Lifetime Learning

“Thomas Jefferson’s Architectural and Landscape Aesthetics: Sources and Meaning” – Part 2

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

Jefferson’s knowledge of architecture came from a variety of different sources since schools of architecture did not exist in North America. The major way he learned came through books, travel and observation, and construction. The architect’s role in Jefferson’s time lay not just as a designer of buildings (as thought of today) but an individual intimately involved in construction at all levels and the supervisor of the project (general contractors did not appear until the early 20th century).[i] Also architects frequently worked as engineers designing the structural supports for buildings, along with bridges, wharfs, and mills.  Jefferson knew very well how to make bricks, the problems of iron smithing, how lumber was produced, how planes, lathes, and other tools could shape the wood details, and where to go to get carved stone capitols and bases for the columns on his buildings. Masonry or stone buildings were very expensive and the technology did not exist in rural Virginia and hence Jefferson employed brick and mortar and timber as the basic building materials whereas stone, properly carved was used for the capitals and bases of the columns. Over the years Jefferson employed and  helped train a group of workmen who were able to produced his complicated designs and would go on to design and build on their own.  For the University of Virginia more than 400 individuals worked on the project and several of them went on to design buildings throughout the South-East.

rgwilsonA second source of Jefferson’s architectural knowledge came through travel and observation. As a young man in 1766 he went north to Philadelphia and New York and passed through Annapolis where he saw a balanced wing house derived from the architecture of Andrea Palladio which probably impacted his design for Monticello which he would produce in a few years later. Jefferson’s orientation in the United States was to the northeast and he never went south to Charleston and other places, but he knew very well Philadelphia which was the largest city at the time. On his way to Europe in 1784 he visited Boston and Newport, where he saw the first full temple façade in the English colonies, the Redwood Library. In Europe his travel was constant with several visits to England including one in 1786 when with John Adams they toured English picturesque gardens. Paris of course was the center where he lived for five years and knew well the city, but also he visited many chateaus and towns nearby and then took more lengthy trips north to Holland, the Rhine and areas in Germany.  One of his best known trips included southern France where he visited Arles, the Pont-du-Gar and Nimes and wrote to a lady friend back in Paris: “Here I am. Madame, gazing whole hours at the Maison quarree, [sic] like a lover at his mistress.”[ii] He also went on to Northern Italy visiting Milan and Turin but not to Venice or Rome.

Place-de-la-Concorde-at-night-930x620As with many individuals who write letters the content sometimes seems puzzling and at odds with what is expected such as when he praises English gardens and then writes: “The city of London, tho’ handsomer than Paris, is not so handsome as Philadelphia. Their [English] architecture is the most wretched stile I ever saw, not meaning to except American where it is bad, nor even Virginia where it is worse than any other part of America, which I have seen.”[iii]  The problem is that in general Jefferson admired the buildings of Paris and frequently praised them: hence does he make a mistake in the letter?   For instance in 1791 Jefferson wrote to Pierre-Charles L’Enfant who was in charge of the design of the new city of Washington, D. C. that for the “President’s house he preferred as a model several recent (or modern) Parisian buildings: “the Galerie du Louvre, the Garde Meubles [now known as Place de la Concord]; and two fronts of the Hotel de Salm,” which he claimed “have already received the approbation of all good judges.” In contrast for the United States Capitol he preferred “the adoption of some one of the models of antiquity which have had the approbation of thousands of years.” [iv] In this case he submitted perhaps to President George Washington, but it was rejected, a plan based upon the Pantheon in Rome; later he would reuse the scheme at the University of Virginia.

