As author of the Declaration of Independence, and who as ambassador secured France’s alliance with the American colonies through which the British were defeated and America won her independence, and Third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson was a busy man. But despite the unending demands on his time and talent, Jefferson always found time to pursue his lifetime love of architecture, once writing: “Architecture is my delight.
Aandrea Palladio Frontispiece Quattro Libri Dell Architectura. image credit Morgan Llibrary

Andrea Palladio, Frontispiece, I quattro libri dell’architectura.  image credit: Morgan Library

To nurture that delight, Jefferson assembled a considerable library of important architectural treatises. Many of these books were purchased while serving in France from 1784 until 1789. So substantial and renowned was this library, that the young South Carolinean architect, Robert Mills, enroute to Washington, stopped at Monticello and spent several weeks there immersed in Jefferson’s architectural books.  Once in Washington, Mills would go on to design the Patent Office, Post Office, Treasury Building, and Washington Monument, and in so doing established the city’s memorable and enduring Roman scale.

In addition to the books Jefferson acquired in France, there was also the unforgettable first-hand experience of the architectural wonders of the domestic buildings of France themselves. In particular, the relatively small, intimate houses set in gardens caught his attention, especially the Hotel de Salm, which was to have such a marked impact on Monticello.

Grenfell Vitruvius

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, De architectura

One notable aspect of these houses is that the entire first floor was given over to rooms of entertainment, with the bedrooms located upstairs. Upon returning home, Jefferson would remodel Monticello accordingly, moving all the bedrooms upstairs. And so at the age of twenty-five, Jefferson began designing Monticello, which he would continue designing and remodeling for nearly sixty years.

Jefferson is perhaps best known for his design of the Virginia State Capitol and his work at the University of Virginia. Less well known is the fact that over the course of these years Jefferson engaged in the design of three other courthouses and a half dozen homes for friends.  Another important and perhaps least appreciated architectural impact of Jefferson was through the builders he trained in the course of his projects. These builders would go on to spread a Jeffersonian architectural sensibility to numerous courthouses, churches, and private homes throughout the southern colonies.


Milton Wilfred Grenfell, Comparative Architectural Details: A Selection from Pencil Points 1932-1937, W. W. Norton & Company.

Jefferson’s exceptional skill and inventiveness in house design is best demonstrated in the buildings on The Lawn at The University of Virginia. The Lawn is defined by a colonnaded covered walkway, in which are embedded at intervals architecturally-distinct “pavilions.” These structures originally served as classrooms and professors‘ lodgings, but typologically are, in effect, small houses. The designs of all these houses would serve for Americans as examples of good domestic architecture, architecture which would resonate throughout time and across the American continent, until the anti-tradition charged from war-torn Europe to America.  That style, the Modern, is consider in this month’s edition of The Beautiful Home.  You will, I expect, notice Mid-Century Modern’s dual nature: humane tradition, mechanistic innovation.


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