Quotations on Architecture

1785 September 20. (Jefferson to James Madison). "But how is a taste in this beautiful art to be formed in our countrymen, unless we avail ourselves of every occasion when public buildings are to be erected, of presenting to them models for their study and imitation? . . . . the comfort of laying out the public money for something honourable, the satisfaction of seeing an object and proof of national good taste, and the regret and mortification of erecting a monument of our barbarism which will be loaded with execrations as long as it shall endure. . . . You see I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile them to the rest of the world, and procure them its praise."[1]

1786 January 28. (Jefferson to James Currie). "I send by this conveiance designs for the Capitol. They are simple & sublime. More cannot be said. They are not the brat of a whimsical conception never before brought to light, but copied from the most precious the most perfect model of antient architecture remaining on earth; one which has received the approbation of near 2000 years, and which is sufficiently remarkable to have been visited by all travellers."[2]

1788. (Objects of Attention for an American). "Architecture worth great attention. It is then among the most important arts: and it is desireable to introduce taste into an art which shews so much."[3]

1804 February 28. (Jefferson to Benjamin Latrobe). "Would it not be best to make the internal columns of well-burnt brick, moulded in portions of circles adapted to the diminution of the columns? Burlington, in his notes on Palladio, tells us that he found most of the buildings erected under Palladio's direction, and he described in his architecture, to have their columns made of brick in this way and covered with stucco. I know an instance of a range of six or eight columns in Virginia, twenty feet high, well proportioned and properly diminished, executed by a common bricklayer. The bases and capitals would of course be of hewn stone."[4]

1804 December 24. (Jefferson to James Oldham). "There never was a Palladio here [in Washington] even in private hands till I brought one: . . . I send you my portable edition, which I value because it is portable. It contains only the 1st book on the orders which is the essential part."[5]

1822 July 10. (to William Coffee). "You are right in what you have thought and done as to the Metops of our Doric pavilion. those of the baths of Diocletian are all human faces, and so are to be those of our Doric pavilion. but in my middle room at Poplar Forest, I mean to mix the faces and ox-sculls, a fancy which I can indulge in my own case, altho in a public work I feel bound to follow authority strictly. the mitred ox-sculls for my room are for it's inner angles."[6]

ca. 1823. (Autobiography). "I was written to in 1785 (being then in Paris) by Directors appointed to superintend the building of a Capitol in Richmond, to advise them as to a plan, and to add to it one of a prison. Thinking it a favorable opportunity of introducing into the state an example of architecture in the classic style of antiquity, and the Maison quarrée of Nismes, an antient Roman temple, being considered as the most perfect model existing of what may be called Cubic architecture, I applied to M. Clerissault, who had published drawings of the Antiquities of Nismes, to have me a model of the building made in stucco, only changing the order from Corinthian to Ionic, on account of the difficulty of the Corinthian capitals. I yielded with reluctance to the taste of Clerissault, in his preference of the modern capital of Scamozzi to the more noble capital of antiquity. " Ford, 1:72-3.</ref>

1824. "Architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down one of my favorite amusements." [7]

American Architecture

ca. 1781. (Notes on the State of Virginia). "The private buildings are very rarely constructed of stone or brick, much the greater portion being of scantling and boards, plaster with lime. 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 constructions of scantling and plank...The only public buildings worthy of mention are the Capitol, the Palace, the College, and the Hospital for Lunatics, all of them in Williamsburg...The Capitol is a light and airy structure, with a portico in front of two orders, the lower of which, being Doric, is tolerably just in its proportions and ornaments, save only that the intercolonnations are too large. The upper is Ionic, much too small for that on which it is mounted, its ornaments not proper to the order, nor proportioned within themselves. IT is crowned with a pediment, which is too high for its span. Yet on the whole, it is the most pleasing piece of architecture we have. The palace is not handsome without, but it is spacious and commodious within, is prettily situated, and, with the grounds annexed to it, is capable of being made an elegant seat. The College and Hospital are rude, mis-shapen piles, which, but that they have roofs, would be taken for brick kilns. There are no other public buildings but churches and courthouses in which no attempts are made at elegance. Indeed it would not be easy to execute such an attempt, as a workman could scarcely be found here capable of drawings an order. The genius of architecture seems to have shed its maledictions of this land. Buildings are often erected, bu individuals, or considerable expense. To give these 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."[8]

