The Corner

Magnet School

My Impromptus today is kind of unusual. (I know, no different from the norm.) What are the least overrated places you know? In other words, places about which the hype is true. And what are the most overrated?

I brought up this topic a couple of weeks ago, and, today, I report reader responses.

One of those responses is this:

Least overrated: Mount Vernon. Warm, approachable, understandable. Most overrated: Monticello. As much as I love Jefferson, his home leaves me cold, especially when compared with Mount Vernon.

I brought this opinion — this pairing — to the attention of Myron Magnet. Why? Well, Myron knows about everything. But he is especially knowledgeable in this area, as the author of The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817.

He was good enough to write a comment, which I’m so pleased to share with you. The “reader’s comparison surprised me,” he begins.

In truth, both houses are profoundly moving to visit, haunted as they are by spirits of the great statesmen and amateur architects who, as a lifetime hobby, spent years planning, building up, repairing, perfecting these outward embodiments of their inner vision of the kind of domestic life they were building a nation to make possible.

By contrast with your correspondent, in politics I love Washington, while the only Jeffersonian political principle I agree with is that all men are created equal. So I like the Burkean approach Washington took to enlarging and improving Mount Vernon, not altering structures that worked fine as he added new and improved sections of the house. The result is a house that, for all its attempts to look classically symmetrical, is endearingly lopsided, with the rooftop lantern 18 inches off center, and a different number of windows under each half of the pediment over the entrance portico.

Jefferson, by contrast, is a rationalist’s rationalist, with the plan of Monticello an endlessly interesting, complex, but always symmetrical puzzle of abstract geometrical shapes forming a brilliantly harmonious whole. Well, I like rationalism — in architecture, if not in politics, where it led Jefferson to his monstrous views on the French Revolution.

There is however one truly disturbing thing about Monticello, and that’s the care and trouble Jefferson took to hide the economic reality of slavery that supported the whole operation, putting the service wings half-underground and devising ways to bring food and wine into the dining room without a human being having to carry it in. I suppose one should give him credit at least for being ashamed of slavery. As Dr. Johnson said of that proto-Darwinian, the Scotch judge Lord Monboddo, who believed that men were descended from monkeys, If one has a tail, one should take pains to conceal it; but Monboddo flaunts his with pride.

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