When the name Thomas Jefferson is mentioned, various images and thoughts come to mind. President of the United
States, scholar, humanist, religious freedom advocate, father of democracy, and a Renaissance man. Jefferson is
such an integral character in our nation's history, and his contributions to our country are limitless. One fact,
however, that some people may not realize about this great statesman is that he was a master architect, who designed
his famous home, Monticello, and the University of Virginia, and several other famous historical buildings as well.
With a man so historically important as Jefferson, it is interesting to look at his architectural designs which reflect
the classical as well as his own style.
Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, in Shadwell, Virginia, to Peter Jefferson and Jane Randolph. His
father was an established surveyor, which may have led to young Jefferson's serious interest in land and buildings.
At the College of William and Mary, however, Jefferson did not study architecture. He studied law with George
Wythe. Therefore, Jefferson was merely an amateur architect, although a very gifted one at that. He, like his father,
taught himself how to draw. Jefferson designed and built such buildings as Monticello, the University of Virginia,
and the capitol building at Richmond in between the public offices and positions he held, such as congressman,
president, governor, and lawyer. He began his architectural hobby with the breaking of ground for Monticello in
1769. Construction began for the University of Virginia in 1819, and Jefferson continued building, tearing down,
and rebuilding his designs almost until his death in 1826.
Jefferson did not want his buildings to look like those at Harvard and the College of William and Mary, because he
thought they were too plain. He considered these buildings to be "unadorned," and is known to have said, " . . . but
that they have roofs, would be taken for brick kilns." So where did Jefferson get his ideas if they were new to the
states? He was inspired by several buildings during his European travels, and he brought home many drawings and
ideas of what to include in his "dream home." Jefferson's 'role model,' in a sense, was the 16th century Italian
architect Andreas Palladio. Jefferson owned a text written by Palladio on architecture, and he designed his buildings
based directly on the rules in this manual. Before Monticello had a dome, it featured a double portico (one on top of
the other), that is very Palladian in style. The double portico made a statement of the inhabitants' social status and
also provided covered passageways to give access to th!
e kitchens and storehouses.
Several buildings upon his visit to Europe in the late 1700s influenced Jefferson. He was extremely impressed with
the Hotel de Salm in Paris because it emphasized comfort and privacy rather than formality. The Hotel also featured
a Neoclassical fašade, "whose low horizontality gave the house the appearance of being one story high." When he
traveled to England in 1786, Jefferson visited Chiswick House, which is one of the most influential of English
Palladian villas. Its geometrical features had an impact on Jefferson's architectural style as well.
Jefferson's philosophy of architecture was much like his political philosophy. He saw it as something always
changing, or needing to be changed. The buildings he saw in Europe made such an impact on him that upon his
return to the United States, Jefferson began a reconstruction of Monticello to give it the combined features of the
Hotel de Salm and Chiswick House. The results of this reconstruction (which took place between 1796 and 1809)
still exists in the Monticello we see today. He had the construction workers tear down the Palladian double portico,
and in its place integrate the Neoclassical fašade of the Hotel de Salm. The second floor rooms were hidden behind
the entablatures and balustrade so the house would retain the one-story exterior look. Jefferson also believed that to
have a symmetrical and geometrically simple building (like Chiswick House) was to have a supreme building
architecturally.
The way Jefferson conceals things makes Monticello very unique for its time. Servants were the norm during this
point in history, and plantation masters had to have buildings to