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From the Slave Kitchen to the Great Room: Guest Author Pice by Connie Yoshimura


Last week I had the opportunity to visit Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello.  Jefferson, who is considered one of the primary architects of our Declaration of Independence, also had a love for residential architecture and, as a result, his home at Monticello was always a work in progress. At his death, it fell into disrepair, was sold to private parties until finally purchased and restored by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. As I walked through the home on the guided tour, I could not help but be struck by the similarities and significant differences from the homes we build today and how a home is a reflection of our personal and social values.

Jefferson did not like to waste space.  Therefore, his staircases were narrow  and tucked away in the corners of rooms. They was never a grand architectural focal point like so many wrought iron and stained wood staircases today. The fireplaces in every room were used for heat.  They had decorative mantles and some tile surrounds but the hearths were always on the floor to help keep the floors warm.  Today, it’s rare to find anything but a gas fireplace that you turn on with a switch in a new home.   Even wood burning fireplaces are rarely used for heat but rather to create a certain ambience.

The foyer of Jefferson’s home was where he greeted guests and, in some instances, led them into a small parlor for conversation.  It was not unlike the two story foyers we see in many luxury homes today with original art and, yes, moose antlers.  Jefferson was sensitive to light and window placement and had constructed the first dome room in America.  His paned windows were built almost from ceiling to the floor in every room.

Also striking were the vibrant colors —peach and aqua in the foyer’s wainscot which the guide said were thought to be the original colors.  Jefferson evidently liked color and the walls in the dining room were painted a bright gold.  However, unlike today’s formal dining room, which sits vacant except for a couple of holidays each year, Jefferson’s dining room was used every day and the furniture consisted of two or three folding tables which after the breakfast and dinner meals (the only meals served in the household) were folded up against the walls so that the room could be used as a sitting room and additional parlor for family members.

The food was brought up from the kitchen located below the house by a narrow dumb waiter, an invention he brought with him from France, because Jefferson did not like to have his dinner conversations interrupted, or I would surmise, also overheard by the household slaves which brings us to a discussion of the slave kitchen tucked away beneath the house, in a long row along with the smokehouse, the stables, the laundry, the cook’s room and other functions necessary to maintain Monticello.

I have recently been criticized for calling it a slave kitchen but indeed that is exactly what it was because Jefferson, during his lifetime, maintained Monticello and its approximately 5,000 acres by owning approximately 200 slaves.  So, the kitchen, along with what we would call today the laundry room, the pantry (the smokehouse), the garage (stable) were all out of site and to the guests arriving in the aqua and peach foyer, were out of site and out of mind. Jefferson believed that these ‘necessary conveniences’ needed to be hidden away. Even Monticello’s chef was a slave sent to France to be trained in the art of French culinary cuisine.

So, on the 2011 Martin Luther King Day when I visited Monticello, I could not help but reflect how far we have come as Americans and how our homes reflect that change.  Today, we live in a great room, both literally and figuratively.  We gather in the kitchen which is the heart of every home.  I once had an architect tell me you can’t keep guests out of the kitchen so don’t even try. We live an informal, multi-generational and multi-cultural lifestyle. Our kitchens are full of Asian fusion, northern Italian, California style and southern comfort food to mention only a few, whether it is cooked at home or purchased from our favorite take-out place.

And here in Anchorage, Alaska, thousands of miles away from Monticello, we can celebrate our well-being and good fortune to live in a state that celebrates our independence and diversity from the slave kitchen to the great room.

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