Monday, March 1, 2010

Debating Presidential Palaces

Late last week, like Thursday or Friday, I realized that this past weekend was my last weekend for the foreseeable future. When I leave the office this Friday, it will be the last time I'll be in an office for at least 2.5 years.

To mark the occasion, coincidentally, we added our first check to our D.C. bucket list. This is our list of things to do and see before leaving the area, and visiting Monticello was on this list even before Natalie joined the foreign service.

I'm a history lover and a big fan of Mount Vernon, so I had to see the other great plantation in our area, a 2.5 hour drive, give or take. (I suppose the final great presidential residence other than the White House would be the Hermitage. If anyone has any insights as to whether this is a worthwhile visit, I'm all ears.)

(Another note, this posting also serves the purpose of adding some new pictures to the blog; Natalie has been complaining it has been too grey as of late. This is the famous west front of Monticello, which is on the back of the nickel.)

So here is my take on the two Revolutionary American meccas.

The Mount Vernon grounds, at least, what is open to the public, are much more expansive and complete than Monticello's. Washington's mansion is the focus of the grounds, but you can fill an entire day visiting the other sites including his tomb, docks, farm, gardens and the several remaining buildings and slave quarters still standing. (More notes: it is easy as a modern American to make the mistake of thinking of MV and Monticello as homes when really they are plantations. Washington lived at MV, but so did is more than 100 slaves, so there are several "homes" here, like at Monticello.)

It is no comparison really between the what remains of the other structures at MV vs Monticello, because, quite simply, most of the shops and cottages at Monticello aren't there any more. Not so at MV, which is missing only a few of the original buidings. (Tiffy got to visit Mount Vernon.)

And the icing on the top is that there are several farm animals at MV including cows, sheep and horses (and pigs?, I can't remember) making this destination more appealing to children.

(Natalie with Washington's horse, Nelson, and a period actor.) In contrast, Monticello's mansion is more stunning than MV's. Monticello is set up differently in that your fee ($17 or $25 depending if you visit during peak times or not; $50 for an annual pass) includes the house tour, but you schedule in advance when you went to take the tour, which is great for busy months compared to the first-come-first-served method at MV, which results in waits that exceed two hours easily if you arrive in the spring or summer.

MV is large and ornate, especially for the late 1700s, but Monticello is over the top. The Monticello tour smartly begins at the front door and you are immediately struck by the grand Entrance Hall with artifacts from the Lewis & Clark expedition decorating the room.

(Natalie and me in the Monticello's dome room, the only room you can photograph.) Surprisingly, though, this isn't even the most awe-inspiring room in the house. After working your way through his study and bedroom, which are incredible for historic reasons, the parlor will floor you. And before you have time to recover, your are shuffled into the dining room, which not only is striking for its bright yellow color, but also contains his famous wine dumbwaiters and revolving service wall.

So Mount Vernon vs. Monticello. As of this writing, I'd give a slight edge to Washington's plantation, but with an asterisk - that being I've only seen Monticello in the winter so I didn't get to fully appreciate the gardens there.

Here's an insider tip for visiting MV: Natalie and I went in mid-Decemberish, and the place was deserted. This was great because not only did we not have to wait in hours-long lines to get inside the mansion, but during this slower period, the staff opens the third floor to the house, which is closed during the busier times of the year.

The other trick to this is buying the annual pass. A one-day pass $15, and the annual pass is $25. So our recommendation is going once in the winter when it is empty and you can see the entire mansion at your leisure. Then come back in the spring/summer and skip the mansion and check out the gardens, dock and farm.

1 comment:

  1. So glad you guys got to do some great local sightseeing over the weekend! Glad the weather held out for you.

    Love the pictures - the one of the two of you in the dome room is adorable! Tell Natalie that, in addition to being very funny, she has a beautiful, charming smile! :)