Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, was born April 13, 1743 near Charlottesville, Virginia. He spent his childhood never far from his birthplace and remained in the colony during his years of education. After completing his courses at The College of William and Mary and studying law under the foremost legal scholar in America, George Wythe, Jefferson was admitted to the Virginia bar at the age of twenty-four in 1767. Although his life was destined for the world of revolution, law and politics, he continually pursued his fascination with artistic aesthetics and the visual aspects of life – in particular, the study of Architecture. He was so intrigued by spatial drama and harnessing natural light that he ultimately taught himself to be an amateur Architect.
Thomas Jefferson’s interest in the importance of architectural design was not just a private or personal endeavor. In fact, he felt strongly that the art & architecture of the nation were vitally important to its ultimate success. With Thomas Jefferson leading the charge, the Founding Fathers pursued a National Architectural style. The incipient, newborn nation sought to find its footing and take its place on the world stage through adaptation of the classical forms, but in a way unique to its own cultural and aesthetic environment (. . . UNIQUELY AMERICAN). An architectural style called Federal (a nod to the desired unified national vision) gradually took form, initially perhaps only in imagination and written supposition, but soon becoming both tangible and identifiable in handcrafted brick, wood and stone.
“You see I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as it’s object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile to them the respect of the world & procure them it’s praise.” – (Thomas Jefferson)
For Thomas Jefferson, architecture & art were among the most important cultural creations to place the United States in a global spotlight, and to launch a competitive and recognizable American brand and style demanding respect and praise from the haughty European establishment. Just as the Founders had created their own civil government drawn on a sympathetic and syncretistic undertaking of the ancient Hebrew and Roman Republics, so too could the visual arts reflect a mastery of the varied architectural precedents of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
“I think that the work when finished will be a durable and honorable monument of our infant republic, and will bear favorable comparison with the remains of the same kind of the ancient republics of Greece & Rome.” – (Thomas Jefferson)
Even though Jefferson’s efforts created the extraordinary public structures at the University of Virginia and the Virginia State Capitol, much of his creative exercises and self-training in drafting arose within the process of designing (and redesigning) his own private residence. “… in Monticello he created a theater and test lab…to reveal surface textures and dimensional character…” – (Hugh Howard).
Jefferson himself is quoted as saying – “Architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements.”
Indeed, the man-made building shelter of Monticello was an architectural “test lab” for Mr. Jefferson, but likewise were the exterior components of the estate’s natural setting and surroundings in beautiful Piedmont Virginia. The sweeping views and vistas from (and towards) multiple locations led Mr. Jefferson in a never ceasing curiosity about the natural world. His Garden Book’s detailed notes are a testament to his personal title of “garden scientist” as well as his resulting master plan composition for the grounds. The plantation in 1814 totaled 5,375 acres spreading across both sides of the Rivanna River, a tributary to the nearby James River, and featured two distinct topographic locales – Monticello (“little mountain”) and its higher sister summit of Montalto (“high mountain”).
By the time Jefferson left the office of the Presidency in 1809, Monticello had become “a country philosophical hall”, where literally thousands of curious visitors would be welcomed over the next few years of Jefferson’s life. Guests visiting Monticello for the first time on February 4, 1815 entered via the Indian Hall and remarked in awe:
“On one side hangs the head and horns of an elk, a deer and a buffalo. Another is covered with curiosities which Lewis and Clarke found in their wild and perilous expedition. On the third, among many other striking matters, is the head of a mammoth…On the fourth side, in odd union with a fine painting of the Repentance of Saint Peter, is an Indian map on leather…and an Indian representation of a bloody battle, handed down in their traditions. “
While waiting to greet Mr. Jefferson in the Dining Room, the fascinated guests would notice architectural renderings including two depicting the new Capitol in DC, an 1803 view of the west façade of Monticello by Architect Robert Mills, and an engraving of the nearby home of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. But not all visitors to the grand home on the little mountain top were invited to Jefferson’s Library. In this special space, he constantly read and wrote… burying himself in written words and famously penning to John Adams: “I cannot live without books.”