ca. 1781. (Notes on the State of Virginia). "The inhabitants of Europe, who dwell chiefly in houses of stone or brick, are surely as healthy as those of Virginia. These houses have the advantage too of being warner in winter and cooler in summer than those of wood; of being cheaper in their first construction, where line convenient, and infinitely more durable. . . . A country whose buildings are of wood, can never increase in its improvements to any considerable degree. There duration is highly estimated at 50 years. Every half century then our country becomes a tablua rasa, whereon we have to set out anew, as in the first moment of seating it. Whereas when buildings are of durable materials, every new edifice is an actual and permanent acquisition to the state, adding to is value as well as to its ornament."[9]

European Architecture

ca. 1781. (Notes on the State of Virginia). "The inhabitants of Europe, who dwell chiefly in houses of stone or brick, are surely as healthy as those of Virginia. These houses have the advantage too of being warner in winter and cooler in summer than those of wood; of being cheaper in their first construction, where line convenient, and infinitely more durable."[10]

1786 May 4. (Jefferson to John Page). "The city of London, tho' handsomer than Paris, is not so handsome as Philadelphia. Their architecture is in the most wretched stile I ever saw, not meaning to except America where it is bad, nor even Virginia where it is worse than in any other part of America, which I have seen."[11]

1787 March 20. (Jefferson to Madame de Tessé). "Here I am, Madame, gazing whole hours at the Maison quarrée, like a lover at his mistress. The stocking weavers and silk spinners around it consider me as an hyprochondriac Englishman, about to write with a pistol the last chapter of his history. This is the second time I have been in love since I left Paris. The first was with a Diana at the Chateau de Laye Epinaye in the Beaujolois, a delicious morsel of sculpture, by Michael Angelo Slodtz. This, you will say, was in rule, to fall in love with a fine woman: but, with a house! It is out of all precedent! No, madam, it is not without a precedent in my own history. While at Paris, I was violently smitten with the hotel de Salm, and used to go to the Thuileries almost daily to look at it. The loueuse des chaises, inattentive to my passion, never had the complaisance to place a chair there; so that, sitting on the parapet, and twisting my neck round to see the object of my admiration, I generally left with a torticollis.[12] From Lyons to Nismes I have been nourished with the remains of Roman grandeur."[13]

1791 April 10. (Jefferson to Pierre Charles L'Enfant). "Whenever it is proposed to prepare plans for the Capitol, I should prefer the adoption of some one of the models of antiquity which have had the approbation of thousands of years; and for the President's house I should prefer the celebrated fronts of Modern buildings which have already received the approbation of all good judges. Such are the Galerie du Louvre, the Garde meubles, and two fronts of the Hotel de Salm."[14]


  1. PTJ, 8:535.
  2. Ibid., 9:240. Letterpress copy at Library of Congress.
  3. Ibid., 13:269.
  4. Letterpress copy at Library of Congress.
  5. Polygraph copy at the Library of Congress.
  6. Polygraph copy is at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
  7. Statement attributed to Jefferson in Margaret Bayard Smith, A Winter in Washington,(New York: 1824), 2:261.
  8. Notes, ed. Peden, 152-153.
  9. Ibid., 154.
  10. Ibid.
  11. PTJ, 9:445.
  12. "A rheumatic or other affection of the muscles of the neck, in which it is so twisted as to keep the head turned to one side; wry-neck." Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "torticollis," http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50254877? (accessed December 17, 2008).
  13. PTJ, 11:226.
  14. Ibid., 20:86. Letterpress copy at the Library of Congress.

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