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Garden Pavilion

The Garden Pavilion is a structure designed and built by Thomas Jefferson near the end of his presidential term or in his early retirement years. One observer states, "...We walked into the gardens, to see the places where the best views presented themselves, & which Mr. Jefferson had fixed - on as favourite spots for walking, reading or reflection. ...On a point of the mountain...there - is an eminence where Mr. Jefferson had erected a little Grecian temple & which was a favourite spot with him to read & sit ill-we stood on the spot, but a violent storm some years since blew down the temple & no vestiges are left."1

Henry Gilpin was describing Jefferson's aerie in 1827, one year after Jefferson's death. The brightest days for Monticello had passed and vestiges of the landscape continued to suffer from time and neglect until, as one commentator noted in the 1880s, "Jefferson's orchards and terraced gardens, the serpentine flower-borders on the western lawn, to which came yearly contributions from the Jardin des Plantes of Paris, and the beautiful 'roundabout' walks and drives have all disappeared."2

In 1939, through the efforts of the Garden Club of Virginia, the flower gardens about the house were restored. In the past few years attention has been given to the entire re-creation of the landscape at large within the limits of the mountaintop. The focus has been on the appearance of the grounds during the years following Jefferson's second term as president when, as he said, he had withdrawn himself "from all political intermedlings, to indulge the evening of my life with what have been the passions of every portion of it, books, science, my farms, my family and friends. to these every hour of the day is now devoted."3

It was during the decade following his retirement that Jefferson derived considerable pleasure from improvements made to his grounds including the "olitory" located on the slope about two hundred and fifty feet southeast of the house - a hanging garden where vegetables were grown on a platform one thousand feet long and eighty feet wide, cut out of the hillside and retained by a massive stone wall rising, in some parts, as high as eleven feet. Below the wall and terraced in the hillside were the vineyards and an orchard of about four hundred fruit trees - a source of what Jefferson called a "precious refreshment."4 The entire area was secured from intruders, both human and otherwise, by a ten foot high paling, the pales spaced so closely "as not to let even a young hare in."5

It was at the mid-point of the garden platform and at the outer edge of the wall that Jefferson constructed what he interchangeably called his "temple" or "pavilion." In a memorandum dating probably from 1807 he simply called it "a Pavilion for the center of the south long walk of the garden."6  The reference is to the ten foot wide path that ran the length of the garden along the edge of the retaining wall. No drawing has been found of the building, but Jefferson's memorandum is particularly detailed, and when considered in light of archaeological evidence, the building which stands today has satisfied in almost every major way the questions which arise when a reconstruction is attempted.

We know from Jefferson's notes that the building was to be a light and airy brick structure, 13' 6" square, with arches on all four sides, enclosed with sash similar to some designed for the main house. The proportions of the building and the detail of the cornice were to follow Palladio's Tuscan order. More than anything else, Jefferson wished to express the geometric form of the cube both inside and out, with the addition of a pyramidal roof crowned by a Chinese lattice railing. Gilpin's remark that the building was "Grecian" would appear to be only a general reference to a classical style, for the effect of the pavilion would have been consistent not with Greek architecture but with Jefferson's ideas of Roman neo-classicism.

We know from an earlier manuscript that Jefferson had once entertained the ambitious idea of constructing as many as four pavilions along the south walk, each pavilion exhibiting a different style of architecture.7 One would be "a specimen of Gothic," another, a "model of the Pantheon," the third, a "model of cubic architecture" (possibly the Maison Carrée at Nîmes which Jefferson considered the finest example of cubic architecture), and the last, "a specimen of Chinese." He planned to shade the walk, which overlooks the orchard and vineyards and the plains beyond, with an arbor covered principally with grape vines but with the sides "quite open." The four pavilions or "boxes," as Jefferson called them, were to be spaced at regular intervals along the outside edge of the path and form alcoves where one could retire from the hot sun. The idea may have been inspired by what he saw in 1786 at the great English landscape park, Stowe, where two recesses, in which there were temples, terminated a long, straight walk. Jefferson noted in his journal that the two recesses were "like the bastion of a fort" and that "in one of these is the temple of Friendship, in the other the temple of Venus. They are seen the one from the other, the line of sight passing, not thro’ the garden, but through the country parallel to the line of the garden. This has a good effect."8 But at the end of the notes on the four "boxes" at Monticello he concluded: "But after all, the kitchen garden is not the place for ornaments of this kind. Bowers & treillages suit that better, & these temples will be better disposed in the pleasure grounds."

It was probably several years later that Jefferson worked up in greater detail his plans for the pavilions that he now intended to erect in the pleasure grounds.9  At the same time he noted that eight thousand bricks would be needed for the "garden pavilion." This is clearly a reference to a structure in the kitchen garden and the number of bricks corresponds closely to the total calculated by Jefferson in the detailed memorandum. The archaeological excavations of 1980 provided evidence that the building was actually constructed and that the siting followed closely Jefferson's original concept of a recess off the garden path. It was discovered that the building was positioned as close to the face of the wall as possible so as not to intrude into the walk any more than was necessary. Evidence of an arbor along the walk was not found, but deep plowing could have erased all traces of an earlier feature.

There is also an intriguing reference in Jefferson's account with his brickmason, Hugh Chisholm, to "laying 7000. bricks in temple" in 1812.10 The cost was twenty-eight dollars, something less than the cost of the reconstruction today. The seven thousand bricks were one thousand short of the number called for in the calculations for the garden pavilion and in the 1807 memorandum.

