Thomas Jefferson loved architecture, which he considered one of the most important arts. Nothing gave him more pleasure, he stated, than “putting up and pulling down”—something that he did several times on parts of Monticello. Although a variety of sources went into the creation of his structures, the president’s “Bible” of design was The Four Books of Architecture by the sixteenth century Italian, Andrea Palladio. Jefferson believed that developing an American style of architecture, based on but separate from European designs, was an important element of the national cause. Besides his home outside Charlottesville, Jefferson helped create three other important structures in Virginia.
The cubic architecture of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond was chosen to resemble an ancient Roman temple. The only structure of this kind that Jefferson had seen first-hand was the Maison Carrée in the south of France. However, Jefferson’s design of the state house substituted Ionic scrolls for the more ornate Corinthian columns found at the temple in Nîmes. The commanding and impressive building is not without tragedy. When hundreds crowded into the upstairs gallery during Reconstruction following the Civil War in 1870, the balcony gave way causing the death of sixty-one people and injury to scores of others. Despite calls for its demolition, the building was restored and eventually expanded. It is still in use today.
During our visit to the state in early January, we were able to see another Jeffersonian design: The University of Virginia. The president’s retirement project was to develop an “academical village” where professors and students would live and work in close proximity. Called “the proudest achievement of American architecture in the past 200 years” by the American Institute of Architects, UVA’s focal point is the beautiful Rotunda. Located at the north end of “the Lawn,” the structure was modeled after the ancient Pantheon in Rome, which Jefferson had read about in sources like Palladio and others. After a devastating fire in 1895, the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White (of Boston Public Library fame) made significant changes to the building’s original design. But in 1973, a three-year project was begun to restore the Rotunda to the way Jefferson intended. Initially designed as the campus library, the Rotunda now serves as a place for lectures, meetings, symposia, dinners, and tours. Unfortunately the day we were there, January 2nd, the building was closed for the federal holiday. Down the hill to the east and west of the Rotunda, stretch the faculty Pavilions and some student rooms, making for a striking central campus.
While on our guided tour of Monticello, we learned that the building served as Jefferson’s public residence. His private retreat—to escape the hordes of visitors—was Poplar Forest, located near Lynchburg. Designed and built during the last twenty years of his life, this plantation house allowed Jefferson to experience “the solitude of a hermit.” Once again built in accordance with Palladian principles, the Italian-style villa has a central cube room with porticos on the north and south. Since 1986, Poplar Forest has been undergoing restoration. Like Monticello, it is open to the public for tours and I would love to see it someday.