- Historic Sites
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
A certain amount of republicanism already went along with a taste for the Hellenic. Attracted by George Washington’s glory, Houdon agreed to do a bust for considerably less than he charged royalty, but insisted that his life must be insured at ten thousand livres for the benefit of his family in case he perished on the Atlantic. For Houdon the professional attraction of the trip was that beyond the bust he hoped to win the commission for an equestrian statue of Washington which Congress had voted. He was taken ill when the time came for him to sail, but Jefferson finally managed to pack him and a couple of his workmen off on the same ship with Dr. Franklin, who, finally released from his embassy, was being conveyed to Havre, amid the blessings and bon voyages of all France, in a royal litter.
In the execution of his second commission, a capitol for Virginia, Jefferson found himself embarked on the full current of the same classical revival that had helped clear Houdon’s style of baroque angularities during the years he studied in Rome. Ever since Jefferson had drawn up the first bill for the removal of the Virginia capital from Williamsburg to Richmond he had been exercised about what sort of buildings would be constructed there. He had slipped into his bill the clause which he hoped he could turn into something new and fine: “said houses shall be built in a handsome manner with walls of Brick or stone, and Porticos, where the same may be convenient or ornamental.”
At some early date he had already been experimenting with a tentative sketch of a plan to transform the governor’s palace in Williamsburg into a temple-form building with columns in front and back. From the moment he first opened a copy of Leoni’s Palladio he must have been taken with Palladio’s drawings and measurements of the “Maison Quarrée” (he always followed Palladio’s spelling of Carrée) at Nîmes.
As Jefferson pondered an architecture that would express the essence of the young republic, his mind settled more and more on the Maison Carrée. Now in Paris he discovered a man who had recently published a set of drawings of the Augustan temple even more carefully measured than Palladio’s had been.
Charles-Louis Clérisseau was dean of the academy of painting and sculpture which had its seat in a set of apartments in the Louvre. He had returned from Rome after years of study. Under Winckelmann’s influence he had measured the ruins at Nîmes, and crossed the Adriatic to Spalato on the Dalmatian coast to sketch Diocletian’s gigantic palace there.
The capitol at Richmond was to plant this classical revival in the New World. Both in England and America, and in Russia too, the style in its various forms stemmed directly from Clérisseau’s album of archaeological drawings.
When Jefferson went around to Clérisseau’s studio, soon after arriving in Paris, the elegance and balanced strength of the Greek temple form burst on him anew. Immediately he bought Clérisseau’s book on Nîmes, and engravings of Baalbek and Palmyra and of the mighty temples at Paestum which architects were barely beginning to look upon with favor.
At Clérisseau’s for the first time, Jefferson found himself with the resources of a proper architect’s drafting room. Modelers and draftsmen were ready to put his amateur’s improvised sketches into a form usable by a contractor. He learned to work with a hard pencil. Henceforth his architectural drawings had a professional air. He bought enough co-ordinated paper in Paris to last him most of his life. In Clérisseau’s portfolios he could thumb through pictures of about what had been so far unearthed of the Greek and Roman heritage. He kept coming back to the Maison Carrée.
He was choosing Roman architecture at the moment when it was nearest to Greek. “We took for our model,” he wrote Madison of Montpelier,
what is called the Maison Quarrée of Nîmes, one of the most beautiful if not the most beautiful Sc precious morsel of architecture left to us by antiquity. It was built by Caius & Lucius Caesar, & repaired by Louis XIV & has the suffrage of all the judges of architecture who have seen it, as yielding to no one of the beautiful monuments of Greece, Rome, Palmyra, & Balbec, which late travellers have communicated to us. It is very simple, but it is noble beyond expression, & would have done honor to our country, as presenting to travellers a specimen of taste in our infancy, promising much for our maturer age.
“Would have,” he wrote, in the past tense, because he had received the news that the contractors appointed by the Assembly were already laying the foundations for a capitol, and was afraid that they would go ahead with the building without waiting for his plans, which Clérisseau’s draftsmen were at that moment drawing up.
Clérisseau seems to have been surprised and delighted to find in this tall, angular envoy from the Virginia mountains un vrai amateur de l’antiquité . He furnished the archaeological information, but the plan was essentially Jefferson’s. For simplicity, or perhaps because he despaired of getting Corinthian capitals properly executed in America, he changed the order of the porch to Ionic and thereby helped give the whole school of architecture that was to follow in the United States its distinctively Ionic flavor. He designed the interior chambers for the House and Senate and the conference room between, which the constitution called for. The arrangement of the windows was Jefferson’s, and it was he who insisted against the Frenchman’s advice on following exactly the proportions indicated by Clérisseau’s own measurements of the actual temple at Nîmes.