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Whither La Maison de Thomas Jefferson

On a fine spring morning in Paris recently, some friends and I set out to find the house where Thomas Jefferson dwelt from 1785-89 when he was Ambassador to France. This was more than a decade before he became President of the United States, a time when the young nation and its citizens were struggling to find their identity. Who better to send than the 42-year old Jefferson, a man of many parts, a man whose learning and culture even the French could respect?.Our interest in this historical site was quickened by Eric S.

Petersen, compiler of the recent selection from Jefferson's writings entitled Light and Liberty: Reflections on the Pursuit of Happiness (Random House, 2004). We had met him and his wife Nidrahara that same day in the breakfast room of the Meridien Hotel in Montparnasse and they informed us that they planned to set out in quest of the house.I enquired what the address was. "The corner of the Champs Élysées and the Rue de Berri," responded Eric through a mouthful of omelette.Our two groups departed independently.

I for one fully expected to find Eric and his wife happily ensconced in a Jefferson reading room at the end of our journey. I imagined something akin to the exquisitely preserved rooms at Monticello. Someone else speculated that the building might yet serve the dual purpose of housing the American Embassy, in which case current security measures might afford us no more than a passing glance from street level.

We alighted at the Metro station Étoile, literally beneath the Arc de Triomphe. A gigantic French flag was partially visible through the arches, swelling and then retiring behind the stonework as if in response to an unseen hand. The Avenue des Champs Élysees makes up one of the thirteen prongs of the "star" and we ambled down it in search of the Rue de Berri. Ten minutes later, the famous location hove in sight?but the building consisted only of commercial stores. A brief exploratory walk down the Rue de Berri, some questions in faltering French of a local restauranteur?all yielded naught.

In the end, one man directed us to the American Embassy, some fifteen minutes away. It seemed that we were vastly mistaken in the address.We were faced with a dilemma. Whom to believe?the local French vendors or the American, Eric Petersen, who has read each and every one of Jefferson's 20,000 letters and who was able to tell us this address from memory, without even a moment's hesitation? We stood at the corner of the street, gazing up at the structure above the modern stores, unwilling to believe that Petersen's memory could be at fault. The building was gently curved, with floor to ceiling French doors open on the upper levels, the white stonework bathed in sun on this particular day.

It "felt" Jeffersonian.And then we saw it?a small bronze plaque, much weathered, some twenty feet up. It read simply, "La Maison de Jefferson". So the great Jefferson did live here! We ventured further down the Champs Elysees, looking for a means of access to the upper storeys, and there we discovered a modest, white marble plaque placed there on April 13th, 1919, by the alumni of the University of Virginia who had fought in World War I.

The plaque was erected in commemoration of the University's centenary and it gave the dates of Jefferson's residency in Paris.The plaque itself was beside tall wrought iron entrance gates. An unprepossessing sign declared that the Embassy of Malta was now in residence. Undaunted, we pressed the buzzer and went in. In the foyer of the building, we were thrilled to find a large black and white print of Jefferson in his younger Parisian days.

However, the secretary at the reception desk did her best to dissuade us from continuing further, saying that the building was now composed entirely of offices. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a kind of boldness that comes with being a tourist and so we bypassed the receptionist and headed for the grand, red-carpeted staircase. Her cries of protest receded into the background as we ascended. We felt somehow that we were on hallowed ground.

We turned the handle of a door on the second floor and it opened easily. Surprisingly, this level bore no trace of human habitation. We wandered through room after sun-drenched room, our footsteps echoing through the empty spaces. The floor was pitted, the ceiling crumbling, a few inches of moulding or a portion of paint here and there hinting at past glories.

All was quiet, inwardly infused with Jefferson's vibration, yet outwardly derelict.Was this where he had sat and mused over the affairs of the world? Was this where he had given much reflection to the framework of the new constitution of his fledgling nation? Was this where he had entertained guests or written letters home, missing his daughters?.A patina of sadness swept over us as we contemplated the fate of Jefferson's home. It seemed almost incomprehensible that in the 217 years since Jefferson lived there no effort had been made to restore the building and dedicate it to his memory.

Even the plaque put up by the students of the University of Virginia is now some 87 years old?and that, one can only presume, is the most recent gesture of recognition. The building, in itself an historical bridge between France and America of supreme importance, is now an embarrassment, given over to commercial interests.In a sombre mood, we trooped back to the hotel and later that evening recounted our adventures to Eric and Nidrahara. During the course of the afternoon, they had covered the same territory as us, but alas they searched in vain for some confirmation that the building was indeed Jefferson's. When they heard of the sorry state of the interior, it seemed to tear their hearts as it had ours.

But as Eric listened, there was a bright gleam in his eye which gave us hope that perhaps all is not lost. It brought to mind Jefferson's own revealing statement: "One man with courage is a majority.".


By: Dr. Vidagdha Bennett

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