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“Thomas Jefferson’s Architectural and Landscape Aesthetics: Sources and Meaning” – Part 1

By: Richard Guy Wilson, Commonwealth Professor and Chair, Department of Architectural History

Of Thomas Jefferson’s many interests and accomplishments his architectural creations rank as one of the most important. He played a central role in creating architecture for the young United States of America that would endure well into the twentieth century and his buildings and those he influenced still speak of his aspirations. Illustrative of his intentions, he advised Americans who might travel in Europe that painting and statuary while worth seeing were too expensive and not for study, but “Architecture worth great attention.”  In these “Hints to Americans Traveling in Europe”  of 1788 Jefferson explains that as the country grows many new buildings will need to be designed and consequently “It is then among the most important arts and it is desirable to introduce taste into an art which shews [sic] so much.”[i]

rgwilsonDescriptions of Jefferson’s architectural interests usually define him as a classicist who drew upon ancient Rome and the Renaissance and in particular the works and treatises of Andrea Palladio, the great Venetian architect. Although Jefferson obeyed many of the dictates of classicism his scope of vision took in more than just a building and included its site or setting which included the garden and landscape and also scenery. In his “Hints” he advised those traveling in Europe:  “Gardens [are] particularly worth the attention of an American, because it is the country of all others where the noblest gardens may be made.” [ii] In a letter of 1813 Jefferson claims: “in point of beauty, nothing can exceed that of the waving lines & rows winding along the face of the hills & vallies [sic],” and he explains “the plough is to the farmer, what the wand is to the Sorcerer.”   [iii]  This description is very different from the classical garden in which nature yielded to the hand of geometry with straight lines and symmetry.  In many ways Jefferson was elastic or had an eclectic taste which evolved and changed over the years as he discovered and learned of new sources for his architecture and gardens.

Buildings for Jefferson contained a purely functional purpose but equally and as important they should include an aesthetic element. In addition to housing people and activities, a structure’s visual and physical character conveyed meanings and inspiration, both positive and negative. In a letter of 1785 to James Madison he explained that a design he drew up with the help of the French antiquarian architect, Charles-Louis Clèrisseau contained a purpose: “But how is a taste in the beautiful art to be formed in our countrymen, unless we avail ourselves of every occasion when public buildings are to be erected, of presenting to them models for their study and imitation?” He explained that the plans for the Capitol of Virginia which he had just sent across the Atlantic were more than just a governmental building but its purpose was “to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile them to the rest of the world, and procure them its praise.” In this letter (and others written at the same time) he explains very carefully to Madison: “We took for our model what is called the Masionquarree [sic] of Nismes [sic], one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful and precious morsel of architecture left us by antiquity.”[iv]

university-of-virginiaJefferson’s search for this “most beautiful” example of architecture must be understood as inspired by his low opinion the existing America building stock. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (written in the early 1780s, published in Paris 1785 and London 1787) he described American houses:  “It is impossible to devise things more ugly, uncomfortable, and happily more perishable.”  Regarding public buildings he gave faint praise to the former Colonial Capitol building in Williamsburg criticizing its employment of the orders as too crowded, poorly sized, improper intercolumniation, and wrong ornamental treatment but “on the whole, it is the most pleasing piece of architecture we have.”  He dismissed the other Williamsburg public buildings as “rude, misshapen piles, which, but that they have roofs, would be taken for brick kilns.”  And he says: “The genius of architecture seems to have shed its maledictions over this land.”  In a sense Jefferson set for himself an architectural agenda in the Notes for he decries the lack of trained workmen and designers: “a workman could scarcely be found capable of drawing an order,” and suggests that perhaps a professor in a college might kindle “a spark” that will  “produce a reformation in this elegant and useful art.” He argues for “symmetry and taste,” and to avoid the burden of “barbarous ornament” sometimes found on the more expensive buildings.  [v] He laid down a challenge to improve the existing state of American architecture.

For the rest of his life, Jefferson pursued the goal of creating architecture for the United States that would inspire through its design and appearance. Already by the mid-1780s Jefferson had produced one noteworthy design, the first Monticello (1768-1782). Additionally he had worked on designs in Williamsburg for the Governor’s Palace and an addition to the College of William and Mary, but neither were built. While in Paris in addition to designing of the Virginia State Capitol he remodeled his house and garden. After his return in 1789 Jefferson became very involved as Secretary of State in Washington’s first administration with the laying out of Washington, D. C., and he produced designs for the Capitol building and President’s house, neither of which were accepted. During his presidential administration, 1801-1809, Jefferson offered plentitudes of advice for the Capitol and President’s house and designing wings and gardens for the later.[vi] Back in Virginia he embarked on a major rebuilding of Monticello in the mid-1790s that included additions, the dome, and new landscaping. In Bedford, Virginia he built Poplar Forest an octagonal shaped “retreat” house with an extensive garden. He designed a number of houses in the Piedmont for friends and family and offered advice to many others on their houses. He produced designs for three Virginia courthouses and in his last years designed a small church for Charlottesville and a jail for Nelson County. His final and culminating work was the design for the University of Virginia which frequently ranks as one of the “greatest” American architectural accomplishments. [vii] As Jefferson once said, “Architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down one of my favorite amusements” and where ever he lived, he remodeled his quarters, even if did not own them.[viii]


This essay builds on the work of many individuals some of whom are noted below. But I would like to particularly thank William L. Beiswanger, Rachel Fletcher, and Hugh Howard.

[i] Thomas Jefferson, “Hints on objects of attention for an American,” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian P. Boyd 13, (1956), p. 269, and Douglas L. Wilson and Lucia Stanton eds.  Jefferson Abroad (New York: Modern Library, 1999), 250.

[ii] ibid

[iii] TJ’s letter to Charles Willson Peale, April 17, 1813.  . The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Retirement series J. Jefferson Looney, ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004- ) vol 6, 69.

[iv] TJ to James Madison, September 20, 1785; also see TJ to James Buchanan and William Hay, Jan. 26, 1786, in, Jefferson Abroad,  33-35,  58-61

[v] Thomas Jefferson Notes on the State of Virginia, from, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson ed. Albert E. Bergh and Andrew A. Lipscombe (Washington, D. C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1903-05), vol. 2, 211.

[vi] Travis McDonald, “The East and West Wings of the White House: History in Architecture and Building,” White House History, 29 (Summer 2011) 44-87.

[vii] In April 1987 the University of Virginia and Monticello were listed on the United Nations World Heritage site, ICOMOS.  In 1976 the University was listed as the greatest achievement in American Architecture: “Highlights of American Architecture, AIA Journal 65 (July 1976), 88-158.

[viii] Statement attributed to Jefferson in, Margaret Bayard Smith, A Winter in Washington (New York: E. Bliss and E. White, 1824) 2:261,  Mark R. Wenger  “Thomas Jefferson Tenant” Winterthur Portfolio 26, 4 (1991) 249-265.

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