Training and Early Work
Architects were scarce in early America. One of the first, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who became a close associate of Jefferson, only arrived from England in 1796. The profession of architecture at this time was very closely associated with construction, and Jefferson learned though his books, travel, and construction. He became very knowledgeable about laying out buildings, making bricks, woodcutting, turning, furniture making, and stone carving.
Jefferson described the importance of the source in a letter to Edmund Randolph, dated September 20, 1785: "How is a taste for a chaste and good style of building to be formed in our countrymen unless we seize all occasions which the erection of public buildings offers, of presenting to them models for their imitation?" In another letter, to James Buchanan and William Hay, dated January 26, 1786, he explained that he chose a "model already devised and approved by the general suffrage of the world." The next year, when he finally visited Nîmes, and after the plans had been sent back to Richmond, on March 20, 1787, Jefferson began a letter to his friend Madame de Tessé: "Here I am, Madam, gazing whole hours at the Maison quarrée [sic], like a lover at his mistress." Jefferson did not supervise the construction of the State Capitol and hence many elements, such as the raised basement and portions of the interior, do not follow his plans. The exterior did but has since been altered.
Later in his life, Jefferson produced a number of designs for Virginia courthouses of which only one, the Charlotte County Courthouse, survives. A small building that overlooks the road, its large, temple-fronted portico is typically Jeffersonian and attests to his belief that governmental architecture ought to be based on the time-tested principles of classical architecture from the past.
Monticello II and Poplar Forest
Jefferson's living space and its appearance were extremely important to him and he constantly remodeled his quarters, even those he did not own. In Philadelphia, Paris, and New York he paid to change the interiors, and in some cases the gardens, of houses he rented.
Jefferson renovated Monticello beginning in 1796, tearing down portions of the original house, enlarging the number of rooms from seven to twenty-three, and adding a dome. (This renovation has come to be known as Monticello II.) The interior featured a sequence of spaces leading from a museum-like front hall to the large, bow-fronted music room with a view of the garden and a mountain beyond. The west submerged wing, first projected in 1770, was finally built around 1807, and Jefferson redesigned his garden according to the English picturesque style he had observed during a tour of British gardens with John Adams in 1786. (Picturesque gardens imitated idealized images of nature, often based on paintings.) Some of the furniture at Monticello was made by Jefferson's enslaved cabinet maker, John Hemmings, while other pieces and much of the art came from France. Although the house was largely finished by 1817, Jefferson continued to make alterations until his death.
Extant drawings indicate that Jefferson contemplated a retreat house for many years, but he did not finally embark on its construction until 1806. Located in Bedford County on a large plantation, what came to be known as Poplar Forest sat on land inherited by Jefferson's wife. Its main house was octagonal in shape with a perfectly cubical room at the center for dining, both examples of Jefferson's fascination with ideal geometrical forms. As at Monticello, skylights were present and the sequence of spaces again led to a room—a library in this case—with a view of gardens and nature beyond. Practicality ultimately overruled idealism, however, and a long service wing was added to the east side, ruining the symmetry.
Jefferson also provided house designs and advice to many friends and acquaintances in the Piedmont region of Virginia. The total number of designs remains unclear, but it could have been about fifteen. In some cases Jefferson provided drawings, as he did for Governor James Barbour's house at Barboursville, which was intended to be a Palladian-styled house with a dome, although the dome was never built. For his friend George Divers, who owned the Farmington planation just outside of Charlottesville, Jefferson in 1802 designed a massive east wing with a giant Tuscan-columned portico, nine round windows, and a two-story interior space. An offspring of the house is the similarly named Farmington (1815–1816), in Farmington, Kentucky, built for the Speed family. (Lucy Speed, the wife of John Speed, was related to the Divers family of Charlottesville.)
University of Virginia
In 1814, Jefferson produced a plan for a secondary school, the Albemarle Academy, that consisted of a large, U-shaped field bordered by nine pavilions for the teachers and rooms for students in between. Under a new state charter in 1816, the academy was renamed Central College, and the next year land was purchased for the school about a mile outside of Charlottesville. Construction began the following year. Then in January 1819 the name was changed again, this time to the University of Virginia.
One of the most unusual aspects of the university's design was Jefferson's insistence that the fronts of the professor's pavilions be "no two alike," as he wrote to William Thornton on May 9, 1817, "so as to serve as specimens for the Architectural lectures." The consequence is a variety of column orders and fronts that run up and down the Lawn. Jefferson intended that it be planted with trees and grass; he even hoped to introduce a botanical garden off to the northwest but died before it could be created.
Equally important was Jefferson's legacy of training a skilled group of builders and architects who carried his influence through Virginia and elsewhere. Individuals such as Dinsmore, Neilson, and Thomas R. Blackburn continued after his death to design and build in the Piedmont area. The construction of the University of Virginia was accomplished by a large group of builders—more than 300 have been documented—who were, in a sense, trained under Jefferson. He worked closely with them and in some cases loaned them his books to copy. As a result, a large group of courthouses both in Virginia and elsewhere, along with houses and even several universities and colleges, all display his architectural influence.
1760–1762 - Thomas Jefferson studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.
1768 - The hillcrest upon which Thomas Jefferson plans to build his plantation house is cleared and leveled.
1769 - Construction begins at Monticello.
ca. 1770 - Thomas Jefferson constructs a small brick house with one room on the main floor and a kitchen below. He and his wife will live there while he works on building Monticello.
1774 - Thomas and Martha Jefferson and their young children, Martha and Jane Randolph, move into Monticello I.
June 1, 1779 - The General Assembly elects Thomas Jefferson to succeed Patrick Henry as governor. His term begins the next day.
1782 - Thomas Jefferson completes work on the first version of Monticello.
August 1784–September 1789 - Thomas Jefferson serves first as minister plenipotentiary to negotiate commercial treaties with foreign powers, and then as minister to France.
1785–1786 - While in France, Thomas Jefferson designs and submits plans for a statehouse in Richmond based on the Maison Carrée, in Nîmes.
1786 - While serving as minister to France, Thomas Jefferson goes on a tour of nineteen English landscape gardens with John Adams, using Thomas Whately's Observations on Modern Gardening (1770) as a guidebook.
1796 - Construction begins on the renovation and enlargement of Monticello.
1800 - A dome, modeled after a drawing of the Temple of Vesta that appears in Andrea Palladio's Four Books on Architecture (1570), is constructed atop Monticello II.
1803 - President Thomas Jefferson appoints Benjamin Henry Latrobe the new architect of the U.S. Capitol.
1806 - Construction begins at Poplar Forest on the octagonal house and ornamental grounds.
1809 - By the time that Thomas Jefferson retires, the remodeling of Monticello is mostly finished. Construction of the dependencies under the North and South Terraces is also largely complete.
1814 - Thomas Jefferson makes his first drawings for a college. His design concept includes nine pavilions, each of which contains a professor's lodging and teaching quarters, connected by colonnades of single-celled student rooms.
May 5, 1817 - Thomas Jefferson submits his plans for Central College (later chartered as the University of Virginia) to its board of visitors.
July 18, 1817 - Thomas Jefferson assigns ten slaves to clear what had once been James Monroe's cornfield. This marks the beginning of construction on what will become the University of Virginia.
September 1826 - Construction of the Rotunda, the final structure in Thomas Jefferson's design for the University of Virginia, is completed.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wilson, R. G. Thomas Jefferson and Architecture. (2016, February 25). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Jefferson_Thomas_and_Architecture.
- MLA Citation:
Wilson, Richard Guy. "Thomas Jefferson and Architecture." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 25 Feb. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: December 16, 2015 | Last modified: February 25, 2016