Our ultimate destination for this year's family vacation was The Outer Banks of North Carolina. But with a high schooler intent on becoming a history teacher someday along, we decided to see Monticello, the estate of founding father Thomas Jefferson, on the way down. Located in Charlottesville in southwestern Virginia, Monticello was roughly on the way between Wisconsin and the beach.
Jefferson is a difficult historical figure to access. He was a man of many contradictions -- a outspoken opponent of slavery at some points in time who nevertheless owned some 600 slaves in his lifetime. A man who pledged to his young dying wife that he would never remarry, and fulfilled that pledge, but likely fathered several children by a enslaved house servant, Sally Hemmings.
Luckily for those visiting Jefferson's home on a wooded Virginia mountaintop, Monticello is much more easily accessible than the man -- even if you have physical disabilities.
You get up to the mountaintop two ways. Walk up a third of a mile walking path or take a shuttle bus up. (More about the path option later.) We chose the bus, since we knew one of the vehicles had a wheelchair lift. When they saw our party they trotted out the lift-equipped bus, loaded us on and took us up the mountain via a curvy road that might double as a mild amusement park experience for those who don't do roller coasters.
When you buy your admission, you receive a ticket time-stamped with a tour time for the main house. Seems like the times were about 20 minutes after purchase. After the bus ride, I think we had about 15 minutes to kill, which we did in the air conditioned (and ramped) gift shop on a 90-plus degree day. Standing in line waiting for your tour, which we did for less than five minutes, was under shady trees on the hard gravel paths that encircle the house.
Having done my research beforehand, I knew Monticello was accessible. But as we approached the house, I sure didn't see how. But soon our guide pointed out the ramp to the right that wheelchair users access to get into the house. Once inside, my son and I were able to enter every room that everyone else on our tour did, with the exception of one guest bedroom where the doorway was just too narrow. Our tour guide, and some other staff inside the house standing by apparently for just such an occasion, ushered me and my son in the slightly different paths we needed to use to get to the same places the rest of our group was going to. It didn't bother me, but if you're shy this situation might bug you some, because -- while smooth -- it was far from inconspicuous. Inevitably, we had to be the first ones out of the room, and everyone had to step aside to let us out, and we then often entered through some other door or hall.
Monticello may be an architectural masterpiece, but it was of course constructed well before the era of universal design. However, the accommodations needed seemed reasonable to me.
As an aside, ever wonder how prevalent are visitors with disabilities to historical sites like Monticello? I don't know if the experience was typical, but in the 45 minutes or so we toured the house, we encountered two other tour groups with wheelchair users.
The photo shows the kids in front of the front entrance to Monticello (the opposite side of the view on the nickel). You can just see the metal ramp to the right. (Photo by Darren Hillock)Part II: The grounds