The revival of interest in Thomas Jefferson's versatility has stimulated anew a study of his work as an architect. This study has been accompanied by an increased appreciation of his very successful architectural achievements, and, as was natural, when one is told that a man without special training did accomplish so well what others with ample training so often have failed to accomplish, wonder and amazement have occasionally grown into skepticism. The firstborn of Jefferson's architectural children, the most ingenious, and, in many respects the most difficult, was his own home, Monticello. The house stands on the summit of the mountain, and the taste and arts of Europe have been consulted in the formation of its plan. Mr. Jefferson had commenced its construction before the American Revolution.
Whence could young Jefferson import an architect ? These were days before Thornton, Turner, Latrobe, and Hallet — days in Virginia when such services were not to be found for the seeking nor to be had for the asking. In fact the absence of such talent forced Jefferson to become his own architect, as many other Virginians had been up to that time. But on the completion of his Monticello, he became the arbiter, the critic, and instructor in this art, and his advice and his services were urgently sought by all the prominent planters of the day, as well as by the public, for the Virginia Capitol Building was in great part his creation. His fame as an architect was not confined to his own state or even country. Monticello was visited by many distinguished foreigners and written of in books of travel in foreign languages, one Frenchman remarking that Jefferson was the first American who had consulted the fine arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather
Jefferson's conception was a step forward in the art of home-building. The colonists had crowded about themselves offices and shops for the conduct of a planter's business : weaving, dyeing, distilling, shoemaking, tailoring, blacksmithing, and wagonmaking. Jefferson began by concealing all these handicrafts, removing the symbols which suggested service, veiling the materials of our lower activities, perfecting and minimizing the labor in them, while he prevented their overflow into, and their hard intrusion upon, the spirit of a home. Not only did Monticello do this, but it went farther by obscuring those that performed the labor. Dishwashers and cooks, butlers and maids came quietly through concealed passages; with wood, water, food, and ashes they ascended and descended stairs which had been cunningly tucked away in unobtrusive fashion. The old-time Virginian required for his own living, as well as for the entertainment of his guests, that troops of servants be moving in all directions with wood for fires, cans for ashes, cold water for drinking, warm water for bathing, and hot water for shaving.
The ingenuous ignorance affected by those who assert that Jefferson forgot his stairways would be highly offensive were not its absurdity so great as to make us know that it is meant to be a pleasant little irregularity of speech. Jefferson did not forget to provide stairs; on the contrary, stairways were the subject always of his serious consideration. He looked upon them as a horrible necessity; to his artistic sense they were extremely offensive. His attempt to secure greater architectural dignity than was usual to a home required stateliness, high ceilings, one roof — required that the ceiling should not at once with a vulgar voice tell the tale of its being at the same time the floor of a hall above. The earth itself was degraded in the Greek mind when it conceived that the sky was only the floor of a heaven above where Zeus reigned amidst his court.
Whence came the preparation for such tasks? Jefferson, a twenty-seven-year-old Virginian planter, conceiving a new architecture, or ingeniously adapting classic forms to the unfolding of a new country's demands! Such talent could not have been altogether inherent. We learn that he graduated with a fair reading knowledge of Latin, French, and Greek; that he further improved these accomplishments under the instruction of Wyeth, his law tutor, whom he describes as the best classical scholar in Virginia, and that he mastered mathematics and Italian in private study. So far as evidence exists, these moments of delving into classic literature were the only sources of his architectural inspiration up to the time he built Monticello. This home, which is still the shrine — the mecca — of the tourist-student of American architecture, to have been built by a twenty-seven-year-old Virginian will throughout time be the source of skeptical researchers in the architecture of the Colonial period. We may expect, therefore, to continue to hear the perennial voice of the doubting Thomas. And yet, whatever doubt exists as to the architectural authorship of the University of Virginia, there seems never to have been any question about Jefferson having been the real and only architect of Monticello. Monticello was the only complete piece of domestic architecture by Jefferson, but all of the most pretentious homes in the neighborhood, either in plan or decoration, embodied some of the Jeffersonian principle.
Compiled from "Thomas Jefferson as an Architect and a Designer of Landscapes" by William Alexander Smith Lambeth and Warren Henry Manning.