The Lawn: America’s Greatest Architectural Achievement


As Jefferson visualized the campus, it would have been almost indefinitely extensible. When it was fully completed in 1827, the complex provided dormitories for about 120 boarders and 10 full-time professors. The open end at the south, overlooking the valley, with Monticello in the distance, was developed in a series of terraces for a botanical garden. But this line of possible expansion was forever closed with the construction of Stanford White’s Cabell Hall at the turn of this century. Furthermore, the dining halls along the back Ranges faced onto tree-lined streets: these also suggested monumental lines parallel with the Great Lawn. But such clues were not picked up by architects after World War II. The campus grew in a haphazard fashion, sprawling over the hilly terrain until it had much the same appearance as any other campus in the country.

TO ITS CREDIT, HOWEVER , the university has kept Jefferson’s masterpiece largely intact. A gaunt, four-story dormitory wing was added to the rear of the Rotunda in the 185Os. But it was invisible from the Lawn and, in any case, vanished in the fire of 1895. The Rotunda was thereafter “restored” by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, which preserved its exterior physiognomy rather faithfully but radically reorganized the interior spaces. Several years ago, however, these too were returned to their original condition under the supervision of Frederick Doveton Nichols, a professor emeritus of architecture at the university.

The loggia connecting the pavilions affords paved circulation, sheltered from sun, snow, and rain.

Contemporary architects are often puzzled by what seems to them a contradiction in Jefferson: how could he, a true revolutionary in so many areas of political and cultural life, be content to employ the architectural language of classic antiquity? But the enigma vanishes if we understand that, in designing the university, he followed the same principles employed in writing the Declaration of Independence. There, as he wrote in his autobiography with such clarity and candor, his aim was “not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of; not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, [in] terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we were impelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”

AS AN ARCHITECT, Jefferson might today be called an eclectic, since his modes of expression were drawn from a number of sources—antique and contemporaneous. Before he went to Europe in 1784, his knowledge of the great prototypes of the classical tradition was necessarily secondhand. He had owned and studied many of the great illustrated portfolios that were the basis of eighteenth-century taste—books by such architectural theoreticians and designers as Alberti, Palladio, and Scamozzi. But his fiveyear stay in Europe permitted him to confront these monuments firsthand. Their impact upon his thinking and subsequent work in this country was profound. He fell “in love with” the well-preserved Roman temple at Nîmes and used it as a prototype for the new capitol in Richmond. He visited Lord Burlington’s pavilion at Chiswick, outside London, an experience clearly reflected in his final designs for Monticello. He visited all the great châteaux around Paris, including, of course, the royal seat at Versailles. This exposure to baroque landscape planning clearly helped him later to supervise L’Enfant’s plan for the new city at Washington as well as offering a framework around which to organize the campus at Charlottesville.

During the time he lived abroad, Jefferson found Paris to be full of lively architects and architectural theoreticians. He followed the projects of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux and Etienne-Louis Boullée. In their designs, both men took as their point of departure a Roman architecture purged of all anecdotal and iconographie ornamentation. Among the French artists, Jefferson felt that Jacques Louis David was by all odds the finest. His criteria here were perhaps as much ideological as aesthetic, since David turned to the Roman Republic for his subject matter. He clothed his characters in Roman togas, housed them in Roman buildings, and furnished them with Roman beds and chairs. This confluence of aesthetic and ideological influences conformed to Jefferson’s conviction that Greek democracy and Roman republicanism offered the correct parameters for constructing a new society in America.

Jefferson’s astonishing grasp of the ideological importance of architecture, especially for a developing culture like the United States, is amply demonstrated in his essay Notes on the State of Virginia (1782) and in a letter he wrote to two young friends on the topic “Objects of Attention for an American” (1788). Writing about his homeland and about Europe, he reports with a cool, almost clinical accuracy on the state of affairs in each place.