Recalling the many accomplishments of his long public life, the polymath Thomas Jefferson instructed that his gravestone be inscribed with what he considered the three most important: “Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia.” To mark the bicentennial of the last of those achievements—the founding of the university on the edge of the courthouse town that stood in the shadow of Monticello—Jefferson scholar Richard Guy Wilson organized From the Grounds Up, an exhibition of drawings, books, letters, paintings, prints, models, tools, and architectural fragments that exemplified Jefferson's passion for architectural design and building. Just how absorbing those passions could be was revealed to a visitor to Monticello who stumbled around scaffolding in unplastered rooms. Rather than apologizing for the unfinished appearance of the house so many years after it was built, Jefferson stated that he fervently hoped that it would “remain so during my life, as architecture is my delight, and putting up, and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements.”1 

Although staged to commemorate the laying of the foundations for the first pavilion on the grounds of Jefferson's “academical village,” the exhibition did not focus solely on the design and construction of the university; rather, it served as an informed introduction to those sources that inspired his abiding interest in architecture (Figure 1). Jefferson was just as fascinated with the practical aspects of building as he was with the theoretical nature of design. Wilson emphasized this point by displaying utilitarian objects such as nails made by slaves in the nailery on Monticello's Mulberry Row, period tools, a brick fragment from Poplar Forest, and a door from the same place fabricated by the enslaved carpenter John Hemings. Like many of his contemporaries in the late colonial and early republican eras, Jefferson was very much his own contractor, concerned with the quality of materials, the skill of his craftsmen, and the elaborate choreography of men and materials required to keep a project on schedule. Jefferson's interests ranged from the design of the smallest molding details to comprehensive designs for public buildings and entire cities. Alongside the tools of the trade in the exhibition were display cases holding copies of many architectural treatises that Jefferson accumulated for his library at Monticello, including Andrea Palladio's Four Books of Architecture, which Jefferson considered his bible of design principles. These works emphasized symmetry, proportion, and the proper use of the five orders of ancient Roman architecture, precepts that shaped and defined Jefferson's personal and public vision of the architecture of the new nation.

Figure 1

Thomas Jefferson, Pavilion No. VII, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1817 (Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia).

Figure 1

Thomas Jefferson, Pavilion No. VII, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1817 (Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia).

Occupying a large room as well as a smaller, elongated octagonal room off to one side in the Fralin Museum of Art, the exhibition provided no clear signposts to advise visitors on how to move through these spaces. Unfortunately, no catalogue was published to accompany the exhibition. Visitors were provided with an illustrated pamphlet containing a short essay by Wilson that described the importance of Jefferson in the history of early American architecture, but the essay was not tied directly to the objects on display in the galleries. A tall, freestanding panel in the center of the large room offered a useful introduction to the exhibition's central theme: Jefferson's engagement with architectural design as private citizen and as a man at the forefront of public affairs in Virginia and the new nation, a man eager to encourage the promotion of a “chaste & good style of building” through models designed by him and a small coterie of knowledgeable colleagues.2 Beyond that, there was little to direct visitors around the larger room or to explain the clustering of objects. Most of the labels that identified the objects provided little narrative context. Those for the books and other items contained in flat cases were inconveniently attached to the cases’ low skirting boards.

In addition to the pamphlet containing Wilson's essay, visitors could borrow a returnable gallery guide, which introduced the principal themes of the exhibition and described some of the objects related to those themes. Those who did not avail themselves of the guide tended to flit around the room, attracted by whatever caught their eye. What they may have overlooked were eight quotations from Jefferson and some of his contemporaries stenciled on the perimeter walls, which announced the topics of individual areas. For those acquainted with Jefferson, the quotes were familiar beacons, but for the many casual visitors who did not pick up one of the guides or knew little of Jefferson's architectural endeavors, the writing on the walls may have been more enigmatic than revealing.

