- 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
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.