Welcoming visitors to Monticello outside Charlottesville, Virginia, is a cluster of wood-framed pavilions worth a stop on its own. The Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith Education Center was designed by Ayers Saint Gross Architects and Planners of Baltimore to facilitate access to the third President’s hilltop home. But it provides much more than a place to buy a ticket. Organized around a planted courtyard, the five buildings offer museum-worthy exhibits, a discovery room for children, a gift shop and a café. They allow visitors to learn about Jefferson at their own pace before boarding a shuttle to tour his stunning, neoclassical home.
Set on a slope below this World Heritage landmark, the year-old center consolidates amenities previously spread out around the little mountain. Its buildings are nestled into the hilly site to preserve views from the house and its surrounding landscape. “We embraced Jefferson’s architectural principles without imitating his design at Monticello,” says architect Sandra Parsons Vicchio. Inspired by the property’s agrarian structures, the architects used cedar siding, local fieldstone and copper roofs in order not to compete with the brick façade and white columns of Monticello.
The center is progressive, too, in its environmentally friendly design. Green roofs, geothermal heating and cooling and reliance on natural light earned it an impressive LEED gold rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. Jefferson, no doubt, would be pleased. As he wrote, “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth.”www.monticello.org
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