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Architectural details: guttae

Bob Self

Even though I’ve been associated with Monticello for more than 25 years, I’m still constantly amazed by the amount of time and effort that went into small details that are easy to overlook when viewing the house as a whole.  For example, I recently started thinking about the rectangular groupings of guttae (pronounced “gutty”), which are part of the Doric entablature that marches around the entire exterior of the house, including the pediments.  The same detail occurs inside as well in the Dining Room and Tea Room entablatures.

As with so many other neo-classical details seen throughout Monticello Jefferson drew this one directly from Andrea Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture, which he reportedly referred to as “the Bible.”

'The Dorick Order' from Palladio’s 'First Book of Architecture'

Northwest Piazza pediment


It’s difficult to see from the ground looking up but the guttae are actually cone-shaped rather than cylindrical.  Each was individually turned on a lathe and installed by inserting the integral dowel ends into corresponding holes drilled to receive them. As you can see in the photos, each grouping has 18 of them. 

They’re turned from tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) and are about 1 ½” in diameter at the large end and about ¾” long not including the dowel end.  There is considerable variation in size because they were simply done “by eye.”

So one day I decided to count how many were required for the exterior of the house.  And I’d only count the ones used in the rectangular groups of 18 not the smaller ones associated with the alternating diamond-shaped ornamentation.

So let’s do the math.  All in all there are 214 groups of 18 guttae.  This means there are a total of 3,852 of these little guys that each had to be turned and installed separately into patterns carefully laid out so that when corners were reached, everything worked out correctly. And if you include the Dining Room and Tea Room too, the total runs to over 5,000 altogether! Amazing!  And this is just one tiny little detail when compared to the whole. 

Unfortunately we don’t know who specifically turned and installed all these guttae.  But it’s possible that the enslaved craftsman Lewis (we only know his first name) had a hand in it because we know he was the one who turned all the balusters for the balustrade that goes around the roof.  But that’s another story.

So when you come to Monticello maybe you’ll look and marvel, as I do, at the little details as well as the grand overall effect.  It’ll amaze you too.

Bob Self
Architectural Conservator

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