Saving Monticello: The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built, by Marc Leepson, is an extremely fascinating book.
From the first page until the last page, I was completely engrossed with the drama presented within the pages. I found it difficult to put down, during the moments that I had to. The missing years and missing events concerning Monticello, after Thomas Jefferson’s death, have either been overlooked or not mentioned to any great extent within the chapters of history.
The Levy family basically went unnoticed within the historical context of Monticello, after Jefferson’s death in 1826. If it were not for them, Monticello would not be the historical landmark it is today. The family members were Jefferson devotees and admirers. They loved what he stood for, what his ideals were, what he represented to Americans.
When Jefferson died, he died with an extreme amount of debt. This was the determining factor that led his heirs to sell his estate. It was bought by a druggist by the name of James Turner Barclay. During his years of ownership the house fell into disrepair. As you can see on the cover of the book, Monticello at that time, was in extreme architectural devastation and ruin.
Monticello went up for sale in 1834, once more, and Uriah Phillips Levy, a Jewish-American, purchased it. He was was a United States Navy Lieutenant. He began to repair the estate out of his own money. He spared no expense in order to retain the architectural integrity of Monticello, and keep it in its original state. That lasted until the Civil War when it landed up in the hands of the Confederacy (like many other homes and estates).
Once the war ended, Uriah’s nephew, Jefferson Levy took ownership. He was an unmarried businessman, who endeavored to keep up the ruined exterior and interior. He initiated repairs, restoring the house and grounds of the estate, and even tried to find the original furniture that Jefferson owned. He was tireless in his efforts, and spent tens of thousands of dollars, possibly one hundred thousand dollars, of his own money to restore the house to maximum condition.
That mattered little to a woman named Maud Littleton, who fought tooth and nail to have Monticello’s ownership removed from Levy. She was a wealthy socialite, married to a congressman. She petitioned Congress to purchase the estate from Levy’s hands, right out from under him, so to speak. He was against this, and an extremely bitter and long fight ensued, lasting over twenty years. The facts concerning this battle depict incredible moments in congressional affairs, legal affairs and Levy’s struggle to maintain ownership under the deceitful implications made by Littleton.
The woman was obsessed with the fact that Levy owned Monticello. She literally lied in front of Congress and the nation, literally stated the house was in disrepair, when in fact it had been repaired, lied about anything and everything in order to make firm the fact that she wanted Monticello taken out from under Levy’s ownership.
Saving Monticello, documents from actual historical records (some of which are shown within the pages), newspaper accounts, lawsuits, county and civic documentations, brochures, etc., and extremely factual research the intensity of the battle over Monticello. It is apparent that there was an underlying tone of antisemitism fostering Littleton’s harsh stance. History was washed over in that respect.
And so goes the story, ending in 1923 when Jefferson Levy gave in and sold the estate for $500,000 to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation. The Levy’s had ownership of the estate for a few months shy of ninety years, much, much longer than the Jefferson family owned it.
But, it did not end there, because the Levy family was never given their due. Historical records and even the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation did not readily acknowledge the Levy family’s contribution and steadfast repairs. Even during the tours, there was no mention of them or their endeavors.
It took decades before they were acknowledged by the Foundation, and even at that, depending on the tour guide today, they are not always mentioned.
In the book, Saving Monticello: The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built, Leepson has given the reader an amazing overview of actual facts, data, events, timelines and the struggles that the Levy family endured. The story is compelling, especially to the history lover. He has left no stone unturned in his presentation of documentation, and his research is to be commended. His writing is brilliant. I gained so much knowledge from reading Saving Monticello: The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built.
This review does not delve into the intensity of the issues regarding Monticello, as stated in the pages of the book. But, as a history lover and as a person who has been to Monticello on a few occasions, I found the book quite compelling, extremely detailed, and found it to be of historical importance.
This book should be on every high school, university, college, and public library shelf. Saving Monticello: The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built, by Marc Leepson, is a major contribution of educational and historical value, and is masterfully and magnificently written.
You can read more about Marc Leepson, and read more about the Levy family, here.
December 24, 2012 – 11 Tevet, 5773