Interning at James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland: Reflections on the Multidisciplinary Approach in Action

By Kayla Pittman, M.A. Student, Department of History

The term “multidisciplinary approach” receives a fair share of air time amongst scholars, but what does that actually mean? What does the multidisciplinary approach look like on the ground? For a historian, how does one attain the skills necessary to breach the borders of her own discipline, and feel comfortable in uncharted waters? I have often praised the multidisciplinary approach from the standpoint of a traditional academic historian, but only as a public historian have I truly been able to embrace the breadth of sources one can access when you are able to employ not only the tricks of your own trade, but those in other highly specialized fields to better connect with the public.

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Monroe era house denoted by white paint, north façade

This summer, as a result of a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grant awarded to Ash Lawn-Highland, I had the privilege of interning at James Monroe’s Albemarle County plantation. Monroe referred to this place as Highland, a property he purchased in 1793 right next to his friend Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Monroe considered Highland his official residence between 1799 and 1823. Highland is currently comprised of 535 acres and offers guided tours of the Monroe era house, a chance to freely move about the interpreted cellar dependencies and service yard outbuildings, as well as grounds. Its current executive director, Dr. Sara Bon- Harper has brought a new research focus to Highland. This summer as Highland buzzed with researchers, both experts and interns alike, visitors often witnessed new research and discoveries taking place during their visit.

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L-R: Dr. Sara Bon-Harper, Nancy Stetz, Kayla M. Pittman (author) Photo by R. Stillings

This summer I was one of the many researchers visitors regularly saw ascending a ladder into the attic. I did not do this for the pure enjoyment of the attic’s sauna like conditions, nor was I particularly interested in spending my afternoons in the company of wasps, lost honey bees, and the occasional snake; however I was highly interested in trailing architectural historian Willie Graham. I wanted to learn everything I could about how architectural historians approach the past so that I could grow as a historian in my own field. By understanding some of the methods and approaches architectural historians employ, I can add another layer to my understanding of the historical record. A multidisciplinary approach allows me to add another color to the palette I use to make the past come alive as a public historian. So, if Willie Graham went to the attic, I made sure to hold the ladder and follow suit.

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L-R: Dr. Sara Bon-Harper, Kyle Edwards, Kayla M. Pittman, Nancy Stetz. Photo by K.

Although l learned a great deal from Willie Graham on our trips to the attic, learning from him was not done for purely selfish reasons. As the graduate intern, my tasks were to analyze previous architectural and archaeological reports written on the Monroe era house and service yard outbuildings, confront discrepancies in research results, and put forth recommendations for areas of future research. In order to accomplish these tasks, I had to rely heavily upon my archaeological training as I read various archaeological reports filled with jargon and specialized maps. In no way do I consider myself to be an archaeologist, however having the basic skills necessary to feel comfortable operating in that realm of academia gave me an edge as I confronted previous reports.   Having some archaeological training also did not hurt when crawling under the house to confront what was seen on an archaeological map in person.

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L-R: Architectural historians Carl Lounsbury & Jeff Klee. Photo by K.

Furthermore, working with architectural historians Willie Graham, Carl Lounsbury, and Jeff Klee as they investigated and inventoried the Monroe era house afforded me the opportunity to include the most recent research conducted on the structure as it unfolded in my report. During this time, I also had the opportunity to spend an afternoon discussing dendrochronological research potential of the Monroe era house, interpreted overseer’s house, and smokehouse with Dan Druckenbrod, a dendroecologist who often works on projects at Monticello. Working with these scholars allowed me to stretch my skillset to encompass elements of other disciplines.

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Photo by Ash Lawn-Highland

My final report at the end of the summer is most concisely summarized as a document that says “this is what we know to be true and this is where we go from here.” With Dr. Sara Bon-Harper I presented my report to Highland’s guides and staff and was able to answer their questions about how to present this information to the public. This report will be used by future researchers at Highland as well as by the interpretive staff. Some of the findings described in this report will drastically change how the Monroe era home is interpreted.

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South façade of Monroe era house

For example, while examining the Monroe era structure, Carl Lounsbury, Willie Graham, and Jeff Klee found that the first building period dates between 1798/99 and 1800 and consists of the interpreted Monroe bedroom and dining room. The second building period is attributed to a shed addition constructed circa 1816 which is comprised of the interpreted Monroe study and his daughter Maria Hester’s bedroom. Lounsbury, Graham, and Klee found that the interpreted front entrance on the northern façade is in fact a secondary entrance most likely reserved for servants and slaves. The entrance Monroe, his family, and guests used would have been located on the southern façade and accessed by a series of stairs leading up to a landing or porch. This was evidenced by the observation of blind nailed flooring in the lobby between the interpreted Monroe bedroom and dining room which is a costly detail generally reserved for primary rooms.

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Circular saw marks pictured on attic beams above the interpreted drawing room. Photo by R. Stillings

Another major change to the interpretation of the Monroe era house is that the room currently interpreted as Monroe’s drawing room is not in fact a Monroe era space. The interpreted drawing room is a part of the third building period that Lounsbury, Graham, and Klee dated circa 1850s. This was evidenced by the observation of circular saw marks seen on beams in the attic over this section of the house.

James Monroe’s Highland is nestled in the hills of Charlottesville, Virginia, but it is not a place to be forgotten in the shadows of Monticello. It is a vibrant place for both visitors and scholars alike. At Monroe’s Highland, historians and especially interns can grow as academics and readily connect with the public we most desperately seek to engage as public historians. A multidisciplinary approach is the key to unlocking our understanding of Monroe’s Highland not only as the historic home of fifth president James Monroe, but also as the home of an enslaved population. Further research is needed at Highland, but with Dr. Sara Bon- Harper leading the charge, Highland remains rich with opportunity.

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