- Historic Sites
The Lawn: America’s Greatest Architectural Achievement
In designing, the University of Virginia, Jefferson sought not only to educate young men for leadership, but to bring aesthetic maturity to the new nation
June/july 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 4
About Virginia he wrote: “The private buildings are very rarely constructed of stone or brick, much the greater portion being of scantling and boards, plastered with lime [that is, conventional clapboard houses plastered inside]. It is impossible to devise things more ugly, uncomfortable, and, happily, more perishable. There are two or three plans, on one of which, according to its size, most of the houses in the state are built. The poorest people build huts of logs, laid horizontally in pens, stopping the interstices with mud. These are warmer in winter and cooler in summer than the more expensive construction of scantling and plank.” In all of Virginia, he found only four public buildings worthy of note—the capital, the governor’s palace, the College of William and Mary, and the insane asylum (now being reconstructed), all of them in Williamsburg. The capital was, he felt, “a light and airy structure … on the whole, it is the most pleasing piece of architecture we have.” The palace was “not handsome without, but spacious and commodious within.” As for the college and asylum, they were notable in that they were “rude, mis-shapen piles, which, but that they have roofs, would be taken for brick-kilns.”
Jefferson’s chaste model for the Rotunda was obviously that of ancient Rome rather than Georgian London.
He proposed columns because he liked them and recommended brick because “when buildings are of durable materials, every new edifice is an actual and permanent acquisition to the state, adding to its value as well as to its ornament.” Here he sounds a new and significant note—the patriot’s desire to see his country beautiful, wealthy, strong, and respected. As a matter of fact, this sturdy concern for the social wealth of the nation underlay his lifelong attitude toward architecture. He wanted greatness at every level of national life—political, social, cultural, artistic. Architecture, like any other field, must contribute to this greatness: the individual building itself must satisfy not only the needs of its owner but also those of the community as a whole.
1. Agriculture. Everything belonging to this art …
2. Mechanical arts, so far as they respect things necessary in America, and inconvenient to be transported thither ready-made, such as forges, stone quarries, boats, bridges (very especially) …
3. Lighter mechanical arts, and manufactures. Some of these will be worth a superficial view; but … it would be a waste of attention to examine these minutely.
4. Gardens, peculiarly worth the attention of an American …
5. Architecture worth great attention. As we double our numbers every twenty years, we must double our houses. … [Architecture] is, then, among the most important arts; and it is desirable to introduce taste into an art which shows so much.