thomas Jefferson: Fact Meets Fiction

My first visit to Poplar Forest was in 1989. I have since spent months and years of inquiry into the physical landscapes, both there and subsequently at Monticello, landscapes that TJ created and moved through each day. Some of this research appears in two of my tales: First, in a key chapter of my book, The Fire, TJ takes a trip out to Le Desert de Retz (an excursion that actually took place in history), that mysterious private estate which still exists outside of Paris, and I have TJ explaining to Maria Cosway the ancient symbolism that is secretly hidden within the various architectural features that are scattered throughout the park. Then, in Thriller (the first-ever anthology of thriller short stories, by 32 authors) my story “The Tuesday Club” takes place upon the very day when Thomas Jefferson first meets with Ben Franklin and John Adams in Paris, to turn over the French mission (an event that actually occurred)–and something mysterious (and “thrilling”) happens, involving ancient Scottish Freemasons! I hope you’ll enjoy TJ’s appearance in both.

Thomas Jefferson: Esoteric Meets Exoteric

On TJ’s birthday–April 13–of 2007, I visited Poplar Forest for a luncheon where Jack Gary, the Director of Archaeology and Landscape, told us that his team had recently discovered roots underground of large groves of trees that were planted there during Jefferson’s occupancy. Everyone knew that TJ was not only a tree-rights advocate, but a real arbo-authority–so who could understand his strange decision to plant an entire grove of densely-packed trees–trees that would be required to grow to enormous height because they couldn’t grow outward–and further, to plant them smack in front of four windows, blocking half the view from his octagonal house? I asked Jack if he could provide me a list of the species and varieties of these trees. I knew that many ancient civilizations had thought of trees as the mainstays of architecture, modeling architectural orders and designs upon them, naming dynasties after them (the “Red Branch Kings” of Ireland) and in the case of the Celts and Romany, even having a tree language. I was fascinated to follow the trail of TJ’s mysterious trees, and I hope you will be, as well.

Poplar Forest Letter