Local carpenter crafts Lawn room furniture

Gary Lettan drawn to Charlottesville by history, work influenced by Thomas Jefferson


A custom cabinet in the Lawn room of fourth-year College student John Connolly. 

If you are curious about who is responsible for gathering the supplies and building the Lawn rooms’ furniture, look no further than custom carpenter Gary Lettan.

After moving to Charlottesville in 2000, Lettan said his passion for American history attracted him to Thomas Jefferson’s home and the University. He started his business mostly with fireplace built-ins — furniture such as cabinets that surrounds fireplaces — for doctors, professors and other members of the University community.

In 2006, Lettan received an email from a University student who lived on the Lawn that year asking if he could build a bed loft and cabinets specific to her room. In response, he built two cabinets and a bed riser to raise her bed high enough to fit a futon couch underneath it.

“As the years went by, [my business] grew,” Lettan said. “Suddenly, seven years ago, it was starting to get quite busy. Students would arrive on the Lawn and see my work and look at their parents and say, ‘Mom, dad — I want that because my friends have got it.’”

The Merriweather and Liberty bed lofts are two of the most popular custom Lawn room furniture options. Maximizing floor space, these bed lofts free up room that can be used as a study space or as a lounging area with small couches and comfortable chairs.

“They are very flexible pieces of furniture,” Lettan said, “And everything is handmade including the ladders.”

Lettan said of all his commissioned Lawn room custom furniture, the Crispell Cabinet is his favorite. The cabinet — which is located in the Room One West John K. Crispell Memorial Room — has three storage units on top and a bookshelf on the bottom built in memorium of the Crispell family.

“I built things with a certain integrity so that it would answer to the room … And it wouldn’t have to be disposable,” Lettan said. “So students would purchase cabinets and lofts and then sell them to the next occupant so they would get recycled. Everything I build is designed to not put any holes in the wall and to fit the room, because every room is different.”

John Connolly, a fourth-year College student and 43 West Lawn room occupant, said in an email statement that he bought his Lawn room custom furniture from its previous occupant, who had both a bridge cabinet and loft commissioned. Connolly plans to continue the tradition and sell back the furniture to the future inhabitant of 43 West Lawn next year.

“It has fit wonderfully in the room, and I think adds significantly to the room's aesthetic,” Connolly said. “Lots of visitors have noticed [the custom furniture].”

Jefferson and Monticello have influenced Lettan’s custom furniture work on the Lawn — one of the two-tier bridge cabinets is named “The Jefferson” in honor of the University’s founder. Another is named “The Dinsmore” after James Dinsmore, one of the first contractors to the University and an inspiration for Lettan. Lettan said in addition to his Lawn room custom furniture, he enjoys reenactment and playing the role of Dinsmore.

“Out of a spirit of gratitude and what it means to me to work for Mr. Jefferson is to show up on the Lighting of the Lawn every year and visit all my customers … And then spend the last two hours holding court in the back room of Larry Sabato’s open house at Pavilion IV,” Lettan said. “It’s usually an exciting night.”

Lettan said he has enjoyed working closely with Jefferson’s architecture by making specially-designed Lawn room furniture.

“To work on the Lawn, to me, is like working for Mr. Jefferson,” Lettan said. “I enjoy being creative and providing services to the students.”

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