In Virginia in the east of the newly founded United States of America, architecture largely followed European styles. It was above all the buildings of classical Rome that inspired master builders, and so both private and public buildings displayed temple facades, columned entrance halls, and elegant domes. America’s third president was among these enthusiastic builders.
Thomas Jefferson, lawyer, politician, and architect, built his country house Monticello around 1770 in the middle of an old tobacco plantation at the gates f the little town of Charlottesville. On this “little mountain” one could imagine oneself suddenly transplanted to a time several centuries ago. The portal of this residence already resembles the front of a temple; mighty columns support a profiled cornice on which rests a classical pediment. At the rear, too, a similar portico leads into the building.
Projecting side wings are set back from the prominent porch, and the house is crowned by a central dome. For his new building, Jefferson made use of European architectural models, such as the Roman Pantheon, but also a masterwork of Renaissance architecture, the Villa Rotonda, which itself was based on classical buildings. This central-plan building, which had been built well over 200 years earlier near Vicenza in Italy by Andrea Palladio, was the American’s chief inspiration, above all in the matter of the design of the facade.
Jefferson’s Other Architectural Works
Jefferson’s comfortable countryseat was only the beginning of his career as an architect. As his next project, Jefferson took on the seat of government of his home state, Virginia. In its capital, Richmond, he built the Virginia State Capitol. Anyone who had expected modern architecture for the young nation must have had quite a surprise. On a hill above the city, from 1785 a classical temple began to arise, its declared model this time being a temple from Roman times, the Maison Carree in Nimes, in the south of France.
Politicians gathered there for the first time after seven years of building. At the very top of the agenda for the delegates and Governor Jefferson were topics such as the abolition of feudal privileges, the separation of church and state, and the setting up of a public education system. The latter was energetically taken in hand by Jefferson himself; after his term of office as third president of the United States had come to an end, he built and financed the University of Virginia, designing a whole “academic village.” For each of the ten faculties to be taught he designed a separate pavilion, which contained teaching and residential areas.
In designing the library, Jefferson seems to have once again had the Pantheon in mind; an impressive dome adorns the building and provides daylight. In March 1825 the first 123 students began their studies in Virginia. Jefferson also concerned himself with their physical well being, and several of them enjoyed Sunday dinner in the ex-president’s house. Among the students there were some of the finest minds of the young nation, including the founder of crime fiction, Edgar Allan Poe.