THOMAS JEFFERSON ARCHITECT

Thomas Jefferson's considerable achievements in politics, government and other activities would stand without his ever having designed a building; but alternatively, his architectural accomplishments would be of major interest even if he had done nothing else.


"Architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down one of my favorite amusements."  Statement attributed to Jefferson in, Margaret Bayard Smith, A Winter in Washington (New York: 1824) 2:261


“The genius of architecture seems to have shed its maledictions over this land . . . . the first principles of the art are unknown, and there exists scarcely a model among us sufficiently chaste to give an idea of them. . . .A country, whose buildings are of wood, can never increase in its improvements to any considerable degree. Their duration is highly estimated at 50 years. Every half century then our country becomes a tabular rasa, whereon we have to set out anew, as in the first moment of seating it. Whereas when buildings are of durable materials, every new edifice is an actual and permanent acquisition to the state, adding to is value as well as to its ornament.” Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia ed. by William Peden (Chapel Hill:1954 [1781, 1787]), 153-154.


“Gardens. Peculiarly worth the attention of an American, because it is the country of all others where the noblest gardens may be made without expense. . . . Architecture worth great attention. . . . It is then among the most important arts and it is desirable to introduce taste into an art which shows so much. . .Painting and sculpture. Too expensive for the state of wealth among us. It would be useless, therefore, and preposterous, for us to make ourselves connoisseurs in those arts. They are worth seeing, but not studying. “Notes on objects of attention for an American," Jefferson’s Hints to Americans Traveling in Europe. May 1788, in Douglas Wilson and Lucia Stanton, Thomas Jefferson Abroad (New York: 1999), 249-251.


"But how is a taste in the beautiful art to be formed in our countrymen, unless we avail ourselves of every occasion when public buildings are to be erected, of presenting to them models for their study and imitation? . . . . You see I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile them to the rest of the world, and procure them its praise." TJ to James Madison, September 20, 1785 DLC, Writings of . . . Jefferson ed. Bergh and Lipscomb (Washington, D. C.; 1903-05) vol.5:134-137


Course Description:

Thomas Jefferson's architecture ranks at the top as we all know from living here in Charlottesville. So important is Jefferson’s architectural achievements that no study of American architecture can avoid mentioning him. His architecture takes on an added resonance since it is but part of his accomplishments that includes philosophy, politics, science, farming, and literature. Not uncommon is Lewis Mumford's observation that Thomas Jefferson was one of the last true figures of the Renaissance. He ranks as among the most intensely investigated individuals in American history; only Lincoln and Washington have had more books written about them. But in contrast to the almost reverential treatment of Washington and Lincoln, Jefferson had a personal side filled with contradictions that makes him more human and complex.

- Richard Guy Wilson, Commonwealth Professor of Architectural History