Which way is Thomas Jefferson’s house?
Recently, on a beautiful spring morning in Paris, some friends and I went out looking for
the house where Thomas Jefferson lived between 1785 and 1789 when he was ambassador to
France. This was over a decade before he became President of the United States.
United States, a time when the young nation and its citizens were struggling to find their
identity. Who better to send than Jefferson, 42, a multitalented man, a
man whose knowledge and culture even the French could respect?
Our interest in this historic site was sparked by Eric S. Petersen, compiler
from the recent selection of Jefferson’s writings titled 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 informed us that they planned to leave in search of the
I asked what the address was. “The corner of the Champs Elysées and the
Rue de Berri,” replied Eric with a mouthful of omelette.
Our two groups set off independently. For my part, I was hoping to find Eric.
and his wife happily ensconced themselves in a Jefferson reading room at the end of our trip.
I envisioned something like the exquisitely preserved rooms at Monticello. Somebody
another person speculated that the building could still serve the dual purpose of housing the
Embassy of the United States, in which case current security measures may not allow us any further
than a passing glance from street level.
We got off at the Etoile metro station, literally under the Arc de Triomphe.
A gigantic French flag was partially visible through the arches, billowing and then
retreating behind the stonework as if in response to an unseen hand.
The Avenue des Champs Elysees constitutes one of the thirteen points of the
“star” and we went down in search of Rue de Berri. Ten minutes later, the
a famous place was in sight, but the building consisted solely of commercial stores.
A short exploratory walk down Rue de Berri, a few questions in broken French
from a local restaurateur, it all came to nothing. At the end, a man directed us to the
American Embassy, about fifteen minutes. It seemed that we were greatly
We were faced with a dilemma. Who to believe: the local French vendors or
American Eric Petersen, who has read every one of Jefferson’s 20,000 books
letters and that he was able to tell us this address from memory, without even a
moment of hesitation? We stand at the corner of the street, looking at the structure.
above modern shops, reluctant to believe that Petersen’s memory could be in
fault. The building was gently curved, with floor-to-ceiling French doors open at the
upper levels, the sun-drenched white stonework on this particular day. it feels”
And then we saw it: a small bronze plaque, badly worn, about twenty
feet up It said simply, “The Jefferson House.” So the great Jefferson lived here!
We ventured beyond the Champs Elysées, looking for a means of access to the
upper stores, and there we discovered a modest plaque of white marble placed there
on April 13, 1919, by the students of the University of Virginia who had fought in
World War I. The plaque was erected in commemoration of the University
centenary and gave the dates of Jefferson’s residence in Paris.
The plaque itself stood next to tall wrought iron gatehouses. Year
An unattractive sign declared that the Maltese Embassy was now at his residence.
Undaunted, we pressed the buzzer and entered. In the lobby of the building, we were
delighted to find a great black and white print of Jefferson in his younger Parisian
days. However, the secretary at the reception did her best to dissuade us from
continuing further, saying that the building was now made up entirely of offices.
Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a kind of boldness that comes with being
a tourist, so we bypassed the receptionist and made our way to the large, red-carpeted lounge.
ladder. His shouts of protest receded into the background as we ascended. we felt
somehow we were on hallowed ground.
We turned a handle on a door on the second floor and it opened easily.
Surprisingly, this level had no trace of human habitation. we wander through
room after room bathed in sun, our footsteps echoing through the empty spaces. Tea
the floor was pitted, the ceiling was crumbling, a few inches of trim or a patch of paint
here and there hinting at past glories. All was silent, infused inwardly with
The Jefferson vibe, but outwardly abandoned.
Was this where he had sat and pondered the affairs of the world? This was
where he had given much thought to the framework of the new constitution of his
fledgling nation? Was this where she had entertained or written letters home,
missing your daughters?
A patina of sadness washed over us as we contemplated the fate of the Jefferson family.
house. It seemed almost incomprehensible that in the 217 years since Jefferson lived
no effort had been made there to restore the building and dedicate it to his memory.
Even the plaque put up by the students at the University of Virginia is now about 87
years, and that, one can only assume, is the most recent gesture of recognition.
The building, itself a historical bridge between France and America of supreme
importance, is now an embarrassment, delivered to commercial interests.
In a somber mood, we trooped back to the hotel and later that night
We tell our adventures to Eric and Nidrahara. During the course of the afternoon,
they had covered the same territory as we, but, alas, they searched in vain for some
confirmation that the building was indeed Jefferson’s. When they found out about forgiveness
state of the interior, seemed to tear their hearts as it had ours.
But as Eric listened, there was a bright gleam in his eye that gave us hope.
that maybe all is not lost. It brought to mind Jefferson’s own revealing statement:
“A man with courage is a majority.”