Thomas Jefferson and the Politics of Architecture

In the merry month of May, when the azaleas and dogwood are in full bloom, we will make our way to Charlottesville, Virginia to become better acquainted with that most dazzling of American founding fathers on his home turf, Thomas Jefferson. It is common knowledge that Jefferson was the third President of the United States. Most know that he drafted the Declaration of Independence. We will learn about Jefferson’s many other, lesser known gifts, among them architecture. Founding Farmer: Thomas Jefferson at Home.

Most people don’t think of Thomas Jefferson as an architect, but American architects commonly attribute their professional roots to the “Sage of Monticello.”  Thomas Jefferson believed that the political legacy of all great empires was epitomized in their architectural monuments.

Although never formally trained in architecture, Jefferson had studied the structures of Europe and read extensively on the great architects of Europe. Possessed by a penchant for Palladio and a natural ability for design, Jefferson ventured into the wilderness of Piedmont Virginia to create his architectural masterpieces in a community he would establish as the ideal American village: The University of Virginia.

Jefferson’s architectural judgment was based upon his republican ideas. In his mind, buildings in this new country were not merely walled structures, but a metaphor for American ideology, and the process of construction equated to the task of building a nation. The architecture of any American building should express the desire to break cultural–as well as political–ties to Europe. American architecture, Jefferson believed, would embody the fulfillment of the civic life of Americans, and he sought to establish the standards of a national architecture, both aesthetically and politically.

 

The University of Virginia was to become the physical model of Jefferson’s cultural and educational ideals. In the design of his “academical village,” Jefferson envisioned a democratic community of scholars and students coexisting in a single setting that united the living and learning spaces in one undifferentiated area. Jefferson organized the space around the open expanse of “The Lawn,” surrounded it with student rooms and central pavilions which housed faculty members and offered common rooms for the community, and crowned the space with the Rotunda, his monument to Classicism. The effect of this design was intended to represent Jefferson’s plan for American education: progressive, yet rooted in classical disciplines; broad-based and elective, but still centralized; and accessible, but still reserved for the privileged elite.

 

In 1784, after his appointment as minister to France, Jefferson found time amidst his busy official duties to study architecture. He found an architectural ideal that he could bring back to America in the ancient Roman ruins in the south of France. Among these ruins, of particular interest to Jefferson was the Maison Carrée at Nimes, which he described as the “most beautiful and precious morsel of architecture left us by antiquity.”  This building influenced his design for the state capital of Virginia.

Why don’t you join us this May in Charlottesville Virginia for Founding Farmer: Thomas Jefferson at Home as we explore the monuments as well as the words of this extraordinary man.  The third President of the United States was also, and among other things, an architect, horticulturist, archaeologist, paleontologist, musician, inventor, and was founder of the University of Virginia.

Postscript. When President John F. Kennedy welcomed 49 Nobel Prize winners to the White House in 1962 he said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

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2 Comments

  1. Dear Ms. Kirkland,

    I noticed your wonderful page on Monticello and thought I might pass my website on to you, and given your travel to Jefferson’s home, thought you might be interested in it.

    I have designed an inexpensive, museum-quality paper model of Monticello based on the HABS drawings and I am trying my best to get out the word to Jefferson aficionados. I designed the model over many months when my daughter was sick to take my mind off of things. I think the end result does justice to Jefferson’s architectural genius. I hope you will agree.

    http://www.monticellomodel.com

    Best regards.

    Robert Anderson
    A Virginian in Los Angeles

  2. Dear Robert Anderson,

    Warm thanks to you for an extraordinary resource. A very creative response to a worrisome situation. I will order a model and set about building it with my grandkidlets. I hope others will too.

    Ann

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