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Saving Monticello: The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built Hardcover – October 23, 2001
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From Publishers Weekly
In this excellent account of Monticello's ownership after Thomas Jefferson's death, Leepson, who has written for the New York Times, Preservation and Smithsonian, turns the spotlight on a family that contributed to the preservation of history but heretofore went unnoticed. When Jefferson died in 1826 his enormous debt (even by today's standards) forced his heirs to sell the beloved estate. Unfortunately, James Turner Barclay, a Charlottesville, Va., druggist who paid $7,000 for it, let the house decline during the few years he owned it. In 1834 the house was purchased by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Uriah Phillips Levy, a wealthy, bold, passionate admirer of Jefferson who quickly poured money into its repair. Thus began this Jewish-American family's nearly 90-year proprietorship of Monticello. After being briefly appropriated by the Confederacy during the Civil War, it again landed in the hands of a Levy, Uriah's nephew Jefferson Levy. Monticello became a kind of surrogate child for this extremely successful, unmarried businessman and sometime politician. When the patriotic New York socialite Maud Littleton began her campaign to make Monticello a government-owned shrine in 1911, the battle that ensued in Congress and the newspapers was as emotional as any child custody battle, but more compelling for the dynamic lives and personalities involved. Through extensive research and with fascinating detail, Leepson uncovers the facts surrounding Monticello's owners and preservation involved are great wealth, patriotism, anti-Semitism, and social and political influence. Leepson's absorbing account is an overdue chronicle and homage to the national treasure and its memorable saviors.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
Ira Dye author of The Fatal Cruise of the Argus: Two Captains in the War of 1812 Excellent and highly readable, Saving Monticello is filled with fascinating detail about the life and times of the jewel of American architecture, from its design by the most brilliant of the Founding Fathers, through its close calls with destruction, to its status today as one of the most beloved of our national monuments. Marc Leepson skillfully parallels the story of Monticello itself with the saga of two generations of the remarkable family that preserved it. -- Review
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Top Customer Reviews
Thomas Jefferson liked to live lavishly, but in his retirement years, he did not have the income to support his expensive tastes. When he died, he left a debt of over $100,000 for his heirs to settle. He also left a Monticello that could best be described as shabby. He did not have the money for painting, repairs and basic maintenance. His daughter, Martha Randolph, was forced to sell her father's home as she needed the income to settle debts and she could not afford to live there on her own (she made Monticello her home from 1809 onward). Monticello was first purchased by James Turner Barclay, who unsuccessfully tried to operate a silkworm business. Three years later (1834), he sold it to Uriah P. Levy.
Captain Levy was a larger-than-life man who was the first Jewish career officer in the U.S. Navy. During his 50 years of service, he was subjected to 6 courts martial, most of them due to anti-Semitism. He did much to help repair Monticello. But unfortunately, Jefferson's home was confiscated by the Confederate government during the Civil War. Meanwhile, Levy died in 1862 and it took over 17 years of court battles to determine the fate of Monticello. Finally, it was purchased by his nephew, Jefferson Madison Levy, who bought out the other heirs.
Jefferson Levy inherited a Monticello that was almost beyond repair. But this wealthy lawyer immediately started dumping money into the estate. Soon, Monticello under Levy was probably in better shape than when Jefferson owned the house. The rest of the story involves how Monticello was eventually sold to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1923. This is definitely an ugly period in Monticello history, when mean-spirited individuals created fabrications about Levy, the condition of Monticello, and about how Uriah Levy "stole" Monticello from Martha Randolph. Jefferson Levy was also targeted because of his religion. It took until the late 1900s for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to finally acknowledge the Levy family for their 89 years of stewardship (longer even than Jefferson's ownership of Monticello).
There were two things that I think could have improved Saving Monticello. First, part of this book reads like a society page with the many dinners, luncheons, trips and events attended by Jefferson Levy. There is also quite a bit of name-dropping. It gets extremely tedious. "In February, Jefferson Levy and Carl Mayhoff spent a few days at the Willard Hotel in Washington. Then they took off for Palm Beach, Florida. Levy was back in New York on March 28th where he gave a dinner party at the Waldorf Astoria for the theatrical producer Sir Charles Wyndham and the actress Mary Moore." There are pages and pages like this. Also, I would have appreciated some interior photographs of Monticello during Jefferson Levy's tenure. I have seen them in other books, so they are available. But still, Saving Monticello is a great story and a must for any Jefferson-fan.
Genealogies, notes, bibliography and index complete this account.
American history. Great book!!!!
Mr. Leepson's scholarly work reveals how frighteningly close the world came to losing this architectural masterpiece, and the debt owed the Levy family for its rescue.
Anyone interested in Jefferson or Monticello should read this book!