Jefferson, Thomas and Architecture - Encyclopedia Virginia (2023)

Training and Early Work

Jefferson’s interest in architecture began early in the 1760s, when as a student at the College of William and Mary he observed the architecture of Williamsburg (then the colonial capital of Virginia) and bought a book on the subject. Through his reading Jefferson learned about classical architecture and its rules, such as symmetry, proportion, balance, hierarchy, columns, and the use of the orders, or classical principles of design. He became infatuated with the distinctions between the orders and also the importance of accurate measurement. In his lifetime he assembled one of the largest architectural libraries in the English colonies and the young Republic (about forty titles), his favorite being Andrea Palladio’s Four Books on Architecture, first published in Italian in 1570. During his lifetime, Jefferson owned at least five copies of this work in various languages, including the first complete English edition, by Giacomo Leoni, published in 1715.

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.

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Early Sketch of Monticello

Jefferson’s first project involved the construction of Monticello on a small hill adjacent to his boyhood home at Shadwell, in Albemarle County. Portions of the hill were leveled beginning in 1768 and a small brick house with one room on the main floor and a kitchen below was constructed in or about 1770. Jefferson and his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, lived there for a few years while the main house was built. Jefferson envisioned a Palladian-derived mansion with double porticos on two elevations and the support facilities—kitchen, housing for slaves, washing, etc.—located in submerged wings terminated by small brick houses. Also on the hilltop were a number of other buildings intended for enslaved African Americans. He spent considerable time designing garden structures, most of which were never built. Most of the main house and the east wing—what came to be known as Monticello I—were completed by 1782, when Jefferson’s wife died. At that point, he stopped construction.

Government Buildings

Jefferson, Thomas and Architecture - Encyclopedia Virginia (6)

(Video) Thomas Jefferson - Architect of America Documentary

Maison Carrée

Between 1784 and 1789 Jefferson served as the American minister plenipotentiary to France, living in Paris and traveling extensively on the Continent and in England, where he pursued his architectural interests. While he was in Paris in 1785 the General Assembly asked him to provide designs for a new statehouse to be erected in Richmond; the capital had moved there from Williamsburg in 1779–1780, while Jefferson was governor.

Virtual Tour of Poplar Forest

Extant drawings indicate he had perhaps as early as 1775 envisioned a new statehouse modeled on a Roman temple. Jefferson consulted with the French architect Charles-Louis Clèrisseau, who had published extensively on Roman antiquities in France. They chose the Maison Carrée, in Nîmes, as the model, though the order was changed from Corinthian to the less-elaborate Ionic and the Richmond building was considerably larger. All the drawings are by Jefferson and he commissioned a plaster model, which was sent back to Richmond.

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.

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Virginia State Capitol

(Video) Thomas Jefferson - 3rd President of the United States Documentary

The State Capitol was the first major government building constructed in the United States after the American Revolution (1775–1783), and the fact that it was designed based on classical influences proved significant. Jefferson also played a central role in the architectural planning of Washington, D.C., and his designs helped establish a dominant classical form there. As secretary of state in George Washington‘s first administration (1790–1793), he supervised preparation for the relocation of the federal government to its new site on the Potomac River. Drawings by Jefferson show a plan for the new city with a central mall, a domed capitol building based on the Pantheon in Rome, and a president’s house based on Palladio’s Villa Rotunda, outside of Vicenza, Italy. Although the plans were not accepted, Jefferson supervised the eventual planning and laying out of Washington, D.C., by Peter L’Enfant, and later Andrew Ellicott. He also was involved in the complicated design competition for the U.S. Capitol (won by William Thornton) and the president’s house (won by James Hoban).

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Benjamin Henry Latrobe

As president (1801–1809), Jefferson continued his involvement in Washington’s architecture, offering at times unsolicited advice to Latrobe, whom he appointed as the new architect of the U.S. Capitol in 1803 and commissioned to add the north and south porticos to the president’s house. Jefferson also made modifications of his own to the house, adding wings, designing a garden, and working on the interior.

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.

Virtual Tour of Monticello

(Video) Hidden Room of Thomas Jefferson's Mansion Solves 200 Year Old Mystery

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.

Other Houses

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 plantation 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.)

