Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson's Bedford County retreat, got its name from the forest that preceded the estate. “I think that's why Jefferson chose to put the house right here, because right beyond this little hill was the forest,” said Travis McDonald, who led restoration efforts at Poplar Forest for more than three decades. Photo by Amy Jablonski.
Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson's Bedford County retreat, got its name from the forest that preceded the estate. “I think that's why Jefferson chose to put the house right here, because right beyond this little hill was the forest,” said Travis McDonald, who led restoration efforts at Poplar Forest for more than three decades. Photo by Amy Jablonski.

Sitting on the front porch of Thomas Jefferson’s personal retreat in Bedford County, the site’s recently retired director of architectural restoration stopped mid-sentence to wave and smile at a volunteer tour guide as she took a group out to the front gardens. 

Travis McDonald is thankful for all the guides who stayed with Poplar Forest through the years of renovations; he believes that the rebuild tells the story of Jefferson’s life in a tangible way.

For almost 40 years, McDonald has been the key piece in Poplar Forest’s rebuild.

Travis McDonald with a small portion of the expansive collection of books that Thomas Jefferson kept at Poplar Forest. The thousands of books in Jefferson’s collection were in five different languages. Photo by Amy Jablonski.

He started his journey in the restoration world as a historian. After attending the University of Virginia for graduate studies in architectural history (the School of Architecture in 2021 recognized him with its Distinguished Alumni Award), McDonald worked at Colonial Williamsburg for five years. His work in public history helped him realize restoration was what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. 

“Most Americans say they don’t get their history from books, or movies or magazines, they get it from historic sites, public sites,” McDonald said. 

Denise McDonald, Travis McDonald’s wife and former executive director of Old City Cemetery, a historic cemetery in downtown Lynchburg, said her husband felt honored to be a part of restoring Jefferson’s retreat. 

“We moved here for Travis to take that position,” she said. “He was the first and only historic restoration director that they had, and he honestly embraced it and gave it his all.” 

Poplar Forest has been a part of Travis McDonald’s life for longer than the decades of work he dedicated to the estate. 

“I actually came here on a field trip from UVa when people still lived here,” he said. “Little did I know I’d be working here for most of my life.” 

The restoration work has finally come to a close just as McDonald retired after three decades of living inside the mind of Jefferson.

“I got one craftsman who’s left here and his job now switches from restoration to what we call conservation,” McDonald said. “Conserving after restoring. And that goes on forever, but you can’t just call a maintenance guy to keep it up.”

Six years after Poplar Forest was returned to the public in 1983, McDonald was hired to start the restoration work.

A bust of Thomas Jefferson sits above one of the two fireplaces in the finished dining room. Photo by Amy Jablonski.

“I think it’s very rare for someone in the historic museums business to be able to start a project and finish it,” Denise McDonald said. “And do it to the highest level of quality. He was able to do that at Poplar Forest.”

Regardless of the retirement label, McDonald doesn’t plan on stopping his work on Poplar Forest anytime soon. 

His first book was published this spring, just before his retirement. “Poplar Forest: Thomas Jefferson’s Villa Retreat” details Jefferson’s work as an architect. 

Now that McDonald has officially retired, he’ll be writing another book on the restoration of Poplar Forest and the journey the work took him and his team on.  

* * *

The back of Poplar Forest looks out toward the lawn. The large windows were heavily inspired by French architecture, a theme seen consistently throughout Poplar Forest. The South Portico leads into the parlor. Photo by Amy Jablonski.

Poplar Forest was designed as a plantation and as a place for Jefferson to get away from public scrutiny. Tucked away behind acres of poplar trees, the estate was built in a mostly uninhabited area but stands today between the suburbs of Lynchburg and Forest. 

Jefferson began regular visits to the estate in 1809 and would visit throughout the year, spending his time reading or with his granddaughters, who were frequent visitors of the estate and had their own bedroom in the main house. 

Poplar Forest was relatively unknown to the rest of the world, just as Jefferson intended. It was privately owned by a series of families for more than 200 years before being bought by the Corporation for Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest and turned into a historic site. 

In the years after the house was inhabited by Jefferson, modern appliances and major changes made their mark. The basement and wine cellar were converted into a fully furnished kitchen with a modern stove. The 20-foot ceilings in the main dining room were lowered to 12 feet, blocking the skylight that Jefferson had placed in the windowless room. And the French alcove beds were walled up to create two rooms out of the master and guest bedrooms. 

Jefferson’s retreat had just six rooms: two bedrooms, two chambers at the entrance, a dining room and a parlor. The house is a large octagon composed of four stretched-out octagons surrounding a square dining room. Photo by Amy Jablonski.

“You couldn’t quite see Jefferson,” McDonald said. “We started on a systematic, slow investigation, peeling back all the modern stuff.” 

Pride rings in McDonald’s voice as he describes the unique restoration sequence. Through years of research and work with his team, McDonald started to restore Poplar Forest with materials that Jefferson would have used, and in the same sequence in which it was first built.

