The Lawn: America’s Greatest Architectural Achievement


As always in Jefferson’s work, aesthetic satisfaction is umbilically connected to the satisfaction of practical needs. At Charlottes ville he has greatly enlarged and altered the internal hierarchy of the Palladian villa. Now, instead of the farmhouse, the centerpiece is the great, domed Rotunda. This building, clearly derived from the Roman Pantheon, is both the symbolic and functional heart of the university. And instead of two small pavilions at either end of the flanking porticoes (as at Mount Vernon or Monticello), there are ten large palazzi , five on each side. Each of these is, in fact, a subset for ten separate schools, complete with classrooms, professors’ living quarters, and flanking, single-story dormitories (“barracks” as Jefferson called them). The ten pavilions are connected by a continuous loggia, which at once affords paved circulation, sheltered from sun, snow, and rain and, not unimportantly, completely screens the utilitarian barracks from view. As Jefferson himself explained:

“I consider the common plan followed in this country … of making one large and expensive building, as unfortunately erroneous. It is infinitely better to erect a small and separate lodge for each separate professorship, with only a hall below for his class, and two chambers above for himself; joining these lodges by barracks for a certain portion of the students, opening into a covered [passage] way to give a dry communication between all the schools. The whole of these arranged around an open square of grass and trees would make it what it should be in fact, an academical village. … [Such a plan] would afford that quiet retirement so friendly to study, and [would] lessen the dangers of fire, infection and tumult.”

BUT THIS WAS FAR from being all there was to Jefferson’s design for comfort, amenity, and health for students and faculty alike. Beneath each Range, as the rows of student rooms were called, was a line of cellars; these opened onto drained and graded courtyards at the rear. In these cellars the student could bed down a slave or a saddle horse, if his family’s finances ran to such luxuries. More probably he might use the cellar to store trunks and out-of-season clothing or smoked hams and bacon from home. Almost certainly he kept additional supplies of firewood there. (Although the dormitories have long had central heat, one of the perks of living there today is that each room has a fireplace, and outside each front door there is firewood that students can buy.)


To create a place for recreation in good weather, Jefferson leveled a space north of the Rotunda into a grassy playing field; and in the event of bad weather, the students could use the covered wings on either side, which Jefferson had labeled gymnasia .

Sanitary facilities for both professors and students were, by contemporary standards, a bit primitive. Privies were grouped off each of the rear courtyards. There were no bathrooms; bathing took place in front of the fireplace with water heated right there. Jefferson had planned to pipe in spring water from a nearby mountain using gravity flow. But if the system was ever installed, it apparently was soon abandoned, and students and faculty alike drank from wells dug at various points around the campus.

Each of the professorial pavilions was directly connected to a large, private garden immediately behind it. These have all been carefully restored by the Garden Club of Virginia over the last thirty-five years. These faculty enclaves were protected from the depredations of livestock and students alike by the now famous, high, single-brick, serpentine walls.


From offhand remarks in his papers, it is obvious that Jefferson thought that part of the student body would be day students living at home. But for a large and thinly populated state with atrocious roads and no public transport, provisions for out-of-town students were critically important. Jefferson’s plan housed about 130 students in dormitories, and they would take their meals in a series of dining rooms in the Ranges.

But Jefferson did not stop with a purely utilitarian solution to the problem of feeding a couple hundred Virginia farm boys. Being himself both an excellent cook and a great gourmet, he stipulated that each dining hall be managed by a cultured married couple who would not only see that the boarders’ food was ample and tasty, but who would also monitor the students’ table manners. Never one for leaving young minds idle, he also proposed that a different foreign language be spoken exclusively in each dining room.