American Architecture Series
Thomas Jefferson

Biography of Neoclassical American Architect.

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Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)


Monticello House
Virginia State Capitol
University of Virginia

American Architecture Series
• For a general guide, see: American Architecture (1600-present).
• For tower design, see: Skyscraper Architecture (1850-present).

To see how American building
design fits into the general
classification of the arts,
see: Definition of Art.

Key Work

Monticello House (1768-1809).
Designed by Thomas Jefferson,
one of the greatest architects of the
American Colonial era and after.



Thomas Jefferson, third US President, Governor of Virgina and author of the Declaration of Independence, was one of the best American architects of the late-18th and early-19th century. A well-educated man, familiar with Greek art, he was introduced to Neoclassical architecture during his tenure as an Ambassador to France. Influenced also by Renaissance architecture, Jefferson was involved in the design and construction of the US Capitol Building, when President (1801-9), as well as urban planning in Washington DC. His own architectural designs included those for his own residence Monticello House (1768-1809), the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond (1788), and the Rotunda at the University of Virgina, Charlottesville (1822-6). His enthusiasm for neoclassical art had a significant influence on the development of nineteenth century architecture in America. Other US architects of the day, who shared Jefferson's stylistic preference for the aesthetics of antiquity, included William Thornton (1759-1828), responsible for the initial design of the US Capitol; Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820), who designed the Baltimore Basilica; and Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844), whose Federal Style design became the template for state capitols throughout the United States. Today, Jefferson is regarded as a key contributor to late-18th century architecture and an important figure in American Art during the early days of the Republic.


Monticello House

Thomas Jefferson was a self-taught architect whose knowledge of different types of art came from books and observation. More than 700 of his drawings and notes on architectural subjects have been identified, about half of which relate to Monticello, his mansion near Charlottesville, Virginia. Begun in 1768, the design, construction and remodeling of the house spanned more than 40 years. Jefferson called it his "essay in architecture," and when a visitor once commented on the incomplete work, he responded, "And so I hope it will remain during my life, as architecture is my delight, and putting up, and pulling down, one of my favourite amusements."

For the most part, Jefferson rejected the architectural traditions established in Virginia. (See also: American Colonial Art.) His object at Monticello was to return to a stricter application of Roman and Greek architecture, as he understood it from the 16th-century architect and theorist Andrea Palladio (1508-80). The facade of Monticello - with its four classical columns - was essentially an exercise in the use of the orders. By 1772 it was ready for occupancy, but Jefferson continued changing and adding to the building for many years, partly as a result of his years spent in Europe as US minister to France, where he came in contact with the new French and English architecture. As things progressed, Jefferson adapted a layout from Select Architecture (1775) by Robert Morris to a facade for a two-storey building from Palladio's Four Books. Work on this well-thought-out building went ahead from 1769 to 1782; between 1793 and 1809 the building, still incomplete, was transformed to have a single floor.

Other examples of Jefferson's interest in classicism were his designs for an octagonal chapel and the remodeling of the Governor's Palace (1706—20), Williamsburg, which called for the addition of pedimented porticoes; neither design was implemented.

Virginia State Capitol

While in Europe on a diplomatic mission from 1784 until 1789, Jefferson was profoundly influenced by French neoclassism. A tour of ancient ruins in southern France prompted his comment that "Roman taste, genius, and magnificence excite ideas." When asked in 1785 to submit a design for the Virginia State Capitol (1785-98), Richmond, he chose as his source the Corinthian temple at Nimes known as the Maison Carree. However, while the latter had been built with Corinthian columns, Jefferson opted for the less ornate, more stoic Ionic-style columns. The Richmond capitol was one of the first buildings in America to be constructed in the style of a classic temple. As secretary of state and later as president, Jefferson continued to promote the idea of neoclassical architecture for public buildings.

In 1796 he began to enlarge and remodel Monticello, and although he preserved the Palladian context of the architectural orders, he abandoned much of the rigid academic approach to classicism. The final design reflects in plan and elevation what Jefferson learned from the rational planning of the newest houses in and about Paris.

Other designs dating after his return from Europe include several courthouses, a chuch (no longer standing), houses for friends, an octagonal house for his own use, Poplar Forest (1806-19), near Lynchburg, Virginia, and the University of Virginia (1817-26), Charlottesville.

Continental Designs
For other European building designs, see Richard Upjohn (1802-78) and James Renwick (1818-95), who championed Gothic Revival; and Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86), who pursued the Romanesque style. For the Beaux-Arts combination of Renaissance and Baroque forms, see Richard Morris Hunt (1827-95) and Cass Gilbert (1859-1934).

University of Virginia

The university was his greatest achievement as an architect: Not only was he the founder of the institution, but he was also the architect of all the original buildings. He conceived it as an academic village, and in the development of the design he solicited ideas from Benjamin H. Latrobe and William Thornton. Latrobe suggested a rotunda as the dominant feature, and Jefferson adopted the idea, designing a half-scale adaptation of the Pantheon in Rome. The Rotunda, used as a library, was flanked by wings forming a U-shaped composition of 10 pavilions for classrooms and professors' quarters, linked by a colonnade behind which were the dormitories.

The design of the University of Virginia is one of the earliest examples of a university campus in which the constructions are inserted in a landscape and grouped and connected by way of a system of pavilions. Jefferson, using the model of England's Cambridge, gave a new and convincing definition of a centuries-old theme from ancient architecture, at the same time succeeding in making use of an array of motifs from classical architecture, from Palladio's Rotonda to the Pantheon of Rome to citations of the Baths of Diocletian.


Monticello was far too personal and idiosyncratic to have any noticeable influence on American architecture, but the direction toward classicism that Jefferson encouraged in public architecture had a lasting effect. At the time he sent his design for the Virginia State Capitol from Paris he wrote, "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 to them the respect of the world and procure them its praise."

More Nineteenth Century American Architects

William Le Baron Jenney
Designed the first ever metal-skeleton skyscraper in America.
Chicago School of Architecture
The leading group of skyscraper designers in America.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Highly influential architect, noted for his Prairie School of organic architecture.

Twentieth Century Architects

Second Chicago School of Architecture (c.1940-75)

• For more about early 19th century architects in the United States, see: Homepage.

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