Thomas Jefferson: The Education of an Architect

It is unlikely that most people upon hearing the name Thomas Jefferson, immediately think of architecture, yet his contributions as an architect are immeasurable. At the time of Jefferson's birth in 1743, [1] no American school or college offered architectural training. Formal education offerings, during this era, were deeply rooted in the classics. In his early years, Jefferson learned from his father, Peter Jefferson, farming, surveying, and horsemanship. [2] At age nine he was sent to board in a small private school, where he was thoroughly indoctrinated as a correct classical scholar, first under the tutelage of the Reverend William Douglas, then with the Reverend James Maury. [3] By the time he was ready to enter college, Thomas Jefferson was well versed in Greek, French, Latin, Italian, and Spanish.

It is most likely that Jefferson's interest in architecture began with his matriculation at the College of William and Mary in 1760. At that time he purchased his first book on architecture, probably Giacomo Leoni's translated version of Four Books of Architectureby Andrea Palladio. [4] This would become the first work of his vast collection of books on architecture. Among the most significant were James Gibbs' Book of Architecture & Rules for Drawing Orders, Vitruvius' Ten Books of Architecture, and Robert Morris' Select Architecture. [5]

Very likely, Jefferson's architectural awareness was also heightened by his personal contact with enlightened men of his time. He was soon to attract the attention of Dr. William Small a young professor at William and Mary. Jefferson described Dr. Small as "a man profound in most useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communications, correct and gentlemanly manners, and an enlarged and liberated mind." [6] Dr. Small taught him mathematics and introduced him to scientific thought. Through this association Jefferson came to know George Wythe, considered to be not only the "finest Greek and Latin scholar" in the colonies but also a great teacher of law. [7] Through these men, Jefferson came to know other distinguished Virginia gentlemen including Lieutenant Governor Fauquier, William Byrd, and John Page, among others. Jefferson's close association with these gentlemen in Williamsburg not only heightened his classical training; they enlightened his appreciation of the arts, fine wine, music, landscaped gardens, and science.

Upon completing his course of studies at William and Mary in 1762, Jefferson embarked on a law career, studying for five years with George Wythe. Wythe's father-in-law was Richard Taliaferro, a "gentleman architect" who was involved with numerous building designs in the Virginia-Tidewater region. [8] It is not unlikely that during Jefferson's long association with George Wythe that they had numerous discussions with Taliaferro on the subject of architecture.

At the time Jefferson first entertained ideas of designing a home for himself at Monticello, in 1767, there were few architectural resources in America from which to select. Architecture and the architectural profession, as we know it, did not exist in the colonies. The designs for buildings were usually selected from handbooks. Jefferson in his early years adhered to this tradition. The initial design for Monticello (1767-1784) was derived from books. Perhaps this is the reason why some historians have portrayed Thomas Jefferson as a "gentlemen architect," and nothing more.

Jefferson was admitted to the bar in 1767, practicing until 1774 when the courts were closed due to the American Revolution. During this period of his life he also served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, (1769 to 1774) and married Martha Wayles Skelton (January 1, 1772). [9] Law placed emphasis on logic, precision, and historical precedent; a training which would be artfully applied in Jefferson's efforts to delve into the past in order to discover the universal truths of classical architecture. Jefferson was a perfectionist who maintained an obsession with compiling, listing, ordering, and observing. He continually strove to find the perfect solution. This ability to observe and record the often overlooked details, would serve him well in his later architectural studies of existing buildings and measured drawings.

