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The Lawn: America’s Greatest Architectural Achievement

July 2024
14min read

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

ALTHOUGH THOMAS JEFFERSON had evolved very clear concepts of what a modern educational system should be, it was not until 1817 that he had the opportunity to put his theories into practice at Charlottesville, Virginia. He was an old man by then, but there was nothing old-fashioned about his ideas. Age and experience had given him a majestic perspective, not merely of education but of American culture as a whole.

As Jefferson visualized it, the University of Virginia was to be the capstone of the nation’s first statewide system of universal, free, and compulsory education. He envisioned a campus that would house the faculty and student body of the new school under conditions of unprecedented comfort and amenity. But he also conceived of the buildings as teaching tools, actual instruments in the process of producing civilized men. Living as he had along the eastern edges of a primeval wilderness—which had been tamed within his own memory—Jefferson had a vivid picture of the civilizing impact of architecture, agriculture, and horticulture upon the whole tone and life-style of society. And throughout the long years of his experimentation in all three areas, there runs a fascinating mix of the utilitarian and the idealistic. In a sense he wanted Americans to telescope the historical process of civilizing the wilderness—a process that had taken thousands of years in Western Europe.

The design of the university came at the end of Jefferson’s long career as an architectural theoretician and practitioner. He was an amateur only in the eighteenth-century meaning of the word—that is, one who does something for love rather than for money, not, as in our current usage, one who does something badly. As a matter of fact, few men in the Western world would have had a broader or more comprehensive experience with the built world. By the time he began the university he had already designed a number of large country houses, he had directed the design and construction of the new federal city of Washington, and he had played a critical role in the selection of a design for the new Virginia State Capitol. His own library, one of the largest in the country, included most of the great architectural folios of the period.

No one had a more thorough understanding of the slow evolution of European architecture across the centuries than Jefferson. And no one had more positive preferences among its many stylistic variations. These preferences were at once ideological and aesthetic. He was already impatient with the baroque fripperies of both the governor’s palace and the capital at Williamsburg; and after his years in France, the rococo style symbolized to him a corrupt monarchy. Thus, when asked for advice on the design of the new capital at Richmond, he turned without hesitation to the ultimate source of all Western architecture—the Greco-Roman temple. And when he finally came to design the university, he decided to make it a veritable encyclopedia of the styles of classical antiquity.

How much of the university is truly Jefferson’s invention? Universities had existed in Europe for centuries, and even in the American colonies there were colleges long established by the time the university at Charlottesville came into being. But these schools had begun as small, private academies limited to studies in theology, classics, or law. Only much later did they grow, by a slow process of accretion, into the multidisciplinary universities that we know today. Most of them are architecturally loose and ill-defined, not visually unified or easily comprehensible. Jefferson’s revolutionary step was to create such an institution from scratch on the raw, red Virginia clay. It would be secular and democratic, owned and operated by the state, the apex of an entire system of free schools at three levels—elementary, general, and professional. The new institution would be interdisciplinary from the very start—with a curriculum that included languages, mathematics, natural and moral philosophy, natural history, medicine, law, and engineering—and this integrated system of separate but equal schools would be housed in a campus that clearly expressed the university’s character.

The splendor of Jefferson’s design is apparent even with the casual glance of an untrained eye.

The sheer aesthetic splendor of Jefferson’s design is apparent even with the casual glance of an untrained eye. But the reasons for the enduring viability of the campus—after a century and a half it remains the center of a great modern university—lie below the reach of vision. This is because of Jefferson’s handling of his organizational problems at two levels—form and function—simultaneously. In a purely formal sense, the Lawn, as the whole complex that Jefferson designed is called, may seem only a graceful replay on a somewhat larger scale of the familiar Palladian layout of many Tidewater plantations—Westover, Carter’s Grove, Mount Vernon, and, indeed, Jefferson’s own masterpiece at Monticello. But instead of using the familiar residential formula of spaces for the served and the servant to house a single family and its slaves, he has adapted it to house a community of scholars.

As always in Jefferson’s work, aesthetic satisfaction is umbilically connected to the satisfaction of practical needs. At Charlottes ville he has greatly enlarged and altered the internal hierarchy of the Palladian villa. Now, instead of the farmhouse, the centerpiece is the great, domed Rotunda. This building, clearly derived from the Roman Pantheon, is both the symbolic and functional heart of the university. And instead of two small pavilions at either end of the flanking porticoes (as at Mount Vernon or Monticello), there are ten large palazzi , five on each side. Each of these is, in fact, a subset for ten separate schools, complete with classrooms, professors’ living quarters, and flanking, single-story dormitories (“barracks” as Jefferson called them). The ten pavilions are connected by a continuous loggia, which at once affords paved circulation, sheltered from sun, snow, and rain and, not unimportantly, completely screens the utilitarian barracks from view. As Jefferson himself explained:

“I consider the common plan followed in this country … of making one large and expensive building, as unfortunately erroneous. It is infinitely better to erect a small and separate lodge for each separate professorship, with only a hall below for his class, and two chambers above for himself; joining these lodges by barracks for a certain portion of the students, opening into a covered [passage] way to give a dry communication between all the schools. The whole of these arranged around an open square of grass and trees would make it what it should be in fact, an academical village. … [Such a plan] would afford that quiet retirement so friendly to study, and [would] lessen the dangers of fire, infection and tumult.”

BUT THIS WAS FAR from being all there was to Jefferson’s design for comfort, amenity, and health for students and faculty alike. Beneath each Range, as the rows of student rooms were called, was a line of cellars; these opened onto drained and graded courtyards at the rear. In these cellars the student could bed down a slave or a saddle horse, if his family’s finances ran to such luxuries. More probably he might use the cellar to store trunks and out-of-season clothing or smoked hams and bacon from home. Almost certainly he kept additional supplies of firewood there. (Although the dormitories have long had central heat, one of the perks of living there today is that each room has a fireplace, and outside each front door there is firewood that students can buy.)


To create a place for recreation in good weather, Jefferson leveled a space north of the Rotunda into a grassy playing field; and in the event of bad weather, the students could use the covered wings on either side, which Jefferson had labeled gymnasia .

Sanitary facilities for both professors and students were, by contemporary standards, a bit primitive. Privies were grouped off each of the rear courtyards. There were no bathrooms; bathing took place in front of the fireplace with water heated right there. Jefferson had planned to pipe in spring water from a nearby mountain using gravity flow. But if the system was ever installed, it apparently was soon abandoned, and students and faculty alike drank from wells dug at various points around the campus.

Each of the professorial pavilions was directly connected to a large, private garden immediately behind it. These have all been carefully restored by the Garden Club of Virginia over the last thirty-five years. These faculty enclaves were protected from the depredations of livestock and students alike by the now famous, high, single-brick, serpentine walls.


From offhand remarks in his papers, it is obvious that Jefferson thought that part of the student body would be day students living at home. But for a large and thinly populated state with atrocious roads and no public transport, provisions for out-of-town students were critically important. Jefferson’s plan housed about 130 students in dormitories, and they would take their meals in a series of dining rooms in the Ranges.

But Jefferson did not stop with a purely utilitarian solution to the problem of feeding a couple hundred Virginia farm boys. Being himself both an excellent cook and a great gourmet, he stipulated that each dining hall be managed by a cultured married couple who would not only see that the boarders’ food was ample and tasty, but who would also monitor the students’ table manners. Never one for leaving young minds idle, he also proposed that a different foreign language be spoken exclusively in each dining room.

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.


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.

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

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