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Builders For A Golden Age
Among his many other achievements, Jefferson was one of the leading architects of his day, responsible for the introduction of the Greek Revival style into America.
August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
Architecture was not the least of Thomas Jefferson’s formidable talents. In his designs there was much of the monumental dignity of the classical models which all his life he sought to emulate. Could not America revive the glory that was Greece and Rome? In the early years of the Republic, his aspirations—and those of the men he so profoundly influenced—were focused increasingly on the sprawling tract of Maryland farm country where a national capital would one day rise. How these aspirations took shape is told in the following chapter from John Dos Passos’ book, Prospects of a Golden Age, to be published in October by Prentice-Hall.
Thomas Jefferson used to say that he considered architecture the most important of the arts “because it showed so much.” Jefferson was responsible, more than any other single man, for the introduction into America of the Greek Revival style. As the state-builders searched the histories of the Greek and Roman republics for models for their institutions, the architects studied the classical forms so lately rediscovered by Johann Joachim Winckelmann and his school of Roman archaeologists. They wanted to put up dwelling houses and public buildings that would express the ambitions for human dignity and social order which so many of them felt. For them the style of the Greek Revival stood for those “prospects of a golden age” on which they had set their hopes for mankind.
Jefferson became one of the leading architects of his day. His influence did a great deal to form the architectural ideas of men like William Thornton and Benjamin Henry Latrobe and Robert Mills. In all his designs, from his forgotten work at Williamsburg to the final establishment of a distinctive style in the University of Virginia, he sought always proportions that would enhance the human figure.
His mind was already full of plans for building when, in 1766, during the summer of the repeal of the Stamp Act, he took time off from his law studies with George Wythe in Williamsburg to drive to Philadelphia in a two-wheel chair. The pretext was to get himself inoculated against smallpox. An eager, curious young man, he wanted to see the world. In his pocket he carried a letter from his friend Dr. George Gilmer to Dr. John Morgan, a Philadelphia physician freshly arrived from Europe.
Dr. Morgan was just the man Jefferson needed to put him in touch with everything and everybody. The young physician, already among Philadelphia’s bestknown, had traveled to England armed with that indispensable letter from Dr. Franklin. After some study under Dr. Fothergill in London, he had moved on to Edinburgh. There he had followed the lectures of James Watt’s scientific patron, Joseph Black, on physics, and won his degree with a thesis on the nature and formation of pus, which remains one of the few medical works of the time not to be later discredited.
“Laureated” by the town fathers of Edinburgh, Dr. Morgan crossed to the Continent for the grand tour. In Rome he visited the museums and antiquities and made careful notes, which survive with a fragment of his journal to this day. He met the painter Angelica Kauffmann, and all the cognoscenti of Winckelmann’s group. Dr. Morgan treated “Miss Angel” for some ailment, and in return she not only presented him with her portrait but painted his.
As full of enthusiasm for painting and architecture as for medicine, he collected paintings as he traveled, bought copies of Titians and Veroneses and drawings attributed to the great masters, and jotted down what he was told about the architectural proportions of the colonnades and the rules of fenestration. On his way north from Padua he went to Vicenza, visited palaces built by the great Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio, marveled at his triumphal arch and at his magnificent reproduction in wood of a Roman theater. He procured, so he noted, “a pretty exact plate” of Palladio’s theater.
Dr. Morgan arrived home bursting with the beauty of classical ruins. He settled in a fine house and unpacked his collection of paintings and, what must have been particularly interesting to Jefferson, his architectural drawings, which included a temple façade by Mansart and a plan of a country house.
As he visited Dr. Morgan’s collections, undoubtedly Jefferson’s soul was struck and his ideas expanded by this glimpse into the European world of fashion and science and elegance and evolving thought. Morgan’s talk of the marvels of the antique background must have stirred up all Jefferson’s longings to travel abroad. With the family at his Albemarle County birthplace, Shadwell, dependent on his management of the estates now that his father was dead, and his way to make as a lawyer, that was now out of the question. The notion may have started sprouting in his mind that here in America, on the shaggy hills of his own Virginia, a civilization could be built, new, separate, and superior. This was the aim to which, more explicitly than any other man of his generation, he was to dedicate his life.
A civilization meant a setting. Man’s setting was architecture. Jefferson was already familiar with some of the builders’ manuals so much in use at the time. As early as the summer of 1763 his thoughts had turned to building himself a house of his own in WiIliamsburg. “No castle, though, I assure you,” he wrote his college friend John Page; “only a small house which shall contain a room for myself and another for you.”