Virginia 2015: Monroe’s Ash-Lawn Highland


Day 7: Saturday, October 10, 2015

James Monroe, despite being one of the founding fathers, isn’t one of our better known Presidents. I’m not sure why that is, but he certainly never resonated as one of the more important historical figures I’ve learned about. That said, when the opportunity came up to visit his home, I still wanted to see it. I figured it would be a chance to learn more about him, and compare and contrast his home and estate with the others that we would see on the trip!

A statue of James Monroe - originally destined for South America

A statue of James Monroe – originally destined for South America

With Thomas Jefferson being the Renaissance man that he was, he set out to surround himself with friends with whom he could have lively discussions. Travel in the day took a long time, so it was easier if your friends lived nearby. To that end, when the property next door to Monticello came up for sale, he let his friend James Monroe know. Monroe purchased the property of about 1,200 acres, and moved there in 1799. Eventually, he expanded the estate to about 3,500 acres, although later in life he sold off large parcels of land to pay his debts.

Me with the James Monroe house - the small room to the left was added on while Monroe lived here.

Me with the James Monroe house – the small room to the left was added on while Monroe lived here.

Monroe’s home is the most modest of the four Presidential homes we saw. It was originally a one story frame home with a couple of rooms on each side of a hallway. Monroe expanded the home later on, adding a few more rooms, and building some basement rooms (a kitchen, and store rooms) underneath the house.  Even later, he added a parlor on one side of the home. He called his house Highland.  I liked seeing a house that felt more like a common man – after Monticello and Mount Vernon, I was starting to wonder if there have ever been politicians who came from the middle class.  Not that Monroe wasn’t rich – his was just a less ostentatious kind of rich…

Our tour included the portion of the home that existed during Monroe’s time. Later owners added on, essentially attaching an entire, new, larger house to the home Monroe lived in.  Those owners are also responsible for the name Ash Lawn-Highland, as they added the Ash trees that are now planted on the property.  That new portion of the home is not included in the tour, but it does contain a small exhibit of Monroe artifacts and memorabilia on the first floor.

Ash-Lawn Highland - the small white house is what Monroe purchased - the white room on the left was added while Monroe was here. The yellow home was added by subsequent owners.

Ash-Lawn Highland – the small white house is what Monroe purchased – the white room on the left was added while Monroe was here. The yellow home was added by subsequent owners.

Things I learned about Monroe:

  • He is probably most famous for the Monroe Doctrine, which stipulated that the United States would not tolerate intervention by European powers in the Americas (including Central and South America). South Americans were pleased by this – one country even commissioned a statue of him. Due to the fact that it was never delivered there, it now sits at Ash Lawn-Highland.
  • He was the last of the Founding Father Presidents to have served in combat in the Revolutionary War.  He was badly wounded at the Battle of Trenton.
  • Monroe was the only one of the Founding Father Presidents to have settled his debt before he died. Apparently, living beyond one’s means has been a hallmark of the American tradition for as long as there have been Americans.
  • Monroe also helped to found the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, along with Jefferson (and James Madison), but he gets none of the credit. It was actually built on land that he owned and sold for the purpose.
  • Monroe was tall – 6 feet – and had a very distinctive butt chin.  It is apparent in all his portraits.
  • He, like Jefferson and Madison, liked busts. All three of them had busts decorating their home. I guess it was trendy.  I find it creepy.  I mean, imagine walking out into the living room in the middle of the night, and finding a glowing alabaster head staring back at you?  Creepy.
Three outbuildings at Ash-Lawn Highland

Three outbuildings at Ash-Lawn Highland

 

The icehouse, slave quarters and overseer's house at Ash-Lawn Highland. All original.

The icehouse, slave quarters and overseer’s house at Ash-Lawn Highland. All original.

 

Slave quarters at Ash-Lawn Highland

Slave quarters at Ash-Lawn Highland

 

Monroe renovated one of the slave quarters into a guest house, sometime after 1816.

Monroe renovated one of the slave quarters into a guest house, sometime after 1816.

 

A beautiful hibiscus flower at Ash-Lawn Highland

A beautiful hibiscus flower at Ash-Lawn Highland

Monroe’s estate took a couple of hours to feel like you saw it all – we left there about noon. I had wanted to go check out the Michie Tavern, a historic tavern from the 1700s that still offers lunch (and tours). However, it was packed! It was a Saturday, but the place was absolutely crawling with people. We decided to skip it and went and found lunch just down the road at Salt.

Salt is a small sandwich shop in a former service station that sources local ingredients. My panini and Jon’s veggie wrap were both delicious, and we arrived at just the right time, because it really started to fill up after we ordered!

After lunch, there was much debate about whether we would use the afternoon to go to a winery or two and sample a few of the Virginia wines. In the end, we petered out. Jon was still sick, and I was now sick, so we ultimately decided on heading back to the Super 8 for a 3 hour midday nap… Glorious, it was…

Dinner that night was equally low key – we got a rotisserie chicken, pasta salad, and fruit at the grocery store, and some beer and wine to wash down our doses of cold medicine (in moderation of course!). An evening spent relaxing in front of the TV was just what we needed.

Driving Distance for Day 7: 65 miles – Waynesboro, VA – Ash Lawn-Highland – Waynesboro, VA

Hotel for the Night: Super 8, Waynesboro for another night.

Travel Tips: Even though James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland is literally right next door to Monticello, and we were there on a Saturday, it wasn’t busy at all.  Monroe is apparently not one of the cool Presidents…

Tickets – Ash-Lawn Highland: $14 per person; $1 off with our AAA Membership.  Discounts if you work at William and Mary College (they own the estate) or live in the nearby area.  Sadly, they did not have a decent guidebook, or very good postcards…

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6 thoughts on “Virginia 2015: Monroe’s Ash-Lawn Highland

  1. We had neighbors when we lived in Connecticut that were very proud they were Monroe’s descendants. Can’t remember if they had inherited his butt chin or not though 😉

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