Jefferson Monroe Levy

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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There is no doubt that Jefferson Monroe Levy was a successful New York congressman, businessman, and lawyer who purchased the house at a public auction on March 20, 1879, for $10,500, but precious little is known of his 44-year stewardship.

As a descendant of a distiguished Sephardic family that traces its arrival in America to 1662, Levy's vary name reflects the spirit of patriotism that inspired the family's interest in Jefferson and Monticello. His uncle Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy purchased the house in 1834 with the explicit aim of fostering Jefferson's legacy. In preparing to commission the first statue of Jefferson to placed in Washington, D.C., (now in the U.S. Capitol), Uriah Levy wrote that he admired Jefferson as an "absolute democrat" who "inspired millions" and helped to "mold our Republic in which a man's religious beliefs do not make him ineligible for politcal governmental service."

After Uriah Levy's death in 1862, however the Civil War and 17 years of litigation over his will left Monticello at the mercy of an indifferent public and the elements. In 1870 a visitor described the house as "moss-covered, dilapidated, and criminally neglected." When Jefferson Levy finally prevailed as sole owner of the house, the challenge to rescue Monticello had only just begun.

The details of Jefferson Levy's work on the ouse are difficult to ascertain. A few receipts, one from the Charlottesville firm Gooch and Sinclair detailing $90 for covering the roof with wood shingles, and one from Henry Scott, a local mason, for $22.50 for patching and pointing up the brick and stone, are all that remain as records of operating expenses. Since Levy planned to be in residence at least annually from late spring through October, he also completed necessary repairs to make the house habitable and installed modern amenities including a coal-burning furnace and running water. Visitors were welcomed to the grounds and the Fourth of July had become a community event at Monticello by the 1890's.

His investment of time and money notwithstanding, but the early 1900s Jefferson Levy's formidable efforts were scutinized and attacked. His most significant alteration to the exterior of the house was the construction of dromer windows over fice skylights. The addition of stone lion statues, Levy family portraits, and Louis XVI and Victorian furnishings amidst the great clock, pier mirrors, and other Jeffersonian items induced one visitor to conclude that there was nothing of Jefferson in Monticello. As ideas about historic perservation evolved, pressure mounted to turn Monticello into a museum. When he could no longer afford to maintain the house. Levy sold it to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1923. He died just a year later, safe in the conviction that he had saved Monticello from ruin. The Levys are lauded today as on of America's first preservationist families.

This article is based: Rebecca Bowman, Monticello Newsletter, Winter 1998.