“If you were a visitor coming here in the year 2000,” McDonald said, “we didn’t just say, ‘We’re not finished with the restoration.’ We’d say, ‘This is what Jefferson is doing in the year 1810.’ Visitors got to see how he put it together.”

William Beiswanger, one of the first members of the Poplar Forest Architectural Advisory Panel and the retired director of restoration at Monticello, said the restoration of Poplar Forest could not have been done without the work of McDonald.

“Travis has dedicated at this point most of his life to this wonderful project,” Beiswanger said. “And nothing could have been done by the architects or anyone else successfully without the diligence and depth of Travis.” 

But McDonald doesn’t like to take much credit for his work. His restoration work flows seamlessly from the ideas and architectural plans of Jefferson, he said.

“Jefferson would be pleased with what we’ve restored of his special place. He might be shocked at how many people come through here,” McDonald said.

On a walk through the house with McDonald, no detail is left unexamined. The handcrafted woodworking is noted, the ornate decorative details of each room and the genius of Jefferson’s architectural work are all explained. 

The pattern of ornaments in these moldings was chosen specifically by Jefferson as he wanted both the symbol of Apollo from Greek mythology and the ox, a common ornament in entablatures. Photo by Amy Jablonski.

“Some ask, ‘What are your favorite moments during restoration?’ That’s like saying ‘What’s your favorite child?’ I loved all of it,” McDonald said. 

The house only has four main rooms, but a walk-through with McDonald takes more than an hour, each piece of the house needing the proper introduction and explanation. 

“Once we got back to the brickwork, we could read the house like a document and put it together with the real paper documents,” McDonald said. 

McDonald practically shines when speaking of the meticulous work done to replicate the paintwork in each of the finished rooms. The paint starts out black and has a jelly-like consistency, but after about an hour, it starts to dry and turn into the finished product, a gray color loved by Jefferson and seen throughout the house.

Jefferson loved the color gray, as seen in his parlor. McDonald found hundreds of pieces of gray plaster when excavating Jefferson’s land. All four of the finished rooms are painted with some gray. Photo by Amy Jablonski.

“The old saying, ‘It’s about as interesting as watching paint dry’?” McDonald said. “Well, this was exciting.” 

One side of the house — the granddaughters’ bedroom and the northeast chamber — has been left undone to show how it was put back together. A portion of one wall is peeled back to show each layer of work that McDonald’s team did to rebuild Jefferson’s home.

The walls of Poplar Forest were crafted with four different layers. The brick base helped save the house during a fire in 1845. Photo by Amy Jablonski.

“There’s something powerful, I think, about seeing the actual structure. And then you can appreciate when you look at this, how you get to the finished rooms, you know, it’s a lot of work,” McDonald said.

The unfinished rooms show just how far McDonald’s team has come. Not only did they restore Poplar Forest to its former glory, but they took a home that had been well-loved by several other families and found the story told by Jefferson centuries ago and followed it without wavering. 

* * *

“There’s something powerful, I think, about seeing the actual structure. And then you can appreciate when you look at this, how you get to the finished rooms, you know, it’s a lot of work,” McDonald said. Photo by Amy Jablonski.

In this unfinished part of the house, the conversation with McDonald shifts. Instead of focusing on the triumphs of Jefferson, it follows John Hemings and his three nephews. 

Hemings was a slave at Monticello, Jefferson’s Charlottesville home. He later became the master craftsman at Monticello and eventually was brought to Poplar Forest to help with the finishing touches. He brought his three nephews — the children of his sister, Sally Hemings, and Jefferson.

Most of Poplar Forest’s original doors did not survive the 1845 fire. However, two doors crafted by the Hemingses were salvaged. The doors feature the Hemings family’s signature molding. Photo by Amy Jablonski.

The younger Hemingses were largely unacknowledged while they worked at Poplar Forest, McDonald said. In letters written by Jefferson’s granddaughters, John Hemings was mentioned frequently but there is almost no record of his nephews, he said.

While Beverly, Eston and Madison Hemings aren’t generally mentioned in history books — or at Monticello — their story is one that Poplar Forest, and McDonald, like to talk about. It’s a sad story but an important one, he said. 

“When all that came out decades ago about Jefferson and Sally Hemings, I believed it because it made Jefferson a real person, not a god on a pedestal,” McDonald said. 

Poplar Forest holds special tours for community members whose families were enslaved at Jefferson’s estate and slave community tours, and created an African American Advisory Panel to make sure everything is interpreted correctly, McDonald said. 

The Hemings family plays a significant role in McDonald’s book. Along with delving into Jefferson’s architectural side, it gives the first detailed glimpse into the work of the family. 

The process of restoring Poplar Forest gave McDonald an appreciation for what those men did. He hopes that appreciation and recognition of the Hemings boys will come out of Poplar Forest’s work to recognize their story. 

“They worked here for 10 years next to their father … but like most slaves, they’re invisible in the written record,” McDonald said. 

Amy Jablonski is a summer news intern for Cardinal News based in Lynchburg. She is a junior at the University...