From the very beginning of his career, Jefferson regarded books as the ultimate source of knowledge. In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson wrote, "I cannot live without books."[10] It was through books that Jefferson first discovered the world of architecture. Architecture was a disciplined orderly world, governed by laws and principlesóa world of tangible, measurable, repeatable relationships. Within the pages of these books, Jefferson found what he considered to be the elements of architectureóthe classical orders, specifically within Four Books of Architecture. He found these orders illustrated, proportioned, and praised by Andrea Palladio the great architectural theorist of the Renaissance. Architecture had an immediate appeal to Jefferson's probing methodical nature. [11]

Jefferson took advantage of every opportunity to study architecture through his books and by travels to the Northeast. In 1766, he and John Adams traveled north, stopping at Annapolis, Philadelphia, and New York. Jefferson said of the architecture that he was impressed by the "extremely beautiful houses of Annapolis, but the public buildings were not "worth mentioning." [12]

The architectural environment of Virginia into which Thomas Jefferson was born apparently did not inspire him. The earliest comments on architecture are found in his Notes on the State of Virginia [13] (1782) in which he wrote:

The private buildings are very rarely constructed of stone or brick; It is impossible to devise things more ugly, uncomfortable, and happily more perishable. There are two or three plans, on one of which, according to its size, most of the houses in the state are built. The poorest people build huts of logs, . . . The only public buildings worthy [of] mention are the Capital, the Palace, the College, and the Hospital for Lunatics, all of them in Williamsburg. The Capitol is a light and airy structure, with a portico in front of two orders, the lower of which, being Doric, is tolerably just in its proportions and ornaments, save only that the intercolonnations [sic] are too large . . . The Palace is not handsome without . . . The College and Hospital are rude, mis-shapen piles, which, but that they have roofs, would be taken for brick-kilns. There are no other public buildings but churches and court-houses, in which no attempts are made at elegance. . . The genius of architecture seems to have shed its maledictions over this land. . . To give these symmetry and taste would not increase their cost. It would only change the arrangement of the materials, the form and combination of the members. This would often cost less than the burthen of barbarous [sic] ornaments with which these buildings are sometimes charged. But the first principles of the art are unknown, and there exists scarcely a model among us sufficiently chaste to give an idea of them. Architecture being one of the fine arts, and as such within the department of a professor of the college . . . perhaps a park may fall on some young subjects of natural taste, kindle up their genius, and produce a reformation in this elegant and useful art. [14]   It is apparent that by the time Notes was written, he was astutely aware of architecture, although he probably had no way of knowing that he was yet to receive the "spark" which would cause him to "produce a reformation" of architecture in America.
By 1767, when Jefferson first laid plans in designing his own home at Monticello, he had become a devoted Palladian. (Fig. 1). This is clearly illustrated in his own elevation drawing of Monticello. The two-tiered columned portico and strict symmetry are taken directly from the drawings within Palladio's Four Books of Architecture. [15] Even though Jefferson's early designs were derived in the same tradition of eighteenth century "gentlemen architects," we do notice a striking contrast in the technical competence of his drawings. Jefferson's later drawings are those of a highly skilled draftsman, and his scaled drawings are of a quality not found among his 18th century American contemporaries. [16] The drawings supplemented with written documents, which identified his sources and provided instructions for his workmen; the precursor for modern working drawings and specifications. For each finished drawing it is most likely that numerous preliminary sketches, were produced as evidenced by his "thumbnail" sketches of Monticello and the Capitol. (Fig. 2). These drawings, along with his preliminary sketches, indicate that Jefferson resolved his problems on the drawing board. His uncanny draftsmanship provided him with the invaluable power to visualize and resolve the problems of spatial relationships in a way that would not be possible by 18th century traditional methods. [17] This practice started Jefferson, is still used by American architects. In 1784, as a result of his appointment as minister to France, Jefferson had the fortunate opportunity to study architecture at a time when all of Europe paid homage to the so-called "First School of Paris." [18] Although busy with his official duties, Jefferson found time to absorb the varied pleasures, which could satisfy both his mind and spirit. He sampled widely the art, music, and theater available in Paris. He frequented bookstores and salons and viewed the beauties of French architecture. The five years spent in France were considered to be among the happiest of his life. While in Europe, Jefferson seized the opportunity to study as much architecture as