Thomas Jefferson’s activities in support of a state university for Virginia were most visible during his retirement years, when he engaged in what he called “the Hobby of my old age.” His vision of the university, however, actually evolved over a period of decades. Ideas for the proper curriculum and governance of a university are found in bills submitted by Jefferson to the Virginia General Assembly in 1778. While fulfilling his duties as minister to France and later, as Washington’s Secretary of State, in the latter part of the 18th century, he never lost sight of his plan for a university in Virginia.
In January of 1800, writing to Dr. Joseph Priestley, a British scientist (discoverer of oxygen) and Unitarian theologian who emigrated to the United States, Jefferson described his goal for an institution of higher learning:
[W]e wish to establish in the upper & healthier country, & more centrally for the state an University on a plan so broad & liberal & modern, as to be worth patronising with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other states to come, and drink of the cup of knolege & fraternize with us.
The plans for a university became even more specific when, in 1805, he wrote to Littleton Waller Tazewell, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and an enthusiastic supporter of Jefferson’s idea for a state university. The letter to Tazewell outlined Jefferson’s proposals for financing, administration, and professorships, as well as for the institution’s physical design. Regarding the latter, he wrote:
[L]arge houses are always ugly, inconvenient, exposed to the accident of fire, and bad in cases of infection. a plain small house for the school & lodging of each professor is best. these connected by covered ways out of which the rooms of the students should open would be best. these may then be built only as they shall be wanted. in fact an University should not be an house but a village.
Soon after completing his second term as president, Jefferson expressed further his idea of a university as a village. Writing to Hugh L. White in 1810 he advised that a university should be designed so that “all the schools ... arranged around an open square of grass & trees would make it, what it should be in fact, an academical village.” An “academical village” was not only more convenient, safer, healthier, and less noisy (and thus more conducive to study), but, because a village can grow organically as space is “wanting,” its cost initially would be less than that of a single large building necessarily constructed on the basis of predicted future enrollment. Moreover, as Jefferson later wrote to Governor Wilson C. Nicholas in 1816, the small buildings of a village provide the opportunity to exhibit “models in Architecture of the purest forms of antiquity, furnishing to the Student examples of the precepts he will be taught in that art.”
Exactly how Jefferson came up with his plan for an academical village has been the subject of much speculation. Throughout his lifetime Jefferson expressed an interest in the fine arts, but it is said that his “penetrating interest,” indeed his “passion” for architecture, is where “he displayed an original talent almost comparable to the genius which he evinced in political science.” His first book on architecture apparently was acquired while a student at the College of William and Mary. The specific title is unknown but it is known that Jefferson collected many such books and had a “lifelong allegiance” to the architect Andrea Palladio. Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture were edited and published in the 18th century by Giacomo Leoni. A 16th century Italian architect, Palladio devoted much of his practice to designing palatial villas by incorporating classical forms, such as the temple front and dome, in domestic architecture. These ideas found their way into Jefferson’s designs for his mountaintop residence of Monticello, for his retreat at Poplar Forest, and, later, for his university. Jefferson’s interest and obvious aptitude for architecture led Virginia’s colonial governor, Lord Dunmore, in 1771, to ask him to design an addition to the main building of the College of William and Mary. The young architect’s plan, a quadrangle with interior arcade around an open courtyard, clearly revealed Palladio’s influence. According to noted architectural historian, Richard Guy Wilson, the design was “a prime element of his plan for the University of Virginia.”
Jefferson’s travels in Europe while minister to France (1784-1789) provided numerous examples of both modern and classical architecture that he had seen only in books. Historians have attempted to identify particular buildings that influenced his plan for the university. A popular candidate is the royal retreat of Marly-le-Roi overlooking the Seine, which Jefferson visited in 1786. It is a rectangular design with a central building at the head and six pavilions on each of two sides connected by trellises.
Other buildings no doubt provided inspiration for the architectural plan of his university, including various hospitals and schools that Jefferson would have seen in books or first-hand during his years abroad. The notion of a university as a “village,” for instance, possibly was inspired by Jefferson’s reading of treatises describing how disciples of noted Greek philosophers set up huts around their master’s dwelling in a village-like compound.
In the end, Jefferson’s design was unique. As Wilson stated, “All of this speculation on sources reveals the richness of Jefferson’s creation, its originality, and how it speaks to us on different levels.”
Jefferson’s plan for an academical village was more fully described in the Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, commonly called the Rockfish Gap Report. The report, which Jefferson drafted, recommended to the General Assembly, in 1818, that Central College in Charlottesville be the site of a new state university.
As to the ground plan for the university, the report stated:
[The commissioners] are of opinion that it should consist of distinct houses or pavilions, arranged at proper distances on each side of a lawn of a proper breadth, & of indefinite extent in one direction at least, in each of which should be a lecturing room with from two to four apartments for the accommodation of a professor and his family: that these pavilions should be united by a range of Dormitories, sufficient each for the accommodation of two Students only, this provision being deemed advantageous to morals, to order, & to uninterrupted study; and that a passage of some kind under cover from the weather should give a communication along the whole range.
After addressing the likely cost of constructing the buildings in his design, as well as the plan’s overall advantages, Jefferson added:
It is supposed probable that a building of somewhat more size in the middle of the grounds may be called for in time, in which may be rooms for religious worship under such impartial regulations as the visitors shall prescribe, for public examinations, for a Library, for the schools of music, drawing, and other associated purposes.
It was no coincidence, of course, that the buildings of Central College, already under construction, conformed to the commissioners’ suggestions for the design of a state university. The ground plan for Central College was based on a design provided by Jefferson to the Trustees of Albemarle Academy, in 1814, prior to the academy being raised to a college. It was essentially the same as that which he had described to Tazewell in 1805.
The Virginia General Assembly reviewed the Report of the Commissioners during its 1818-1819 session and, on January 25, 1819, formally established the University of Virginia on the site of Central College in Charlottesville. Jefferson had already begun sketching a plan for a building of somewhat greater size that would serve as library, which he acknowledged was modeled after the Pantheon in Rome. In the following months the overall design was expanded to include east and west ranges with dining hotels and additional dormitories, separated from the main complex by gardens enclosed within serpentine walls. There would be ten pavilions, five on each side of a terraced lawn, connected by walkways along student dormitories that run north and south. The southern end of the rectangular design was left open. At the northern end Jefferson placed the magnificent Rotunda resembling the Roman Pantheon.
Jefferson contracted with an engraver, Peter Maverick, to provide a formal representation of the ground plan for his academical village. He received a proof in November of 1822, in time to distribute copies to members of the General Assembly in Richmond to support his requests for more money for the university. Maverick revised the engraving in 1825 incorporating subsequent changes in the design. The Maverick engravings, from drawings by the craftsman John Neilson, are among the earliest views of Jefferson’s architectural masterpiece. The finished structures represent the historic center point of the present-day University of Virginia and continue to speak to people on many different levels.
- Gene Zechmeister, June 15, 2011
931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
Charlottesville, VA 22902