At this point in the investigation, the archaeological evidence made clear exactly why only seven thousand bricks were laid and why Jefferson modified his design and recorded the changes in the diagonal corners of his page of calculations on September 28, 1810. The leveling of the garden by Jefferson's workmen had begun in the fall of 1807 under the direction of the overseer, Edmund Bacon, and their herculean task was not completed until the spring of 1809. The archaeologists were able to prove that the garden platform was formed by excavating the slope and backfilling against the wall. It was clear that the leveling of the garden and the construction of the wall went hand in hand, with the height of each increasing at the same rate. Consequently, at the site of the garden pavilion where the wall was about nine feet high, Jefferson's workmen had to be certain to lay the foundation stones at the same time that they raised the wall and backfilled. But the archaeological excavations revealed that the workmen made the foundation only 12' 6" square rather than one foot larger as specified. Apparently, when Jefferson discovered the error, he decided to contract the plan by one foot to fit the site rather than risk building on unsupported footings. This was certainly not the first time he had encountered a failure by his workmen to execute his plans according to his careful directions. During the construction of his early house in the 1770s, he discovered an error of some consequence, which elicited the philosophical response in his memorandum, "I know not how it happened.. . ."11

Once confronted with the restriction of a smaller foundation, Jefferson considered the question of changing the proportions of the building to preserve the visual effect of a cube. He knew that he could not lower the height of the arches because of the need for headroom, so he solved the problem by eliminating the architrave and frieze from the entablature of the Tuscan order and positioning the cornice directly over the key stones of the arches, thus reducing the height of the building. He was prepared to abandon classical rule and accept, by classical standards, an ungrammatical solution. During the excavations of 1980, the archaeologists discovered a more serious fault in the construction, probably unknown to Jefferson until too late. The workmen had, in fact, backfilled the garden wall to a certain height before they began to lay stones for the foundation of the building. In other words, the foundation was laid on loose fill. One wonders if the story that the building blew down in a violent storm was only part of the truth.

Just when the building collapsed is not known. Gilpin says that it was "some years since," but very likely it was near the end of Jefferson's lifetime as it was standing long enough to become a "favourite" place for him to sit and read. As late as 1825 a visitor proposed a walk in the garden to the "observatory" which may very well have been the pavilion. This seems all the more likely when one considers that the term "garden" was often used by Jefferson to refer to the kitchen garden rather than the flower beds and pleasure grounds.

Of the more than twenty designs for garden structures that Jefferson considered at one time or another for the grounds at Monticello, the "pavilion for the center of the south long walk of the garden" is the only one known to have been constructed. If today we consider the many arguments for its reconstruction, among them would be the remarkably complete archaeological and documentary evidence and the visual significance of a landmark. But apart from these arguments, the reconstruction of this building has, probably more than any other single act of restoration at Monticello, established the presence of Jefferson in the garden, at the center of his horticultural world. It was a world which he would have wished to entrust to the future. In 1812, the year that the pavilion was constructed, Jefferson indirectly touched on this point in a letter to a geographer. He encouraged his work even though he realized that much of what would be discovered "will be for a future race, when the superlunary geography will have become the object of my contemplations," adding, "yet I do not wish it the less, on the same principle on which I am still planting trees to yield their shade and ornament half a century hence."12 It is hoped that Jefferson's pavilion, now rebuilt, will yield its pleasure a half century hence and beyond.

- William L. Beiswanger, 1984.  Originally published in Spring Dinner at Monticello, April 12, 1984, in Memory of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville, VA: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1984).

Further Sources

  • 1. Ralph D. Gray, ed., ''A Tour of Virginia in 1827: Letters of Henry D. Gilpin to his Father," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 76, no. 4 (1968): 467. Gilpin's description, which supports the conclusion that he was standing on the site of the temple in the kitchen garden, is not quoted.
  • 2. Frank R. Stockton, "The Later Years of Monticello, " Century Magazine, 34, no. 5 (1887): 657.
  • 3. Thomas Jefferson to James Maury, April 25, 1812, in PTJ:RS, 4:671.  Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 4. Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, May 15, 1794, in PTJ, 28:75.  Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 5. Thomas Jefferson to Elisha Watkins, September 27, 1808.  Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 6. Frederick D. Nichols, Thomas Jefferson's Architectural Drawings with Commentary and a Check List (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1978), no. 182, p. 1. The earliest notations are written in the upper left and lower right of the sheet and are probably contemporary with Nichols, no. 182, p. 3, which is dated 1807. The notes were lined out when the design for the building was revised to fit the smaller foundation. The revised calculations written in the upper right and lower left are dated September 28, 1810. The line beginning with "the roof pyramidal" and ending with "pitch 3.f" also dates after the earliest notes but before the revisions of 1810. The idea of a pyramidal roof supersedes the earlier one for "a concealed roof guttered." "Guttered" refers to Jefferson's detail for a flat roof supported by serrated joists which form trough (gutters) for draining the roof. The terrace roof over the dependencies flanking the house follows this form. The notes on the balustrading for tho "Pr's" [President's] house" do not pertain to the pavilion. The reconstruction of the building was based on the revisions of 1810.
  • 7. Ibid., no. 171, p. 1.
  • 8. Thomas Jefferson, "Notes of a Tour of English Gardens," April 2-14, 1786, in PTJ, 9:371. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 9. Nichols, no. 182, p. 3.
  • 10. "Th: Jefferson in acct. with Hugh Chisholm," Novvember 29, 1820. Massachusetts Historical Society.
  • 11. Undated construction memorandum, Massachusetts Historical Society.
  • 12. Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Ellicott, June 24, 1812. Transcription available at Founders Online.
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