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Architectural Plans for Montpelier

For James Madison‘s house, Montpelier, located near Orange, Jefferson provided advice for several additions between 1797 and 1800, and 1809 and 1812, and even loaned out his workmen, James Dinsmore and John Neilson. Historians have disagreed about who completed the surviving drawings, although the consensus appears to lean toward Dinsmore rather than Neilson. For William Madison, James Madison’s younger brother, Jefferson apparently designed in 1793 a Palladian-styled house at nearby Woodbury Plantation. Jefferson also provided some advice for Madison’s brother-in-law and sister, Isaac and Nelly Madison Hite, in building Belle Grove (1794–1797) in Frederick County, but exactly what is unclear. Bremo (1817–1820), General John Hartwell Cocke‘s house in Fluvanna County, contains many Jeffersonian features and he certainly advised Cocke, who was a close associate. But the surviving drawings and other correspondence indicate that Neilson did the final design. The same may have been true of Edgemont (1796), near Monticello. While often attributed to Jefferson, it may have been designed by a workman.

University of Virginia

The design and construction of the University of Virginia occupied much of Jefferson’s life after the presidency and until his death in 1826. His concern with establishing a state-sponsored institution of higher education dated to 1779, when he first proposed that Virginia create a three-tiered public education system, including primary, secondary, and university levels. The General Assembly never passed such a bill, but Jefferson continued to promote the idea. He also regularly advised that schools ought not to rely—as did Jefferson’s alma mater, the College of William and Mary—on a single, large structure. He argued that it made them vulnerable to fire and sickness.

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.

(Video) Paul Jaskot-The Thomas Jefferson Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians Lecture

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Virtual Tour of the Academical Village at the University of Virginia

Jefferson’s original plan underwent many modifications as he consulted with William Thornton, the first architect of the U.S. Capitol, and then Benjamin Henry Latrobe. The huge U-shaped field—what came to be known as the Lawn—shrank from 257 to 60 yards wide, while the number of pavilions for the professors increased to ten. Meanwhile, the Rotunda, a large building based on the Pantheon in Rome, dominated one end; the other remained open during Jefferson’s lifetime. His initial concept featured garden spaces ringing the entire composition, but in March 1819 he proposed that a road, another row of buildings, and gardens flank both sides of the Lawn’s colonnades to the west and east. A month later, he inverted this concept, putting the gardens in between the row of buildings—what came to be known as the Ranges—and the back of the colonnades. By July 1819, he had settled on what became its final form: serpentine walls enclosed the gardens in between the rear of the colonnades and each Range, providing a picturesque element to what was otherwise a very rigid and logical neoclassical plan.

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.


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Thomas Jefferson helped establish an American architectural image based on Greek and Roman designs. He was not alone—certainly other designers, such as Charles Bulfinch, in Boston, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe assisted—but in many ways he was the most important. Monticello and the University of Virginia are celebrated internationally as highlights of American architecture. The State Capitol, in Richmond, was the first major public building built after the American Revolution and helped establish classicism as the governmental image.

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.

(Video) What makes Thomas Jefferson so controversial? - Frank Cogliano


Jefferson, Thomas and Architecture - Encyclopedia Virginia? ›

Jefferson designed the initial phase of the university on a symmetrical north-south axis. The longitudinal axes on the east and west sides contain pavilions for the professors, dormitories for the students, and expansive lawns.

How did Jefferson bring different ideas to the architecture of University of Virginia? ›

Jefferson designed the initial phase of the university on a symmetrical north-south axis. The longitudinal axes on the east and west sides contain pavilions for the professors, dormitories for the students, and expansive lawns.

What did Thomas Jefferson believe about architecture? ›

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.

What did Thomas Jefferson do for Virginia? ›

As the “silent member” of the Congress, Jefferson, at 33, drafted the Declaration of Independence. In years following he labored to make its words a reality in Virginia. Most notably, he wrote a bill establishing religious freedom, enacted in 1786.

What did Thomas Jefferson design at the University of Virginia? ›

Designed by the University's founder, Thomas Jefferson, the Rotunda is the centerpiece of the Academical Village. Modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, it was designed to house the library and be flanked on either side by faculty pavilions, interspersed with student rooms.

What are some characteristics of Jefferson designed works of architecture? ›

Hallmarks of Jeffersonian Style

White Columns - White painted columns, with classic moulding, are easily the most recognized characteristic of the Jeffersonian style of architecture. The columns stand out against the red brick and bespeak the elegance of this classic accoutrement.

Who was Thomas Jefferson influenced by in architecture? ›

Sources and inspiration

Jeffersonian architecture is therefore perhaps best described as "Palladian" in inspiration. Jefferson was also influenced by architect James Gibbs (1682–1754), and by French Neo-classical buildings, such as the Hôtel de Salm in Paris, when he served as Ambassador to France.

What type of architecture was Jefferson's favorite? ›

Through his reading Jefferson learned about classical architecture and its rules, such as symmetry, proportion, balance, hierarchy, columns, and the use of the orders, or classical principles of design. He became infatuated with the distinctions between the orders and also the importance of accurate measurement.

