The next installment in our series of Presidential and First Lady sites is James Monroe’s Highland, located just a few miles from Jefferson’s Monticello.
Now owned by Monroe’s alma mater, The College of William and Mary, Highland was the home of President Monroe and his family during the time that he served as Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to France, Great Britain, and Spain, Secretary of State and War, and as the 5th President of the United States. While not as well-known as many of our nation’s other Founding Fathers, President Monroe was a decorated Revolutionary War veteran who served with Gen. Washington in the crossing of the Delaware and served the nation’s new government in many different capacities. By seeing Highland and learning more about his life, your family will gain a broader appreciation of this time in our country’s history.
The actual home of President and Mrs. Monroe is no longer standing and may have been destroyed in a fire in the 1830s. The main home at Highland is the Massey house from 1870. However the guest home behind the Massey house does date to Monroe’s time.
The original Monroe home’s foundation was recently discovered and is undergoing archaeological investigation. While you cannot visit the actual home of President Monroe, Highland still remains a must-see Presidential site.
Visiting Highland is an easy addition to any visit to Monticello or Charlottesville. Continue past Monticello for 3 miles, and you will see the entrance to Highland. You will want to start your visit at the Visitor Center where you can choose your tour option. Unlike Monticello or Montpelier, you do not need to buy tickets in advance of your visit.
There are several tours offered, including the “Welcome to Highland” 45-minute guided tour. This tour tells the story of President Monroe and his family and takes you around the grounds and into the home, which contains many of the Monroe family’s furnishings and personal effects. For families with kids, however, I recommend the Augmented Reality (AR) tour, which is one of the most unique tours I have ever taken! The AR tour is included in the price of the guided tour or can be done as a stand-alone tour.
If your kids are like mine, they love anything with virtual reality. The Highland AR tour provides kids and adults a virtual look back in time to when the Monroes lived there. Suit up at the Visitor Center, and head out the back door to begin!
Follow the map to the #1 circle on the ground, and your AR glasses and earphones will automatically begin.
As you follow along the numbered path, you will learn more about Highland during President Monroe’s time there. Your eyeglasses will show you comic book-style illustrations that provide an interesting way to learn about the people who lived at Highland. Even my 15-year-old was fascinated with the AR technology. It was so fun that he forgot that he was learning history!
The AR tour will also discuss the enslaved persons who worked at Highland. The tour will take you into the cellar of the 1818 structure where you will hear stories about the real enslaved persons who worked in the cellar.
The AR tour will then take you to the front yard of the Massey house where the real benefits of AR will be demonstrated.
While the foundation before you is the only thing left of the original 1799 Monroe home, using AR, you can actually see what the house looked like!
The glasses project the Monroe home for you and show you exactly where it stood. This is one of the neatest ways to learn and actually “see” history that is no longer standing. Every way you turn your head, the house will appear.
You can continue your way around the house to the gardens, and you will end the AR tour at the James Monroe statue located at the end of the brick path in front of the house.
After the AR tour ends, I recommend returning the equipment to the Visitor Center to continue exploring the Highland grounds.
You can see a replica of the slave quarters, which also houses a drop-in program on slavery at Highland from 10 am – 2 pm on Fridays and Saturdays in April – October.
One of the cabins has been converted into guest quarters and contains a bed that the Marquis de Lafayette actually used on his tour of the U.S. during Monroe’s Presidency. My little “Hamilton”’ fan loved seeing this and learning more about how Mrs. Monroe helped save the life of Lafayette’s wife during the French Revolution! It’s too bad that President Monroe and his many colorful interactions with Alexander Hamilton, especially during the Reynolds scandal, didn’t make it into the Broadway show!
The grounds also contain beautiful demonstration gardens and a huge white oak tree that dates to the family’s time here.
Before you leave, be sure to stop in the gift shop for toys and books along with lovely local art and products. There are also the Highland Rustic Trails to hike and special upcoming events, such as “Halloween at Highland,” to discover!
To help prepare for your tour, be sure to view the virtual tour of Highland on Encyclopedia Virginia’s site. This virtual tour takes you inside the home and the grounds. I love how technology can help us tour the site, even from hundreds of miles away!
Highland was a fun and educational experience for my children, and the AR tour makes it unlike any other historic home tour. The AR is entertaining for kids and adults alike and brings to life a part of history that was lost seemingly forever. Highland is one of those sites that your kids will remember because they were able to step into history and become immersed in the experience. It is a unique tour that all families should explore!
- Guided tour (includes AR tour)-adults/$19; youth 6-11/$13; under 6/free
- AR tour only-$13
- Recommended: ages 6 and up
- Tour time: 1-1 ½ hours
- Gift shop located in Visitor Center
- Transportation: Highland is accessible by car only
- Dining options nearby: No cafe onsite but some snacks are sold at the Visitor Center. Michie Tavern is very close by and is a great Southern buffet in a historical setting. Mount Ida Tasting Room and Taphouse is also nearby.
- Nearby hotels include many chain hotels in Charlottesville, especially near the Downtown Mall area. A more luxurious child-friendly option is the Boar’s Head Resort.
- Nearby attractions include: Monticello, Carter Mountain Orchard, University of Virginia, Virginia Discovery Museum, and the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum
- Other Monroe sites include: James Monroe Museum and Library (Fredericksburg, VA), Monroe Birthplace (under construction) (Colonial Beach, VA), and burial site at Hollywood Cemetery (Richmond, VA)
Books to Read:
- 14 and up:
- James Monroe: A Captivating Guide to the Founding Father Who Served as the Fifth President of the United States
- My Dear Hamilton (for older teens)
- First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women
- Elizabeth Kortright Monroe (can purchase at Highland)
- 10 and up:
- James Monroe: Fifth President, 1817-1825 (Getting to Know the US Presidents)
- DK Eyewitness Books: Presidents: Explore the Lives of the Presidents Who Shaped American History from the Founding Fathers to Today’s Leaders
- DK Eyewitness Books: First Ladies: Discover the Fascinating Spouses of the Nation’s Presidents from Early Patriots
- A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies
- 6 and up:
Have you ever had a tour using AR? Comment below!