Looking for Mr. Jefferson: A Day in D.C. with the Third President

Tracking the founding father in the city’s architecture, art works, archives and fine wine.

Thomas Jefferson of Virginia had an impact not only on the Federal City’s politics, but on its culture as well. As America’s first secretary of state, he encouraged the planners’ vision of the capital as a New Rome, and as the third president, he modernized the White House with indoor bathrooms, a wine cellar, aesthetic gardens and novelties like ice cream. Plus, he seated his dinner guests in the Green Room without regard to social status. A man of his time, he now seems full of contradictions, owning slaves yet penning “all men are created equal.” He remains, like America itself, both imperfect and extraordinary.

Monticello

Morning

On a bracing run along the Potomac River, stop to stretch at the Jefferson Memorial, a temple (like Jefferson’s own house Monticello) inspired by the Pantheon of Rome. Head north on 15th Street to the Ellipse, a greensward south of the White House. Take a selfie with the President’s House. Its design by architect James Hoban beat out the sketch Jefferson (as A.Z.) submitted anonymously. The men’s neo-classical taste marks many of the white marble institutions lining streets along the way.

Library of Congress

Afternoon

Jefferson walked to Capitol Hill from his boarding house on New Jersey Avenue. Now a grand Library of Congress building named for him honors his love of books. Steps away find him in bronze in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda and (in a red vest) in John Trumbull’s painting “Declaration of Independence.” The document he co-authored and signed is two blocks west on Constitution Avenue at the National Archives. Nicolas Cage alert: it’s in a helium-filled case of bulletproof glass.

Plume

Evening

The man himself would enjoy Plume, an elegant dining room in his namesake hotel. Jefferson-related prints and documents discreetly hang here. The wine list honors his own tastes and the Virginia viticulture he wished for; the menu reflects his sophistication and love of vegetables. A true gourmand, Jefferson hired a French chef for the White House and insisted his valet shop at a Georgetown market now home to Dean & DeLuca. Raise a toast of eggnog with his favorite Madeira.