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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Thomas Jefferson

Monticello west front
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy entertained at a state dinner an august group of Nobel Prize winners and other outstanding figures from various scientific fields of the time. In remarks afterwards, he commented, "This is the most remarkable assembly of talent and expertise in the arts and sciences that has ever been gathered at one time in this house...with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." It was not a hollow statement. Jefferson was probably the most broadly educated man ever to hold the office of President. He was a statesman, lawyer, writer, scientist, educator, architect, and farmer. A graduate of William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he studied law, it was there he met an earlier gentleman-architect, Richard Taliaferro. Neither man had any formal training in design or engineering beyond that which they were able to obtain themselves from the books on the subject by English architects such as Robert Morris and Palladio. As early as 1760, Jefferson began designing his future home to be built on a hilltop site he called Monticello near Charlottsville, Virginia. Construction didn't begin until 1769, and even then being far inland, located in the foothills of the Appalachians, it was slow going. The original design called for a two story structure with a tall, balconied portico. It was completed in 1782.

Monticello's main floor with the original 1772 structure in black.
Note the minimized, almost hidden stairways.
The Revolutionary War intervened. Jefferson went to Paris as the American minister to France. There he came to realize that the world did not revolve around Palladio. There he was exposed to the best Paris had to offer in the way of culture, art, and architecture. When he returned, after the war, he had his home torn down to the foundation. He replaced it with a simpler, Neoclassical design with strong French and Italian influences, most notably the Italian Villa Rotunda, which had as the basis of its design none other than the Roman Pantheon itself. He employed this element on a limited basis adding a dome-topped drum and portico to his new design, except that the drum became an octagon and the dome was created of wood. It was fairly simple in design. The same design he used on a more impressive scale in planning the library on the campus of the University of Virginia (1822-26) which he helped found.

Library rotunda, University of Virginia,
Charlottsville, influenced by the Pantheon
in Rome
As a result of its redesign, Monticello's combination of brick and whitewashed wood is, without a doubt, the most beautiful home in America for its time. Regardless of whether one approaches it from the East or the West, its visage is perfection itself. Jefferson had some pretty radical ideas about architecture (as, indeed, he did on a number of subjects). He felt, for instance, that no home should have a "back" to it. He saw his home as something of a domestic temple, freestanding and approachable from any angle. He had little use for the large, impressive, curved stairways coming into vogue at the time. His are barely two feet wide and all but hidden away. Indeed, the upper level consists of little more than an octagon shaped ballroom under the dome and attic storage space  What appears at first glance to be an elegant, yet surprisingly modest one-story plan, is actually three stories, thanks to ingenious arrangement of balustrades which largely hide the upper level, and broad, terraced wings extending out from the exposed basement level.  Inside are architectural innovations that (with the addition of indoor plumbing) would, even today, make for very gracious, comfortable living--a home fit for a President.
Despite Jefferson's distaste for it, Monticello does have
a seldom photographed "back" side, the East front seen here.
The dome is so low as to be barely discernible from this angle.

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