An 100-year-old Jefferson aficionado builds a Monticello replica in Connecticut
On his gravestone at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson chose to be remembered for three things: the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia statute for religious freedom, and the University of Virginia.
Though 100-year-old S. Prestley Blake of Somers, Connecticut, has not yet shuffled off this mortal coil, he wants to be remembered for just one thing: his devotion to Thomas Jefferson. The centenarian has, in fact, summed up a lifetime’s admiration of Jefferson in one parting gesture—he has built a $6 million replica of Monticello next to his own Connecticut estate.
Like the real Monticello in Charlottesville, Blake’s replica sits on a hill, commanding a view of the surrounding area and commanding the attention of passersby. Near the door of this dream home, which he plans to sell to a “worthy buyer,” he has placed a plaque with a quote by Jefferson—taken from a 1787 letter to George Gilmer: “I am as happy no where else and in no other society, and all my wishes end, where I hope my days will end, at Monticello.”
Blake—who never attended UVA or lived anywhere near Charlottesville—sees the just-completed project as his gift to posterity.
“The last sentence in my book that is coming out this spring is ‘I am 100 years old and this is my swan song,’” he said.
Blake will, of course, be remembered for other things besides his Monticello. For one, he is cofounder of Friendly’s Ice Cream, an iconic restaurant chain in New England.
For another, Mr. Blake’s just-completed Monticello is not his first architectural tribute to Jefferson. In the 1990s, he and his wife, Helen, donated the funds for a Monticello-inspired building to house the middle school at Wilbraham & Monson Academy in Wilbraham, Mass. Five years ago, they funded the construction of the president’s residence at Springfield College in Springfield, Mass., a structure that also contains echoes of Monticello.
It was while the Springfield College project was under way that Mr. Blake began to conceive of “his” Monticello in Somers, located just over the state border from Springfield.
“Monticello is the most prominent private residence in the United States. You see it reproduced everywhere,” says Blake, who has visited Monticello many times. “Five years ago, I went down to Charlottesville to see it again. I love good architecture and Jefferson’s is the best.”
When the property next door to his own came up for sale, Mr. Blake reached his Rubicon. He purchased the land, about 10 acres, tore down the structures that were on it and began to put his signature idea into action. Then he hired Bill LaPlante, who owned the contracting company that built the president’s house at Springfield College.
“When we learned he wanted us to build Monticello, I was shocked. I dismissed it, thinking, ‘This isn’t going to happen,’” LaPlante says.
And yet, Mr. Blake called back soon thereafter, saying he had plane tickets ready for LaPlante and his father, Raymond, founder of the company, to Charlottesville.
At Monticello, the LaPlantes met with various officials who spent six hours answering their questions.
“They were extremely gracious. “It was interesting to see the progression of Monticello,” LaPlante says. “Jefferson would build something, then tear it down, and put something else up. He spent his life obsessed with architecture and this house.”
For the actual architectural plans, the LaPlantes consulted Monticello in Measured Drawings, a book of plans compiled directly from the Historic American Buildings Survey. While most of the exterior of Mr. Blake’s Monticello conforms to Mr. Jefferson’s original, only some of the interior retains the Jeffersonian touch, including the dining room, tea room, main foyer and hall and the use of a Monticello pattern on the parquet floors. Jefferson tinkered away on his house for 28 years, and spent about $100,461 (roughly $1.3 million in today’s dollars). The LaPlantes, meanwhile, working in a more technologically-advanced time, different time, needed only 18 months.
And while Jefferson’s house is roughly 11,000 square feet, Blake’s is a streamlined 10,000 square feet with modern amenities like geothermal heating and three helicopter landing sites on the property. There are also small touches to adhere to local ordinances, like railings on the front door entryway.
“We re-created the front façade to scale, which is 95 percent accurate,” says LaPlante. “The original porches on the sides are now enclosed and the rear of the house is 50 percent accurate.”
Blake is particularly proud, albeit amused, by the attention to detail.
“I wanted to have the house as close as possible to the original, and this one has the exact same footprint as Jefferson’s,” he says. “Bricks normally cost 50 cents apiece, but ours cost $1 apiece because they’re handmade. It took 95,000 bricks, exactly the same as Monticello, even down to artificially cracking them to look like Jefferson’s. LaPlante had ten finishing carpenters who were minutely fussy, and excellent sub-contractors who all had the same attitude. “I want Bill LaPlante to put a plaque up so that future generations will know he built this,” Blake says.
Blake does not regret the expense of this project.
“I spent a fortune to build it but I don’t care if I get my money back. That’s not why I built it. I built it for posterity, not to live in it. It’s done wonders for the community. The house is lit up at night and people drive by and take photographs and are so proud of it.”
Perhaps what makes Blake happiest of all is that the house was completed by the holidays, allowing him to declare something few ever get to these days: “We had Christmas dinner at Monticello.”