possible. While in France, Jefferson took every opportunity to study buildings firsthand. Jefferson's personal association with French visionary architects such as LeDoux, Boullee, and Clerisseau shoed him "the flexibility and logic of French rational planning." [19]Jefferson's architectural judgment was based upon his republican ideas. His political attitudes led him in a search for a style, which would link the political independence of the new America with an appropriate architecture. [20] He realized that the legacy of all great empires was epitomized through their architectural monuments. Jefferson's visionary search for this ideal led him to tour the south of France to study the ancient Roman ruins. Among these ruins, of particular interest to Jefferson, was the Maison Carree at Nimes, which he described as the "most beautiful and precious morsel of architecture left us by antiquity." [21] The Maison Carree at Nimes would influence his design for the state capital of Virginia. As a result, he never again saw architecture as a tool, which could solely be derived from books. Jefferson was also drawn to the appeal of the domestic houses. The French emphasized comfort, privacy, and Roman classicism. [22] One house in particular, which he greatly admired, was the Hotel de Salm in Paris. Jefferson said of this building, "I was violently smitten with the Hotel de Salm, and used to go to the Tuileries almost daily to look at it." He further stated, "all the new and good houses appear to be of a single story. That is of a height of 16 to 18 feet and the whole of it given to rooms of entertainment, but in the parts where there are bedrooms they have two tiers of them from 8 to 10 feet high each." [23] The Hotel de Salm was one of many buildings, which influenced his architectural ideas. The concept learned at the Hotel de Salm, however, would be translated in his remodeling of Monticello. In terms of Jefferson's architectural development, perhaps the most influential of all the buildings was the Hotel de Langeac. Jefferson leased this house and spent four of his five European years living there. Within the building he not only enjoyed the amenities of a new architecture, he lived it. Langeac taught him a number of architectural lessons, which he would incorporate into Monticello, among them the use of skylights to adequately illuminate interior windowless rooms and the realization that the skylights could be made weather tight. [24] Another architectural lesson learned in France was a result of a love affair in 1786. Maria Cosway was a married woman with whom the widower Jefferson was completely infatuated from the first moment they met. Undecided on how to convey his love for Maria, Jefferson decided to express his thoughts in a letter. The result is considered to be one of the most famous love letters ever written. Historians have termed it the "Heart and Heart" letter. [25] In it, Jefferson narrated a dialogue, which took place between his head and his heart. The heart expresses his admiration for Maria yet his head reprimands the heart and proceeds to lecture his heart on the superiority of intellectual over physical pleasure. The brilliance in this letter lies in Jefferson's creative interplay between the head and the heart without himself giving in to either reason or to love. Jefferson was quick to understand that a lasting relationship with Maria Cosway could never be. In his summation, Jefferson was being honest with himself. [26] One can clearly observe Jefferson's application of this dialogue of the head and the heart in his architecture. In subsequent designs, such as at Monticello, the University of Virginia, and Popular Forest, to name a few, he tested his theories and ideas through an exercise in dialogue between the rational requirements of a building and the sensory needs of the inhabitants. [27] Upon his return to Virginia, Jefferson was able to combine rational thought and heartfelt sensitivity into his architectural designs. He began by remodeling Monticello (1789-1809), continually experimenting and testing new ideas in his "architectural laboratory" for the rest of his life. In Monticello, he attained the delicate balance between the pragmatic and the aesthetic, a blending that he would incorporate into all his architecture. (Fig. 3). As a consequence of Jefferson's study of Roman architecture there was a reversal in his reverence towards Palladio. As previously stated, prior to 1784 Jefferson was a devoted follower. He would slavishly copy details and plans. During his years in France, however, Jefferson came to realize that the original inspiration for Palladio's ideas came from ancient Rome. Once Jefferson studied the same sources and discovered his mentor's fountainhead, Palladio's role shifted from mentor to that of fellow classicist. Henceforth, Palladio's and all of Jefferson's architectural books would serve as reference guides to be consulted — not copied. Paris was the culmination of Thomas Jefferson's education in architecture. His architectural ideas took on a new focus. His strict adherence to the allusion to ancient Rome and his knowledge of the classics placed him within a small circle of leaders of the neo-classical movement of the late 18th century. His European experiences provided the "spark" that transformed him from the mere gentleman architect of his early years into a vigorous leader of the neo-classical movement in America. The Thomas Jefferson who sailed home in 1789 was a true architect.


