The Lawn: America’s Greatest Architectural Achievement


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.”

ALL IN ALL, IT SEEMED to him that the “genius of architecture had shed its maledictions over this land.” He wrote: “To give these buildings symmetry and taste would not increase their cost. It would only change the arrangement of the materials, the form and combination of the members. This would often cost less than the burthen of barbarous ornaments with which these buildings are sometimes charged. But the first principles of the art are unknown, and there exists scarcely a model among us sufficiently chaste to give an idea of them. … Perhaps a spark may fall on some young subjects of natural taste, kindle up their genius, and produce a reformation in this elegant and useful art.” Here his chaste model is obviously that of ancient Rome as against that of Georgian London. There is more than a little political animus in his position, which was natural enough with the Revolution only then being brought to a successful conclusion. His preferences were all with “columnar” architecture (as the revival styles were then called).

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.

BUT JEFFERSON SAW great architecture as more than just utilitarian; it was also a civilizing force. That is why, at the university, he was to design each of the pavilions as a variant of the classic orders. They were to act as “models of taste and good architecure, and [to be] of a variety of appearance, no two alike, so as to serve as specimens for architectural lectures.” Thus he proposed to indoctrinate all the sons of the rough Virginia gentry (and not merely the aspiring architects) with at least the minimum of artistic literacy. The very buildings, like the classes taught inside them, would help to prepare the students for the role of leadership. Objects of Attention for an American , written shortly after his return from Europe, shows us precisely how his critical faculties had been refined and sharpened. Jefferson’s advice to American tourists in Europe is a classic of shrewd selection, written by a very Baedeker of social acumen. It might pay them to have a look at the courts of European royalty, much as one might go to the circus, remembering always that “under the most imposing exterior, [courts] are the weakest and worst parts of mankind.” But, he wrote, the items of real importance to American visitors were six:

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.