Travel

Visit presidential estates in historical Virginia

Berkeley Plantation was the home of Benjamin Harrison, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his son William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States.
Berkeley Plantation was the home of Benjamin Harrison, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his son William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States. The Washington Post

Virginians take pride in their presidents. Eight future leaders of the United States were born in the Old Dominion — more than any other state — although some formed a much stronger bond than others. All eight of the presidents have at least one still-standing Virginia home with which they’re closely associated.

Keep this unscientific ranking of the estates in mind when touring the Commonwealth. And note that some of these historic homes are relatively close to one another, which means you may even visit a couple in one day.

1. Monticello

A visit to the house you know from the nickel is worth a whole lot more.

Thomas Jefferson’s home is a marvel in every imaginable way. From the landscaping and gardens to the architecture of the buildings and even the carefully considered new visitor center, Monticello is arguably the most essential place to visit in Virginia.

Although the hilltop property is a majestic sight, Monticello’s subtle details add layers to the experience: the wine dumbwaiter in the dining room, the privacy screen outside Jefferson’s bedroom, the proximity of the Mulberry Row outbuildings to the main house, the words on the third president’s gravestone. Basic tours, $8-$25. 931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville, 434-984-9800; www.monticello.org.

2. Mount Vernon

George Washington: First in war, first in peace, second in presidential homes.

Perhaps the second or third thing you’ll notice when you visit George Washington’s estate — after acknowledging the size and beauty of the 21-room mansion, which is more than 250 years old, and the unmatched Potomac River views from the piazza — is that Mount Vernon is covered in wood, not stone.

The “gentleman planter” wanted a home that looked regal and befitting of a man of his status, but stone was prohibitively expensive. So the pine siding was given beveled edges and covered with white paint mixed with sand, making Mount Vernon look as though it was built with sandstone blocks. Basic tours, $9-$17. 3200 Mount Vernon Highway, Mount Vernon, 703-780-2000; www.mountvernon.org.

3. Montpelier

Less is more for the estate of the “Father of the Constitution.”

After a massive restoration completed in 2008, James Madison’s home more closely resembles the estate that the fourth president and his wife, Dolley, lived in after his two terms in office. Visitors can walk through the large Georgian-style mansion and also learn about what happened in the years after Dolley sold the home: It eventually landed with the duPont family, which more than doubled its size and covered it in pink stucco.

The du Ponts are remembered in the new visitor center — you won’t want to miss the art deco room of Marion duPont Scott, who was the last private owner of Montpelier. Also worth exploring: James Madison’s Landmark Forest, a large parcel of woods that has gone largely undisturbed since 1790 and is filled with trees that are two and three centuries old. Basic tours, $7-$20. 11407 Constitution Highway, Orange, 540-672-2728; www.montpelier.org.

4. Berkeley Plantation

This is where the guest list name-drops Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Lincoln.

In a state that rightfully claims many firsts, the stately brick home of President William Henry Harrison fits right in. What many Virginians recognize as the first official Thanksgiving took place when English settlers stepping onto the shores of the James River at Berkeley in 1619 immediately knelt and thanked God for safe passage — a year before the Pilgrims reached Plymouth Rock.

Not long after that, the first bourbon was distilled, the settlers having grown tired of English ale. Berkeley later became home to the colony’s first commercial shipyard. And more than a century later, during a Union encampment during the Civil War, the taps bugle call was composed and sounded for the first time.

While you’re exploring the 1,000 lush acres on the working plantation, consider this: The first 10 presidents of the United States and Abraham Lincoln all strolled those same paths. Tours, $6-$11. 12602 Harrison Landing Road, Charles City, 804-829-6018; www.berkeleyplantation.com.

5. Ash Lawn-Highland

Jefferson’s friend and neighbor had a much more modest house.

James Monroe’s home seems almost quaint when compared with the estates that housed his Virginia peers. The white wooden farmhouse, which Monroe called Highland (a later owner changed the name to Ash Lawn), often is referred to as the fifth president’s “castle cabin.”

Jefferson persuaded Monroe to purchase the land near Monticello, and tour guides will tell you that, before the trees grew in, the two friends could see each other’s homes. The property changed dramatically after Monroe sold the plantation in 1825, with one of the final private owners adding a two-story house onto the side of the original farmhouse.

But the 550-acre estate offers beautiful views, boxwood gardens and a number of restored outbuildings that help paint a picture of what life was like two centuries ago. Tours, $8-$14. 2050 James Monroe Parkway, Charlottesville, 434-293-8000; www.ashlawnhighland.org.

6. Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library

Come for the town — and the restored and operational 1919 Pierce-Arrow limousine.

The nation’s 28th president was born in Staunton, but Woodrow Wilson lived only briefly in the Shenandoah Valley city. His family moved south before his first birthday, although Wilson returned often to visit and attended law school at the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville.

The pre-Civil War brick manse and adjacent museum offer an opportunity to learn about Wilson, his life and America’s role in World War I while also providing a glimpse of what life was like for a Virginia family during that era. Exploring walkable, eclectic Staunton makes the trip more than worthwhile. Tours, $5-$14. 20 N. Coalter St., Staunton, 540-885-0897; www.woodrowwilson.org.

7. Sherwood Forest Plantation

John Tyler’s grandson still lives in John Tyler’s house. Think about that.

John Tyler, who was born at nearby Greenway Plantation, owns the distinction of being the first vice president to ascend to the presidency without having been elected; he served one month as vice president before William Henry Harrison passed away. Tyler’s home, which he purchased in 1842 while president, also has quirks.

Sherwood Forest is the longest frame house in the country at 300 feet, the length of a football field. And one of Tyler’s grandsons, Harrison Ruffin Tyler, still lives there. That limits access to the house to appointment-only tours; grounds tours are self-guided. Grounds tours, $10; house tours, $35 (appointment only). 14501 John Tyler Memorial Highway, Charles City, 804-829-5377; www.sherwoodforest.org.

8. Montebello

Nothing to see here.

Zachary Taylor, the 12th president, was born by chance at Montebello, an estate in Orange County that sits on Route 33. His family had stopped there because of a measles outbreak while traveling from a nearby home it had just sold — Hare Forest Plantation — to Kentucky.

Shortly after his birth, the Taylors completed the move to Kentucky. Montebello remains privately owned and doesn’t host tours, although a historic marker sits in front of the home.

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