Why did Thomas Jefferson like classical architecture? ›

Buildings that speak to democratic ideals

By helping to introduce classical architecture to the United States, Jefferson intended to reinforce the ideals behind the classical past: democracy, education, rationality, civic responsibility.

What ancient empire did Jefferson get many of his architectural ideas from? ›

Jefferson was very influenced by the Neoclassical movement, largely because it was so strongly based on the Roman Republic, which was the model for the American democratic republic. So Jefferson studied the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome.

What is Thomas Jefferson's most famous quote? ›

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. . . ." "it is the great parent of science & of virtue: and that a nation will be great in both, always in proportion as it is free."

How did Jefferson end slavery in Virginia? ›

Early in his public life, Jefferson was one of the first statesmen anywhere to take action to end slavery. In 1778 he introduced a Virginia law prohibiting the importation of enslaved Africans. In 1784 he proposed a ban on slavery in the Northwest Territory, new lands ceded by the British in 1783.

What was the purpose of founding Virginia? ›

The purposes of the representatives of the Virginia Company of London, who landed at present-day Jamestown in May 1607, were not only to colonize but also to Christianize, to open new areas for trade, and to guard against further inroads by the Spanish, who already had colonized what is now Florida.

What style of architecture is the University of Virginia? ›

Image of What style of architecture is the University of Virginia?
Neoclassical architecture, sometimes referred to as Classical Revival architecture, is an architectural style produced by the Neoclassical movement that began in the mid-18th century in Italy and France. It became one of the most prominent architectural styles in the Western world.

What buildings did Thomas Jefferson design? ›

What design legacy is Jefferson known for? ›

Thomas Jefferson is considered by many as our first great American architect and the Jeffersonian classical style is one of the most recognized architectural styles in American history.

Was Thomas Jefferson trained as an architect? ›

Thomas Jefferson was a self-taught architect who fully absorbed the knowledge and systems of classical design as taught through Renaissance architects such as Andrea Palladio.

Who are the founding fathers of modern architecture? ›

Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Louis Kahn are four of the most notable architects to date. Read on to find out more about the creative process of these four leaders of the modern era, and why their projects and practices are still influential to our modern times.

Which building inspired the design for Thomas Jefferson's home? ›

Thomas Jefferson was heavily influenced by both Italian and French neo-classical architecture. Among his most significant French influences was the Hôtel de Salm, in Paris, which provided him with inspiration for the 1790s remodeling and additions of Monticello.

Which US president was also an architect? ›

Along with his numerous political achievements, Thomas Jefferson was also the first great architect of the United States.

Was Thomas Jefferson a good architect? ›

Monticello House (1768-1809). American Colonial era and after. Thomas Jefferson, third US President, Governor of Virgina and author of the Declaration of Independence, was one of the best American architects of the late-18th and early-19th century.

What architectural feature is at the top of Jefferson's grave stone? ›

The Obelisk is located in the Monticello Graveyard, which is owned and operated by the Monticello Association.

What are three things Jefferson invented? ›

Jefferson is credited with inventing a macaroni machine, a revolving chair with a leg rest and writing arm, and new types of iron plows created especially for hillside plowing. He also designed beds for his home that were built into alcoves on webs of rope hung from hooks, as well as automatic doors for his parlor.

What element of Greek architecture was used to build the Jefferson Memorial? ›

The Jefferson Memorial building is a circular, open-air structure featuring a shallow dome supported by a circular colonnade composed of 26 Ionic columns.

Which two well known buildings were designed by Jefferson? ›

Jefferson's most iconic designs include Monticello (his home), the Virginia State Capitol, and buildings at the University of Virginia.

What building is named after Thomas Jefferson and why? ›

Known as the Library of Congress (or Main) Building until it was named for Thomas Jefferson, the Library's principal founder, in 1980, the structure was built specifically to serve as the American national library, and its architecture and decoration express and enhance that purpose.

What construction of the Constitution did Jefferson favor? ›

Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson advocated a narrow construction of the Constitution that would have prohibited a national bank. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton supported the bank with a broad interpretation of the Constitutions implied powers under the general welfare clause.

How was the Jefferson Memorial influenced by Roman architecture? ›

The edifice is modeled after the Roman Pantheon, a classical structure especially pleasing to Jefferson, which influenced his two most famous buildings, Monticello and the University of Virginia Rotunda. In 1934 Congress created the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission (TJMC).

What was Thomas Jefferson's favorite thing? ›

Jefferson loved stargazing almost as much as he liked books. He made sure astronomy was taught at the University of Virginia, and he designed what may have been the first observatory in the United States.

