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When the name Thomas Jefferson is mentioned, vario

us images and thoughts come to mind. President of the United States, scholar, humanist, religious freedom advocate, father of democracy, and a Renaissance man. Jefferson is
such an integral character in our nation’s history, and his contributions to our country are limitless. One fact,
however, that some people may not realize about this great statesman is that he was a master architect, who designed
his famous home, Monticello, and the University of Virginia, and several other famous historical buildings as well.
With a man so historically important as Jefferson, it is interesting to look at his architectural designs which reflect
the classical as well as his own style.
Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, in Shadwell, Virginia, to Peter Jefferson and Jane Randolph. His
father was an established surveyor, which may have led to young Jefferson’s serious interest in land and buildings.
At the College of William and Mary, however, Jefferson did not study architecture. He studied law with George
Wythe. Therefore, Jefferson was merely an amateur architect, although a very gifted one at that. He, like his father,
taught himself how to draw. Jefferson designed and built such buildings as Monticello, the University of Virginia,
and the capitol building at Richmond in between the public offices and positions he held, such as congressman,
president, governor, and lawyer. He began his architectural hobby with the breaking of ground for Monticello in
1769. Construction began for the University of Virginia in 1819, and Jefferson continued building, tearing down,
and rebuilding his designs almost until his death in 1826.
Jefferson did not want his buildings to look like those at Harvard and the College of William and Mary, because he
thought they were too plain. He considered these buildings to be “unadorned,” and is known to have said, ” . . . but
that they have roofs, would be taken for brick kilns.” So where did Jefferson get his ideas if they were new to the
states? He was inspired by several buildings during his European travels, and he brought home many drawings and
ideas of what to include in his “dream home.” Jefferson’s ‘role model,’ in a sense, was the 16th century Italian
architect Andreas Palladio. Jefferson owned a text written by Palladio on architecture, and he designed his buildings
based directly on the rules in this manual. Before Monticello had a dome, it featured a double portico (one on top of
the other), that is very Palladian in style. The double portico made a statement of the inhabitants’ social status and
also provided covered passageways to give access to th!
e kitchens and storehouses.
Several buildings upon his visit to Europe in the late 1700s influenced Jefferson. He was extremely impressed with
the Hotel de Salm in Paris because it emphasized comfort and privacy rather than formality. The Hotel also featured
a Neoclassical faade, “whose low horizontality gave the house the appearance of being one story high.” When he
traveled to England in 1786, Jefferson visited Chiswick House, which is one of the most influential of English
Palladian villas. Its geometrical features had an impact on Jefferson’s architectural style as well.
Jefferson’s philosophy of architecture was much like his political philosophy. He saw it as something always
changing, or needing to be changed. The buildings he saw in Europe made such an impact on him that upon his
return to the United States, Jefferson began a reconstruction of Monticello to give it the combined features of the
Hotel de Salm and Chiswick House. The results of this reconstruction (which took place between 1796 and 1809)
still exists in the Monticello we see today. He had the construction workers tear down the Palladian double portico,
and in its place integrate the Neoclassical faade of the Hotel de Salm. The second floor rooms were hidden behind
the entablatures and balustrade so the house would retain the one-story exterior look. Jefferson also believed that to
have a symmetrical and geometrically simple building (like Chiswick House) was to have a supreme building
architecturally.
The way Jefferson conceals things makes Monticello very unique for its time. Servants were the norm during this
point in history, and plantation masters had to have buildings to accommodate them. Therefore, the plantations
always looked “crowded” with various “out” buildings. Jefferson, on the other hand, concealed these “uglinesses,” as
he perceived them, to maintain the beauty of his home. You would not find the servants roaming the halls of
Monticello because Jefferson had included hidden passageways and stairways in different parts of the house. The
kitchen and other servants’ quarters were hidden below the south terrace.
Monticello brought many visitors, and most all of them were so inspired by the house, they wrote about it. One of
Jefferson’s visitors, the Duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt spoke of Monticello before and after renovations
Monticello, according to its first plan, was infinitely superior to all
other houses in America, in point of taste and convenience; but at
that time Jefferson had studied taste and fine arts in books only.
His travels in Europe have supplied him with models; he had
appropriated them to his design; and his new plan . . . will be
accomplished . . . and then his house will certainly deserve to be
ranked with the most pleasant houses of England and France.
Another one of Jefferson’s architectural masterpieces is the University of Virginia. Few people are aware of the fact
that he founded it, much less architecturally designed the buildings. To see the University of Virginia is to know
Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson “chose the site, made the plans, supervised their execution, chose the first professors,
saw his buildings fill with students, and acted as their first rector.” So, in a sense, the University of Virginia is
Thomas Jefferson. He put everything he had into making that University. Jefferson had the cornerstone of the
University laid in a spot where he could watch and oversee its building from his terrace at Monticello. His large
amounts of time spent supervising the progress of the University was not done in vain. Some have compared the
University of Virginia with many other buildings and still say that Jefferson was one of the best architects of his day.
Construction on the University of Virginia took place between 1819 and 1824, and Jefferson was so involved with
the building of the University that he made a trip down from his “little mountain” almost daily to make sure his
workers were doing what they were supposed to do. It was a ten-mile trip to the University and back, so Jefferson
had a telescope to help him oversee things when weather conditions became rough. The University has preserved
this telescope in its library.
The University of Virginia was built on three sides of a square lawn. The campus consisted of a Palladian Rotunda
at one end, and on the other two sides were professors’ houses, called Pavilions. There were a total of ten, each
displaying different styles of classical architecture. Each Pavilion had its own style of capitals, columns, and
porticoes, and Jefferson took visitors around the campus while it was in the process of being built, and he pointed
out the true features of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian style columns and details. The students’ dorms were located in
between the professors’ Pavilions, and were one-story buildings with colonnades. The decorations on the buildings
cost more than the necessities because Jefferson loved the various styles so much.
It cost very little for Jefferson to actually build the University of Virginia. Although Jefferson was a lover of fine
things, he was very economical in the items he purchased. One unique aspect of the University was the use of the
serpentine wall, instead of a regular, straight wall. It was built this way simply to save money, but it turned out to be
quite an interesting addition. The wall was curved, like a wave, so fewer bricks were used. Jefferson concerned
himself with every little detail such as this, and it paid off in an extraordinary way. The University of Virginia has
been described as “not only one of the choicest examples of academic architecture in the United States, but unique
among them all.” It obviously pleased Jefferson to combine his two loves – education and architecture into one
“project.”
Another building Jefferson designed was Virginia’s capitol building in Richmond, which was built between 1785
and 1789. Jefferson took its architectural style from a Temple in Nimes, the Maison Carree. This was a long,
rectangular building with a row of columns at the head. Jefferson wanted the state capitol building to exude good
taste and maturity, because he understood that this said something about the character of the people of Virginia.
Critics have said the capitol building in Richmond was the very “first work of the classical revival in the United
States . . . and is a landmark of first importance.”
In evaluating Jefferson’s busy life, it is amazing to think how he had the time to do all his architectural designs, not
to mention his following and supervising the construction so closely. Because of his outstanding design and
completion Jefferson has gained a deserved reputation as one of the country’s foremost architects for these three
structures alone, although he has built many others. With Jefferson it is evident that “those who construct their own
shelter replicate themselves, at their deepest and most significant level, in their houses. They are what they build.”
Jefferson was a highly gifted man, with talents far beyond what one would suspect. He has taken English
Palladianism and French Neoclassicism, combined them to make his own buildings, and in the process set the tone
for American architecture of the future.
Endnotes

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