The Lawn: America’s Greatest Architectural Achievement


6. Painting. Statuary. Too expensive for the state of wealth among us … worth seeing, but not studying.

This is the advice of a realist, neither snob nor hayseed. Europe had much to teach us, and ultimately America must master it all. But time was short. There was a nation to build and our scale of values must be realistic. Painting and statuary were too expensive—at least for the present. But architecture was a different case. Jefferson’s distrust of the aristocracy extended to the palaces that housed it. His notes on his tour of the great English estates are almost contemptuous of the houses themselves but keenly analytical of the gardens. Nevertheless, European culture must be regarded as a resource. Since there was a lot of building to be done in the new republic, he was determined that it be soundly utilitarian, because that would increase the social wealth. He also demanded that it be beautiful, because, as he put it, “it shows so much” —that is, the world would judge us by it. The University of Virginia at Charlottesville is the perfect expression of this philosophy. The commonwealth would be nourished and ennobled by its sheer physical presence quite as much as by the classes that it would shelter.

Now restored, the “academical village” looks very much as it must have when Jefferson died in 1826.

The majesty of Jefferson’s accomplishment is made even more dramatic when one remembers that he was already a man of seventy-four when, in 1817, he laid the cornerstone of his first building. And astonishingly, the entire complex excepting the Rotunda was complete by the time of his death on July 4, 1826. During that decade he had visited the site nearly every day, riding horseback to and from Monticello some twelve miles away. He had acted as architect, landscape gardener, general contractor, bookkeeper, and chief of works. Nothing had been large enough to daunt him, no task small enough to escape his attention. The landscaping alone took on heroic dimensions: here, as at Monticello, a small mountaintop was remade, leveled, and terraced—all this with picks and shovels, wheelbarrows, and mule-drawn carts. The creation of the university was literally the climax of his life in architecture.

TODAY JEFFERSON’S “academical village” looks very much as it must have done on the day of his death. The main difference is that it is now a century and a half older. The aging fabric of handmade brick, lime plaster, and hand-carved wooden ornament—fragile to begin with—has entered the stage that the great British preservationist Bernard Feilden has termed the “fourth dimension of restoration—preservation.” It is not that Jefferson built badly. Indeed, he built extremely well. But some of his architectural ambitions simply outstripped the resources of his day. For example, the colonnades and parapets that Palladio would have constructed in limestone or marble are necessarily executed in painted wood at Charlottesville. Nor could the technology of Jefferson’s day provide the adhesives and caulking with which we seal exterior joints as a matter of course today. The flat roofs behind his balustrades were never really waterproof, because, though he used sheet metals, he lacked the means of soldering, brazing, or welding the joints. These deficiencies can never be corrected, any more than the faulty chemistry of Leonardo’s paints can be undone. They can only be curated, carefully and continuously, if we are to preserve for future generations this grand complex, one of the loveliest components of our national heritage.






Taking Care of the Lawn