What did George Washington say about Thomas Jefferson? ›

Tempers became strained; Washington accused Jefferson of having a low opinion of his intelligence and angrily declared he was the last man in the world who would tolerate the emergence of an American king.

What did Alexander Hamilton say to Thomas Jefferson? ›

So seditious, so prostitute a character,” Hamilton said of Jefferson. “A man whose history … is a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the country,” Jefferson wrote of his rival in a 1792 letter to their mutual boss.

How old was Sally Hemings when Jefferson slept with her? ›

In 1787, when she was 14, Sally Hemings accompanied Jefferson and his daughter by Martha to Paris. There Sally was a legally free and paid servant as slavery was not legal in France. At some time during her 26 months in Paris, the widower Jefferson began having intimate relations with her.

Did Jefferson punish his slaves? ›

Under his management his slaves were seldom punished, except for stealing and fighting. They were tried for any offense as at court and allowed to make their own defense. The slave children were nursed until they were three years old, and left with their parents until thirteen.

How many slaves ran away from Jefferson's plantation? ›

Did anyone enslaved at Monticello run away? There were over twenty known runaways from Monticello, from 1769 to 1819.

What is Virginia best known for? ›

Virginia is known for:
  • Appalachian Trail.
  • The Arlington National Cemetary.
  • Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.
  • Presidential homes.
  • Capital of the Confederacy.
  • Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.
Jan 30, 2023

What was Virginia called before it became a state? ›

After declaring independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1775, before the Declaration of Independence was officially adopted, the Virginia Colony became the Commonwealth of Virginia, one of the original thirteen states of the United States, adopting as its official slogan "The Old Dominion".

What architect designed Notre Dame? ›

What is the oldest building in the University of Virginia? ›

The Rotunda is a building located on The Lawn on the original grounds of the University of Virginia. Thomas Jefferson designed it to represent the "authority of nature and power of reason" and modeled it after the Pantheon in Rome. Construction began in 1822 and was completed shortly after Jefferson's death in 1826.

What architectural style is Harvard? ›

Harvard University | Cambridge, MA

Harvard Hall is a brick, granite, and brownstone classroom building situated at the edge of Harvard Yard and Harvard Square, designed in the High Georgian style by Governor Francis Bernard and built by Thomas Dawes between 1764-1766.

What was Thomas Jefferson's major contribution to American architecture? ›

The design and construction of the University of Virginia, in his retirement, would be Jefferson's greatest architectural triumph. With it, he not only established neo-classicism as an American building form, but he also created the first true American institution of higher learning.

What famous architect influenced Jefferson? ›

Andrea Palladio's books had a profound influence on Jefferson's architecture; he referred to the Italian architect's classical designs as his "architectural bible." Palladian theory informed Jefferson's designs for Monticello and the University of Virginia Campus.

How was the idea of a campus introduced by Jefferson at UVA? ›

Fire and disease posed significant threats to a university housed in a single edifice. To minimize such risks, Jefferson proposed a so-called village consisting of individual buildings that served both as classrooms and faculty housing, connected by a continuous covered walkway that opened onto student rooms.

What architecture style is the University of Virginia? ›

Jefferson's design of the University of Virginia relied heavily on classical tradition and precedent. Inspired by the work of Palladio, this University expresses a clear, bold geometry. Much of his building inspiration came from ancient Rome; e.g., the diameter of the Rotunda is half of the diameter of the Pantheon.

Did Jefferson's decision influence later American architecture? ›

Legacy. Thomas Jefferson helped establish an American architectural image based on Greek and Roman designs. He was not alone—certainly other designers, such as Charles Bulfinch, in Boston, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe assisted—but in many ways he was the most important.

What was the most significant reason why Thomas Jefferson supported public education and the creation of the University of Virginia? ›

Thomas Jefferson believed only educated citizens could make the American experiment in self-government succeed. He proposed a system of broad, free, public education that was radical in his day and his founding of the University of Virginia partially achieved his larger goals.

Is UVA a good school for architecture? ›

The graduate landscape architecture program is ranked third in master's programs at public universities and fifth overall.

Is University of Virginia prestigious? ›

In fact, the high University of Virginia rankings indicate UVA's prestige. UVA is also considered one of the “public ivies.” This means that it has near-Ivy League quality academics without the high Ivy League price tag (particularly for in-state students).

What style of architecture did Jefferson use for Monticello? ›

From the bottom of the building to its top, Monticello is a striking example of French Neoclassical architecture in the United States. Jefferson changed political parties and was a Democratic-Republican by the time he was elected president.


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