Jefferson’s private collection of almost 6,500 volumes was likely the most impressive library in the young United States at the time. He arranged the books in three primary group types: Memory (history), Reason (philosophy), and Imagination (fine arts), which gives us a glimpse into Jefferson’s cerebral interests and the subject matter of his intellectual pursuits. Illustrating Jefferson’s total loyalty to his country, this entire collection, filling the shelves from floor to ceiling, would soon be sold to the Federal Government to constitute the beginnings of the Library of Congress. The original national library had just been burned by the British less than a year earlier in 1814, therefore Jefferson’s inventory would be purchased as its new basis for about $24,000…most of which went to his creditors.
Unfortunately, within the next decade, the years of debt had reached an excessive level when his creditors were owed over $100,000 (in today’s terms over $1 million dollars). Thomas Jefferson – philosopher, legislator, diplomat, inventor, author, educator, president – passed away at the age of 83 on Independence Day – July 4, 1826 – the 50th anniversary of this great nation.
John Adams, at the age of 90, had died on the very same day. An incident his son and the incumbent President, John Quincy Adams, called “visible and palpable marks of Divine Favor, for which I would humble myself in grateful and silent adoration before the Ruler of the Universe”.
The heirs were forced to advertise in 1828 the entire estate for an asking price of $70,000. Disappointingly, the house continued to degrade for three more years and in 1831 finally was sold with 552 acres to James Turner Barclay for only $4,500. A few short years later, Uriah Levy acquired 218 overgrown acres and a seriously dilapidated almost empty house for only $2,700 in 1834. By 1837, Commodore Levy had increased the property to 2,700 acres, but when he died in 1862, the Confederate government seized the property and later sold it to another owner. Following years of litigation, Levy’s nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, became the sole owner of Monticello in 1879. In the depression following World War I, Jefferson Levy found it necessary to put the property on the market. On April 13, 1923 (the 180th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth), the Thomas Jefferson Foundation was formed in New York and negotiated with Levy for the purchase of the property at a cost of $500,000. This same organization today continues the tradition of preservation established by the Levy family.
In 1987, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee recognized the significance of Jefferson’s architecture and its importance for future generations, and named Monticello a World Heritage Site. Monticello is the only U.S. presidential and private home on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The designation’s “Statement of Significance” details Thomas Jefferson’s architectural ingenuity and use of neo-classical elements in creating both Monticello and the University of Virginia. The committee also took note of how Jefferson’s architecture symbolizes the ideals of the enlightenment and the awareness of Monticello’s natural surroundings in its construction.
In conclusion, we share perhaps one of the simpler and to-the-point personal reviews of this special place. In 1782, the Marquis de Chastellux visited the “first” Monticello and wrote a brief description of it for his Travels in North America:
“My object in giving these details is not to describe the house, but to prove that it resembles none of the others seen in this country; so that it may be said that Mr. Jefferson is the first American who has consulted the Fine Arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather.”
- Dr. Kimball and Mr. Jefferson; Rediscovering the Founding Fathers of American Architecture (Hugh Howard 2006)
- Sons of the South (Clayton Rand 1961)
- The Architecture of William Nichols (Paul Hardin Kapp 2015)
- Thomas Jefferson, Architect (Fiske Kimball 1916)
- Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and of the Early Republic (Fiske Kimball 1922)
- Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power (Jon Meacham 2012)
D. Tracy Ward, Architect
Uploaded on Thomas Jefferson’s 275th birthday April 13, 2018 – DTW’s Blog #0037
Our Original Posts, including images when applicable, are copyrighted © 1993-2018 by D. Tracy Ward and Benchmark Design, PC. God bless America! Treasure Liberty always and pass it on! “Architecture aims at Eternity. Architecture has its political Use; publick Buildings being the Ornament of a Country; it establishes a Nation, draws People and Commerce; makes the People love their native Country, which Passion is the Original of all great Actions in a Common-wealth.” [CHRISTOPHER WREN, Parentalia]