The exhibition was structured for a clockwise route around the main room and side gallery. The first section, “Design,” dealt with what Jefferson regarded as the sorry state of building in his native Virginia, where “the genius of architecture seems to have shed its malediction over this land.”3 Wilson illustrated this introductory section with the Bodleian Plate, a copperplate engraving of the public buildings of Williamsburg made in the late 1730s for an unrealized book by William Byrd II on the natural history of the colony. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson disparaged the architectural quality of these structures, going so far as to call the Public Hospital and his alma mater, the College of William and Mary, “rude mis-shapen piles.” He did acknowledge that the second Capitol (which postdates the engraving) was “tolerably just in it proportions and ornaments” and the “most pleasing piece of architecture we have”; yet, parading his pedantry for a European audience, he declared the intercolumniation of the double-tiered portico “too large” and the pediment “too high for its span.”4 Jefferson never traveled south of Virginia, but he was familiar with the buildings of Newport, New York, and Philadelphia, and he admired some of them for their proper application of the classical orders. Sometimes he sketched buildings that took his fancy, such as the Hammond-Harwood House in Annapolis, William Buckland's late polygonal-winged masterpiece.

In the section titled “Architecture,” the exhibition associated the beginnings of Jefferson's architectural education with his acquisition of books on architecture and the arts. It described as a watershed his five years in Paris in the late 1780s, which enabled him to study the neoclassical designs of Jacques-Germain Soufflot, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, and other French architects. Jefferson traveled in England, the Low Countries, and the south of France, where he encountered surviving classical buildings. The section titled “Nature” included contemporary prints depicting English gardens that Jefferson visited with John Adams in 1786, as well as prints of American scenic wonders such as Virginia's Natural Bridge, which Jefferson once owned; this last was represented by a painting by Frederic Church.

Jefferson's disdain for the buildings and craftsmanship found in his native state, his voracious appetite for European architectural treatises providing rules for the classical orders, and his love of nature powerfully influenced his many building projects. These prejudices and preferences informed the exhibition's sections on Monticello, Poplar Forest, and other buildings for which Jefferson supplied designs or offered advice (such as James Madison's house, Montpelier). These sections were illustrated with scores of drawings, most by Jefferson but some by John Neilson and James Dinsmore, skilled Irish craftsmen who worked for Jefferson on a variety of projects.

The last three sections described the public buildings where Jefferson's influence was the greatest and perhaps the most lasting. Jefferson devised models that were intended to inform and educate a new nation about the values contained within the forms of classical architecture. He worked for many years developing the curriculum, selecting the books, and choosing the professors for the university he founded, acting on his belief that education was paramount to an informed democratic citizenry. That university's architecture was an exercise in pedagogy, providing students and visitors with models exemplifying the precepts of classical design. The exhibition's most detailed section was the one devoted to the design of the university's ten pavilions and Rotunda; the labels provided in this section described contemporary and ancient precedents for the university's buildings as well as the contributions made by William Thornton, Benjamin H. Latrobe, and others.

The university's architectural pedagogy had its origins some thirty years earlier in Jefferson's design for his state's most important building—the new Capitol in Richmond. He based the building's form on an ancient Roman temple, his model being the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, the one surviving ancient building he had examined during his travels in France. Offering a radical break from the British Palladian forms made fashionable in the late colonial period, the temple form set the precedent for numerous state and local court buildings across the nation, including the Charlotte County Courthouse, the plan of which Jefferson devised at the request of local magistrates in 1823. On the national level, Jefferson took an active interest in the design of the new federal city, sharing plans of European cities with Pierre Charles L'Enfant and recommending that major public buildings be modeled on precedents from classical antiquity, which “have had the approbation of thousands of years.”5 He anonymously submitted his own proposals for the President's House and Capitol based on the Villa Rotunda and the Pantheon. Although his designs were not selected, Jefferson returned to the Pantheon as the source of inspiration for his library at the University of Virginia.

Richard Wilson deserves thanks for pulling together relatively quickly a stellar collection of drawings, books, models, prints, and objects associated with Jefferson's architectural career, a career that was seminal in shaping the course of design in the early years of the American republic. A century ago, before Fiske Kimball's pioneering study of Jefferson's drawings at the Massachusetts Historical Society, most people had completely forgotten or misunderstood the extent of that role. This exhibition provided a salutary reminder.


Quoted in Margaret Bayard Smith, A Winter in Washington; or, Memoirs of the Seymour Family, 3 vols. (New York: E. Bliss and E. White, 1824), 2:261.
Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Randolph, 20 Sept. 1785, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 8, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953), 538.
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982), 153.
Jefferson, 152–53.
Thomas Jefferson to Pierre L'Enfant, 10 Apr. 1791, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 20, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982), 86–87.