[1] April 13, 1743 (April 2, 1743 old style).
[2] Peter Jefferson was a noted surveyor, militia colonel, landholder and the Albemarle County Representative in Williamsburg. Peter Jefferson died in 1756. At that time Thomas Jefferson inherited the mountaintops of Monticello (Italian for "Little Mountain") and Montalto ("Big Mountain") along with the surrounding lands.
[3] Jefferson, Thomas, Thomas Jefferson Writings, with notes by Merrill D. Peterson. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1984. Autobiography, p. 4.
[4] Pierson, William H. Jr., American Buildings and Their Architects, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Vol. 1, pp. 297-298. Adams, William Howard, Jefferson's Monticello, New York: Abbeville Press, 1983. p. 22. and others.
[5] Adams, W.H., pp. 21-24.
[6] Jefferson, Autobiography, p. 4.
[7] Pierson, Vol. 1, p. 287.
[8] "Gentleman Architect," was a term used to describe enlightened individuals of the 18th century who had a general knowledge of the art, but did not possess the technical and professional capabilities of an architect.
[9] Jefferson, Autobiography, p. 5.
[10] Baron, Robert C. editor, Jefferson the Man In His Own Words, Colorado: Fulcrum/Starwood Publishing, 1993. Letter to John Adams June 10, 1815, p. 42.
[11] Pierson, p. 288.
[12] Jefferson, p. 738. Letter to John Page, May 25, 1766.
[13] Unlike the Declaration of Independence, for example, Notes on the State of Virginia, was the only work published during Jefferson's lifetime, which specifically cited him as the author. Notes was written in response to 24 "Queries" posed to Jefferson from Mister Marbois a visiting "foreigner of distinction" from France (TJ Autobiography p. 55) asking a description of Virginia. For the complete text refer to Thomas Jefferson Writings, pp. 123-326.
[14] Jefferson, Notes, pp. 278-279.
[15] Palladio, Andrea, Four Books of Architecture, Introduction by Adolf K. Placzek. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. reprint edition 1965. pp. 50-52, plates 35-37.
[16] It is not known where Jefferson learned this skill. Noted Jefferson biographer Merrill Peterson suggests that he was taught drafting by his father Peter Jefferson, who was noted for producing the first known accurate amp of Virginia (Thomas Jefferson Writings, p. 1534 and Museum text at Monticello). More than five hundred original drawings still exist. For a complete list with select illustrations see Nichols, Frederick, D. Thomas Jefferson's Architectural Drawings, 4th edition. Boston: the Massachusetts Historical Society and Charlottesville: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation and the University Press of Virginia, 1961.
[17] Pierson, pp. 291-292.
[18] Placzek, Adolf K. Macmillian Encyclopedia of Architects, New York: The Free Press, 1982. p. 491.
[19] Pierson, Vol. 1, p. 304.
[20] Adams, W. H., p. 30.
[21] Jefferson, p. 829, letter to James Madison, September 20, 1785.
[22] McLaughlin, Jack. Jefferson and Monticello the Biography of a Builder, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988. p. 211.
[23] Jefferson, p. 891, Letter to Madame de Tesse, March 20, 1787.
[24] McLaughlin, p. 213.
[25] For the complete text see Thomas Jefferson Writings, pp. 866-877.
[26] Modern psychologists have taught that the resolution of the head and heart conflict is to recognize that human personality must engage in the creative interplay of reason and sensitivity. (see Biography of a Builder, pp. 216-218).
[27] Though Thomas Jefferson discovered this thought pattern on his own, today's architects are taught to work out their ideas and designs through a series of preliminary sketches while continually maintaining a dialogue of rational and aesthetic questions pertaining to the design.