Monticello was an architectural project which occupied Jefferson for most of his life. As his family home, Monticello was his most personal building design, which he supervised down to the smallest detail. Jefferson's expertise in design work bridged the gap between the gentleman architect of the eighteenth century and the professionally trained architect of nineteenth-century America.
When Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary, he was critical of the buildings which he observed in Williamsburg. As he later wrote in his "Notes on the State of Virginia," "the Genius of Architecture seems to have shed it's maledictions over this land." (FN1) In his own home, as well in his other architectural projects, Jefferson hoped to create a new style of architecture that would be expressive of the new nation. The choice of location for Monticello, on the top of a mountain, was in itself unusual for a plantation house. Jefferson's decision was based primarily on aesthetic rather than practical considerations. (FN2)
Monitcello is one of the best-documented pre-Revolutionary buildings in America. Unique for their time, the detailed drawings Jefferson made of Monticello, beginning in about 1769, allow one to trace the genesis of his design. Since there was no formal training available to him, Jefferson learned about architecture through books. Andrea Palladio's (1508-1580) Four Books of Architecture has always been considered to be the primary source for the design of Monticello. However, recent research indicates that for this first version Jefferson's main source was the English architect James Gibbs (1682-1754), who in turn drew upon Palladio's work in his two important volumes, Book of Architecture (London, 1728) and Rules for Drawing the Several Parts of Architecture (London, 1732). Using plates from Gibbs's books, Jefferson experimented with a square, then a rectangular floor plan before deciding upon the final cruciform floor plan for the design of the house. (FN3)
Typical of Jefferson's attention to detail, this elevation shows great precision. The facade is dominated by the two-story pedimented portico. The four columns, Ionic above and Doric below, divide the entrance into three bays. While the pedimented doors and windows on the second story echo the pediment of the porch, the straight arches over the doorway and first story-windows reflect the continuous entablature above. The flanking bays are both simple and contained. The two rather tall chimneys add a vertical element to what is otherwise a horizontal design.
Construction of this first version of this first version of Monticello began in 1769. Waddell has noted that while there is some doubt that the porticoes were ever completed, the existing evidence suggests that all of the columns were installed. In 1781, Jefferson added octagonal bays to the side elevations, but otherwise the appearance of the house resembled this drawing until Jefferson began his radical alternations in 1796. (FN4)
Jefferson's fascination with the field of architecture began while he was a student at Williamsburg, and, as he commented later in life, "Architecture is my delight and putting up, and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements." (FN5) Jefferson wholeheartedly embraced neoclassicism as the style appropriate to the new nation. The design of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond (1785-1789) is considered the first true adaptation of a classical temple form in America. (FN6) His last major architectural project was the University of Virginia at Charlottesville (1817-1826), which he planned as an architecturally unified community. The library, a domed Rotunda, was based on the Pantheon in Rome. The Historical Society owns four hundred architectural drawings by Thomas Jefferson, which were given by Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, a great-great-grandson of Jefferson, as part of the larger Coolidge collection of Jefferson papers, begun by Coolidge's father and given to the Society in 1898. Many of the architectural drawings relate to Monticello, while others include houses he designed or remodeled for his Virginia neighbors, sketches for the Virginia State Capitol, and unexecuted designs for the President's House and the National Capitol in Washington. (FN7)
1. Jefferson, Thomas. "Notes on the State of Virginia." [Manuscript.] Massachusetts Historical Society.
2. Pierson, William H., Jr. American Buildings and Their Architects: The Colonial and Neo-classical Styles. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1976.
3. Waddell, Gene. "The First Monticello." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 46 (March 1987), pp5-29.
4. Waddell, Gene. "The First Monticello." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 46 (March 1987), pp5-29.
5. Quoted in Nichols, Frederick Doveton. Thomas Jefferson's Architectural Drawings. Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1961.
6.Pierson, William H., Jr. American Buildings and Their Architects: The Colonial and Neo-classical Styles. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1976.
7. Nichols, Frederick Doveton. Thomas Jefferson's Architectural Drawings. Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1961.