Thomas Jefferson’s White House
When a student in Williamsburg, Virgina (named for Elizabeth, Virgin Queen of England), at the College of William and Mary, Thomas Jefferson knew the Royal Governor’s Palace, a majestic, lion-gated, stately building in the Georgian style (named for the kings George). Entering today is much like entering then. Then you would obediently bow through halls lined floor-to-ceiling in armaments, long-guns, knives, swords and spears. Now you gaze at all the sharp shining metal in curiosity with eyes of wonder, rather than with eyes bowed in fear or in grudging respect. As likely you know, Jefferson was disinclined to bow, preferring the handshake, a meeting of equals which he introduced to American life and American culture.
When Governor of Virgina, Jefferson briefly lived in the Governor’s Palace. Yet Jefferson, adversary of monarchy, its abuses of mastery and control, chose for his house, Monticello (meaning “Little Mountain”), a new style comfortable rather than palatial, part Rome of the Republic, part geometry of reason, fully a portrait of the man, a style we name “Jeffersonian”. When entering Jefferson’s Monticello, there is now as there was then trophies of spear and bow gathered by Louis & Clark, but so too there are busts of philosophers, works of art, relics of world culture and natural history, objects quite different from royal instruments of defense, offense, slaughter and death.
Jefferson’s University of Virgina in Charlottesville can be seen from Monticello. Well, the dome of its Rotunda can be seen. The Rotunda (the library) is reminiscent of Rome’s Pantheon, centered and elevated above an expansive yard around which are organized domestic temples, houses, each a house of fellowship and learning. Should mention that Rome’s Patheon was a temple to “All Gods of Rome”, while Jefferson’s Pantheon-like Rotunda is a temple to the divinity of knowledge and wisdom. Though similar to Romans, we are different, both more Christian and more Classical.
When asked by L’Enfant, Washington, D.C.’s civic designer, what style he would prefer for the nation’s administrative building, Jefferson responded, “the adoption of some one of the models of antiquity which have had the approbation of thousands of years”. Soon after, a competition was held for design of the President’s House. There were six designs submitted, one of which was anonymous. With care and taste George Washington chose from the six a design by the excellent Jms. Hoban, the White House you know today. Jms. Small’s design was okay, yet that anonymous design … hum … exceeding fine, well proportioned, noble without majesty, domed, much in Thos. Jefferson’s style … because it is Jefferson, this author and other experts now agree.
Though he did not win the competition, Jefferson did when President design the White House grounds with gardens, woods, and sweeping carriage path both elegant and eloquent. For many years the White House retained a Jeffersonian tincture. Yet all that is left of those eloquent paths is memory and a sketch. And Jefferson, fond of domes (as who is not), never realized a dome upon the President’s House. Sometimes dearest hopes are answered in unexpected, delightful ways.
The very great architect, John Russell Pope, author of The National Archives Building, The National Gallery of Art (West), and many another masterpiece, also designed the Jefferson Memorial, which handsomely rises above the broad Tidal Basin. Genius is often clever, and genius recognizes, honors its fellows. Pope knew that Thomas J. hoped for a dome atop the President’s House, and in respect gave him one. When summiting 16th Street, rising to Meridian Hill, turn and gaze down the axis and notice that The White House sports the dome of Jefferson’s memorial. How nice.
In closing we should comment: The President’s House, “The White House”, remembers Rome, remembers Venice, yet is not a princely palace; it is a respectable house, polite in scale, little larger than Madison’s Montpelier and Washington’s Mount Vernon. The White House, neither grandiose nor majestic, suits republican virtue, Christian humility, domestic concord, and is the model for all beautiful American Homes.
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Thomas Jefferson’s White House
Featured image, Mather Brown’s Thomas Jefferson, 1786, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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