Upon seeing Monticello in an unfinished state, Margaret Bayard Smith, a friend of Thomas Jefferson, wrote that Jefferson replied, “Architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements.” Monticello remained in a state of “putting up and pulling down” for roughly forty years as enslaved craftsmen and free artisans turned Jefferson’s designs into an icon of American architecture, famously featured on the back of the United States’ nickel. Influenced from his readings in ancient and contemporary architectural writings, Jefferson gleaned the best from both his readings and his observations in Europe, creating in his architectural designs a style that was uniquely American.
Father of our National Architecture
As Secretary of State, Jefferson was responsible for the design of the Federal City in Washington, D.C. Working with Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, Jefferson helped to design the lay out for the city and had a voice in selecting the plans of many of the first government buildings in America. Jefferson used this opportunity to “improve the taste of his countrymen” by “presenting them models for their study and imitation.” When was selected to plan the Virginia State Capitol, for instance, he wrote that it was “a favorable opportunity of introducing into the state an example of architecture in the classic style of antiquity.” It is in part because of Jefferson’s design influence that federal buildings set an American precedent for the neoclassical style. For this reason, architectural historian Fiske Kimball called Jefferson “the father of our national architecture.”
"The Hobby of My Old Age"
Along with Monticello, Jefferson the architect is best known for designing the University of Virginia. Jefferson designed the initial buildings as an “academical village” in which students and professors would live, learn, and teach in community. The original buildings were planned not only as housing for students and professors but also as models of architecture, reflecting Jefferson’s wide study of ancient and contemporary architectural writings. Jefferson designed the most ambitious of the original buildings, the Rotunda, on the model of the Roman Pantheon. Today, the University has been recognized as one of the most beautiful and important college campuses in the United States, serving as a testament to both Jefferson’s designs and the skill of the enslaved craftsmen who built it.
Other Design Interests
In addition to planning public buildings, Jefferson designed Monticello and several other Virginia homes, often for friends. He designed his retreat home, Poplar Forest, in the shape of an octagon, a form that intrigued Jefferson as an architect. Jefferson applied his design skills not only to buildings but to almost anything he saw. On a larger scale, he planned cities and landscapes. On a smaller scale, he turned his attention to the details of a home, designing clocks, coffee urns, and curtains, for instance. Jefferson's admiration for neoclassical architecture frequently influenced his designs for household goods, such as a set of candlesticks based on the Corinthian order.
Since his death, Jefferson's contributions to our American architecture have grown in estimation. In 1987, Monticello and the "academical village" of the University of Virginia were named to the World Heritage List, a United Nations compilation of international treasures that must be protected at all cost. In 1993, on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Jefferson's birth, the American Institute of Architects posthumously granted him its Gold Medal for "a lifetime of distinguished achievement and significant contributions to architecture and the human environment." And, in 2001, Monticello was chosen to host the presentation of the Pritzker Architecture Award, which is widely regarding as architecture's highest award.