Books were the third method by which Jefferson learned about architecture and gardens. These books were part of his much larger library of at least 7,000 volumes of which 6,707 were sold to Congress in 1815. [v]The books related to architecture and landscape were of two types, first: treatises and/or manuals of design and architecture such as James Gibb’s, , Rules for Drawing the Several parts of Architecture,  The Architecture of A. Palladio,  Thomas Whately’s Observations on Modern Gardening and others, and then secondly: books on aesthetics, philosophy, and even poetry such as the Earl of Shaftesbury’s Characteristics of Man, Manners, Opinions, Times,  William Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty,  and Lord Kames/Henry Home’s book,  Elements of Criticism. In addition he supplemented his library with the purchase of prints such as in 1791 he acquired several works by Piranesi of the Pantheon in Rome.[vi]

Jefferson’s architectural books numbered at least 40 different titles and more than a hundred volumes. [vii] He owned one of the largest architectural libraries in the young republic. What was his first architectural book remains unclear with much speculation, but his favorite over the years was Palladio, the Venetian architect of the 16th century who wrote four volumes that covered the orders and details, illustrated ancient Roman architecture including the Pantheon and the Maison Carrée, and also displayed his own designs for villas, palazzos, and churches.  Jefferson’s favorite was the Giacomo [James] Leoni English translation The Architecture of A. Palladio published in three different editions (1715, 1721, and 1742) in London, and sometimes known as the corrupted edition because of changes Leoni made. [viii] Over the years Jefferson owned several of the Leoni editions as well as other copies of Palladio. He was quite proud of his Palladio books and in 1804 wrote: “There never was a Palladio here [in Washington] even in private hands till I brought one: . . . I send you my portable edition, which I value because it is portable.  It contains only the 1st book on the orders which is the essential part.” [ix]  Jefferson’s reliance on the books was very well known and a friend once commented that “Palladio he said `was the Bible.'”[x]

His architectural library contained many other books that he relied upon as well such as several by James Gibbs, Robert Morris’s Select Architecture (1755),  Charles-Edouard Errard and Roland Fréart de Chambray’s Parallèle de l’Architecture Antique avec la Moderne (1766), Julian David Le Roy’s Les Ruines Monuments de la Greece (1758)  Johann Karl Kraft and N. Ransonnet’s Maisons et Hotels  a Paris, which was issued in parts between 1762 and 1802, Batty  Langley’s Practical Geometry (1729),  and  The Builder’s Dictionary (1734),  and many more.


[i] Carl R. Lounsbury,  An Illustrated Glossary of Early Southern Architecture & Landscape (New York: Oxford,1994)

[ii]  TJ to Madame de Tesse, March 20, 1787, in Wilson, Jefferson Abroad, 131.

[iii] TJ to John Page, May 4, 1786,  Wilson, Jefferson Abroad, 73.

[iv] T J to L’Enfant, April 10, 1791, in Saul K. Padover, Jefferson and the National Capital  (Washington, D. C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1946), 59.

[v] All of the books cited in this article are listed in E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson 5 vols. (Washington, D. C.: Library of Congress, 1952-59); and/or William Bainter O’Neal,  Jefferson’s Fine Arts Library: His Selections for the University of Virginia Together with His Own Architectural Books (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976).  See also:  Douglas L. Wilson, Jefferson’s Books (Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1996); and Richard Guy, Wilson, “Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Bibliomanie’ and Architecture “American Architects and Their Books to 1848, edited by Kenneth Hafertepe and James F. O’Gorman, (Amherst: U Mass Press, 2001) 59-72.

[vi] William Bainter O’Neal,.  Jefferson’s Buildings at the University of Virginia: The Rotunda. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1960), 2.

[vii] O’Neal,  Jefferson’s Fine Arts Library

[viii]  Rudolph Wittkover, Palladio and Palladianism (New York: G. Braziller,1974) Robert Tavernor, Palladio and Palladianism (New York :Thames and Hudson,1991)

[ix] TJ to James Oldham, December 24, 1804  Jefferson Papers, UVA.

[x] T J quoted in, Colonel Isaac A. Coles to General John Hartwell Cocke, February 23, 1816, Cocke Papers, UVA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *