Builders For A Golden Age


It is likely that Clérisseau sketched a good deal of the decorative detail. His draftsmen polished up Jefferson’s drawings, and to make sure the contractors in Virginia wouldn’t go wrong they made a scale model in plaster, which is still preserved in the now very much transformed state capitol in Richmond.

The drawings and the model were finally shipped off to James Monroe in Virginia, who was urged to make sure they were executed even if it meant tearing down some of the work already done. “Do my dear friend exert yourself to get the plan begun on set aside,” Jefferson wrote Madison, “Sc that adopted which was drawn here. It was taken from a model which has been the admiration of sixteen centuries; which has been the object of as many pilgrimages as the tomb of Mahomet; which will give unrivalled honor to our State, & furnish a model whereon to form the taste of our young men.”

Jefferson never quite admitted that he was the author of this first adaptation of the classical temple form to modern uses. He tried to give the impression that he had merely made suggestions to an established European architect who had drawn up the plan. Patrick Henry was governor of Virginia, and although their correspondence was polite, rightly or wrongly Jefferson suspected that the “great whale” and his friends would oppose any project of his just because it was his.

He had reason to be uneasy because he was far in advance of the taste of his time. His design anticipated by 22 years Napoleon’s rebuilding of the Church of the Madeleine in imitation of a Roman temple. Although there had been small models of temples on the great English estates, as in the gardens at Stowe, the temple form was not put to practical use in England until well along in the nineteenth century. In America, the capitol at Richmond became the prototype from which developed the style of the early republic.


In spite of the efforts of Madison and Monroe, Jefferson’s original plan was changed by the commissioners in charge of construction. The pitch of the roof was altered, a bastard type of Ionic capital was used on the porch, the fluting was left off the columns, and three ugly windows were put in the pediment to give light to the attic. Even so, in its essence the transformed temple remains to this day as Jefferson planned it. From Latrobe’s water color of Richmond in 1796 you can get an inkling of how elegantly the capitol with its high white porch stood guard on its hill over the clapboard houses and the log huts and the shanties and the rattletrap fences of the raw little town at the falls of the James. Monsieur Clérisseau could never have guessed how admirably, translated into wood in the years to come, the Ionic style would express the civic dignity of the republican frontier.

When Jefferson returned from Europe in 1789 his plan was, after settling his daughters with their cousins and aunts, to sail back to France to see what he was looking forward to as the glorious accomplishment of a moderate revolution. Before that, he hoped to steal a little time for rebuilding Monticello somewhat on the plan of the Hôtel de Salm he had so admired in Paris.

From his brother-in-law’s home at Eppington he wrote his former private secretary William Short, whom he had left as chargé d’affaires in Paris, to describe the new buildings at Richmond. Way’s new bridge across the James, carried on pontoons and boats, was 2,200 feet long; the locks on the Westham canal were completed. “Our new capitol, when the corrections are made, of which it is susceptible, will be an edifice of first rate dignity, whenever it shall be finished with the proper ornaments belonging to it (which will not be in this age) will be worthy of being exhibited alongside the most celebrated remains of antiquity, it’s extreme convenience has acquired it universal approbation,” he added with understandable pride. It was stirring to see that the building he had worked so hard on had already taken form in stone and mortar.

When instead of returning to Paris Jefferson accepted the post of Secretary of State, he found Congress sitting in New York in L’Enfant’s remodeling of the old statehouse. The adventurous Frenchman’s adaptation of the Louis Seize styles of his native Versailles to the American scene for Federal Hall, as it was called, was to be the forerunner of one trend in American building, as Jefferson’s Richmond capitol was the forerunner of another. In Washington City both styles were to fuse.

Though Jefferson’s political differences with George Washington multiplied as the years went on, the two men found it easy to agree on one subject. That was in the establishment of a capital city below the falls of the Potomac.