A Place for Remembrance and Contemplation at Monticello

Peter D. Cook shares his personal connection to his work creating a space for remembrance and contemplation at Monticello.

I recall my first visit to Monticello very clearly. It was the summer of 1980. I was a teenager visiting with my family. I remember it was beautiful. And it was very hot. It was also unforgettable because of what was left unsaid. Our guide never directly acknowledged what we knew to be true: that Thomas Jefferson, the genius behind the almost 250-year-old Declaration of Independence, also enslaved over six hundred women, men and children at Monticello. After we challenged the term he chose to describe the enslaved—“servants”—the guide explained dismissively: “This is the term that Mr. Jefferson preferred.”

Since that first visit, Monticello has restored the stories and physical spaces of those enslaved by Jefferson, so as to offer an honest and inclusive history. This work led them to understand the need to offer a site for contemplation, and to bring greater awareness and reverence to the African American Burial Ground. Now, four decades later, I find myself part of a design team at HGA challenged by visionaries at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to honor those very same people of Monticello, the enslaved people who have remained largely invisible over the centuries.

The Contemplative Site will be a place where visitors can find respite, a quiet place for personal reflection on the sometimes difficult stories told on the Mountaintop. This intervention in the landscape will be neither reverential nor referential to Thomas Jefferson; instead it will focus on the lives of the enslaved. Working closely with the Foundation and the descendant community, the project will rise from the land and engage with the large shade trees, the rubble retaining wall, and the 1,000-foot-long vegetable garden created by enslaved people that was critical to sustaining Monticello. Visitors will see and touch the 607 names rising on the wall symbolically oriented toward the Burial Ground further down the Mountaintop.

The existing Burial Ground is the final resting place for more than 40 enslaved people. And while centrally located, it is nonetheless an underdeveloped part of the Monticello experience. The Foundation challenged our team to find a way to give greater visibility to the Burial Ground to help ensure that its story amplifies the visitor’s understanding of Monticello. A new pathway and landscaping will encircle the Burial Ground and provide places for introspection, along with small, discrete markers with the names of the descendant families presently identified. Physical markers will guide visitors to and from the Burial Ground and the nearby Visitor Center, encouraging the exploration of the space as they begin or conclude their journey at Monticello.

The project is also meaningful to me because it brought me back to a story told to me as a child: through family oral history, we learned of vague references to Jefferson and our direct ancestor—Alethia “Lethe” Browning Tanner—who was born into slavery.

We were told that she sold vegetables to Jefferson in Washington DC’s Lafayette Square and with the proceeds, was able to secure her own freedom. Remarkably and heroically, she went on to facilitate the freedom of 18 of her nephews and nieces. Yet it was many years later, during the design process, that I was able to confirm that oral history with the discovery of a document providing the connection we were looking for: a bill for President Jefferson’s household dated March 22, 1802 listing the medical services provided to several “servants,” including Lethe.

I also recall quite clearly a much more recent visit to Monticello at the very beginning of our design process. The Mountaintop was still beautiful. But this time, it was winter. And it was very cold. Yet what we heard that snowy day from our tour guide has informed our design thinking ever since. She told us that the story of Monticello is “a constant unveiling.” As new information is uncovered about its enslaved residents, the web of known facts becomes more complete. The Contemplative Site and Burial Ground project is a way to make these stories present for visitors through both language and visual cues. Together, these two projects will embody the act of remembering and evoke feeling through commemoration and recognition, to bring these stories to life now and in the future.

Peter D. Cook has an outstanding portfolio of design leadership and award-winning projects throughout the United States—particularly in the D.C. area—encompassing museums, memorials, embassies, libraries, cultural and learning centers, and mixed-used corporate and neighborhood master planning.