A Jefferson follower’s $7.5m declaration of admiration
SOMERS, Conn. — S. Prestley Blake turned 100 years old last month, cofounded the Friendly’s restaurant chain with his brother 79 years ago, and probably figures he can do whatever he wants at this stage of his long life.
But when he told his wife, Helen, what his swan song would be, her mouth dropped.
“I want to build Monticello,” Blake declared.
And so he has built it, $7.5 million later, in a meticulously crafted re-creation of Thomas Jefferson’s architectural masterpiece. The recently completed rendition, based on drawings of the original in Charlottesville, Va., abuts the Massachusetts border in this bucolic town about eight miles south of Springfield, close to the Wilbraham Mountain Range.
“I like to create nice things,” Blake said Monday in the lavish foyer of his Monticello. “And this is a hell of a place.”
Blake’s motivation to place a traffic-stopping home on a quiet Connecticut road is rooted in his unabashed admiration for the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and the country’s third president.
“He was an exceptionally brilliant man,” Blake said. “I want people to talk about the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, and this house is a good candidate for promoting his life — president, vice president, secretary of state.”
Suddenly seeing a replica of Monticello appear around the bend can be wonderfully jarring for motorists who know what the original looks like. And many Americans do; Monticello adorns the back of the nickel.
“When I asked him why he was doing this, he said ‘Because it’s the most beautiful house in the United States,’ ” Helen Blake recalled.
At least two prospective buyers have shown interest in a home that looks nearly 250 years old on the outside, but is cutting edge on the inside with 21st-century amenities such as geothermal heating and LED lighting.
“The intent was to have more a modernized single-family home than a period piece,” said Bill Laplante, president of the East Longmeadow, Mass., construction company that raised Monticello anew for Blake.
But the single-family home set on 9 acres is not a candidate for turning a profit.
“It’s going to lose money, and I knew that before I started,” Blake said. The five-bedroom, nine-bathroom house has been placed on the market for $6.5 million.
The building’s footprint closely mimics the Monticello that Jefferson began as a 26-year-old and altered over his lifetime. The original is 11,000 square feet; Blake’s version is 10,000, complete with the signature dome, white columns, and roof balustrades of Jefferson’s version.
Even the red brick resembles the building blocks of old. For this project, Laplante said, a Virginia company hand-molded 65,000 “distressed” bricks, which bear the irregular, bumpy surfaces common in centuries past.
“We used materials you might find in a house of that period,” Laplante said.
Gone are the outdoor privies of the original, as well as any replicas of the plantation’s slave quarters.
Laplante said he was instructed by Blake to spare no expense.
“He just said, ‘We want to walk into each room and have it be spectacular,’ ” Laplante said.
There’s Carrara marble, intricate flooring of mahogany and oak, delicate custom trim, indoor balconies, a soaring staircase, and another nod to modern times — a three-car garage that extends around back.
The builders finished in time for Blake’s 100th birthday, which was celebrated at the house a month before his actual centennial in November.
By that time, Blake had become a frequent presence at the construction site, buzzing around on a small motorized vehicle, constantly asking questions, and even persuading one of the workers to give up smoking.
“All of us were sad when it was over,” said Jennifer Champigny, the building project’s design consultant.
C.G. “Bud” Knorr, a Somers selectman, called the house an exquisite addition to the town.
“He built it for posterity,” said Knorr, who attended Blake’s black-tie birthday fete on Oct. 3.
“He’s looking for the right buyer, and he will have final approval.”
That buyer, Knorr said, presumably will share Blake’s admiration for Jefferson and his accomplishments.
Having a Monticello replica in town will be the community’s most obvious nod to US history.
When asked about other local links to Americana, Knorr mentioned that Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s horse had been raised and stabled in Somers, and that a local textile mill supplied woolens for the Union Army during the Civil War.
Blake’s reverie-turned-reality, however, is another dimension entirely.
An understated but unapologetic sign at the entrance to a long, curving driveway informs the visitor that this is “Monticello.” A pathway to the home from Blake’s adjoining property has been dubbed the Monticello Highway. And a towering pole with a large American flag flies high over the slightly rolling lawn.
“I’m tickled to death with this,” Blake said. “I think it will last indefinitely.”
As he spoke of his creation, gazing fondly about the foyer, Blake sat beneath a mounted quotation attributed to Jefferson. The words could easily reflect his own: “All my wishes end where I hope my days will end, at Monticello.”