Academy News

James Monroe’s Oak Hill

The first half of the ride was accented with thunder. Strong, bellowing, mighty. The grey sky was host to great drums, sharp rain, and impossibly quick flashes of brilliance- an odd setting to our impending destination, James Monroe’s Oak Hill. But as the bus forged along, the sky calmed, and through the clouds peeked hints of blue, and a welcome sun. Broken blue provided the backdrop for our arrival, as vivid green divided by gravel paths gave the foreground. Between the contrasting colors was a face of aged brick and tired windows, as well as a set of stairs whose once deep red had been bleached, tried by the elements and past visitors. And yet it stood proud.

When I first heard of our upcoming trip, I was skeptical. Past destinations like Mount Vernon and Montpelier had left distinct impressions and were remarkable in both appearance and structure. So upon looking up our next tour, I found myself more dubious of Oak Hill than the others, as it seemed to lack that same level of grandeur. Being that it was privately owned, I thought it would lack the helpful infographics and diagrams provided in the publicly owned estates, leading to a less informative experience. In short, the interest I carried on past trips had vanished for the time being. Stepping into the home and being greeted by the owner, I was soon to find my assumptions immature, as the experience was unlike any other presidential home before it.

Inside, despite never setting eyes upon it, felt familiar. Personal. The walls were alive with color and patterns, giving each room its own identity. The floor creaked, although normally a worrisome sign, it instead made the house feel lived in. Statues, paintings, mirrors, bookshelves, stools, all meticulously placed and embossed to please the eye. At the rear end of the building stood the seven pillars, saving the balcony from meeting the roof. This balcony, which featured many chairs and peculiar sculptures, overlooked the garden. 

Private ownership, as it turns out, supplies a myriad of advantages. It allowed for the elimination of excess noise from tourists, as well as the ability to admire features without being rushed. The temptation of gift shops was absent. Any conflict between tour groups for space was nonexistent. It was just myself and peers who carried the same amount of reverence for history, and two guides who know the estate personally, which created an atmosphere allowing for absorption of details like no other. In other words, the intimacy seemed to offer more than the grandest of exhibits. 

Magenta, vermillion, ivory, and more danced through petals in the breeze. No section of the garden was not vibrantly branded, with the exception of the stone paths, which even in their blandness served to accentuate the surrounding colors. In the center of the garden was an intersection of sorts, with paths branching in the cardinal directions, each leading to a new feast for the eyes. The gentle hum of the many bees working away breathed yet another layer of life into the already overflowing cup. The air smelled like a mix of mint and sweet citrus. Everything worked in tandem, a full meal for the senses. 

The sites before had operated as orchestras: multitudes of attractions and different stories melded together to create a cohesive sound, but as with any orchestra, some sections suffer to make others shine. The tune of Oak Hill resembled more of a solitary violin: the beauty was concentrated, intimate, and raw. It has no sound to disappear into. The soloist is center stage. While both have their own merits and downsides, the level of personality that seeps from Oak Hill is one that remains unmatched.