Thomas Jefferson and Architecture


Thomas Jefferson was a passionate student of architecture whose designs are among the most influential in the early history of the United States. As a student at the College of William and Mary he purchased his first book on the subject and later assembled one of the largest libraries on architecture in America. He was particularly influenced by the classical style of Andrea Palladio, who emphasized symmetry, proportion, and the use of columns. These principles then came to define the architecture of the early United States, first in Richmond, with Jefferson’s design of the State Capitol, and then in Washington, D.C., where he influenced decisions on the design of the U.S. Capitol and the White House. Jefferson is perhaps best known for his homes—Monticello, in Albemarle County, and Poplar Forest, in Bedford County—which became laboratories for Jefferson’s design interests and his many influences. Monticello, in particular, brought together Jefferson’s obsessions with classical forms and his admiration for contemporary France. During his retirement, Jefferson established the University of Virginia, creating a distinctive, U-shaped design of connected pavilions and a domed Rotunda circling a long, narrow green space. Along with Monticello, the university is considered to be one of the highlights of American architecture and cemented Jefferson’s legacy as a designer.

Training and Early Work

Andrea Palladio
Andrea Palladio
The Architecture of A. Palladio; in Four Books
The Architecture of A. Palladio; in Four Books
Architectural Drawing of Classical Columns
Architectural Drawing of Classical Columns
Architectural Drawings of a House
Architectural Drawings of a House

Jefferson’s interest in architecture began early in the 1760s, when as a student at the College of William and Mary he observed the architecture of Williamsburg (then the colonial capital of Virginia) and bought a book on the subject. Through his reading Jefferson learned about classical architecture and its rules, such as symmetry, proportion, balance, hierarchy, columns, and the use of the orders, or classical principles of design. He became infatuated with the distinctions between the orders and also the importance of accurate measurement. In his lifetime he assembled one of the largest architectural libraries in the English colonies and the young Republic (about forty titles), his favorite being Andrea Palladio’s Four Books on Architecture, first published in Italian in 1570. During his lifetime, Jefferson owned at least five copies of this work in various languages, including the first complete English edition, by Giacomo Leoni, published in 1715.

Architects were scarce in early America. One of the first, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who became a close associate of Jefferson, only arrived from England in 1796. The profession of architecture at this time was very closely associated with construction, and Jefferson learned though his books, travel, and construction. He became very knowledgeable about laying out buildings, making bricks, woodcutting, turning, furniture making, and stone carving.

Early Sketch of Monticello

Jefferson’s first project involved the construction of Monticello on a small hill adjacent to his boyhood home at Shadwell, in Albemarle County. Portions of the hill were leveled beginning in 1768 and a small brick house with one room on the main floor and a kitchen below was constructed in or about 1770. Jefferson and his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, lived there for a few years while the main house was built. Jefferson envisioned a Palladian-derived mansion with double porticos on two elevations and the support facilities—kitchen, housing for slaves, washing, etc.—located in submerged wings terminated by small brick houses. Also on the hilltop were a number of other buildings intended for enslaved African Americans. He spent considerable time designing garden structures, most of which were never built. Most of the main house and the east wing—what came to be known as Monticello I—were completed by 1782, when Jefferson’s wife died. At that point, he stopped construction.

Government Buildings

Maison Carrée

Between 1784 and 1789 Jefferson served as the American minister plenipotentiary to France, living in Paris and traveling extensively on the Continent and in England, where he pursued his architectural interests. While he was in Paris in 1785 the General Assembly asked him to provide designs for a new statehouse to be erected in Richmond; the capital had moved there from Williamsburg in 1779–1780, while Jefferson was governor.

Extant drawings indicate he had perhaps as early as 1775 envisioned a new statehouse modeled on a Roman temple. Jefferson consulted with the French architect Charles-Louis Clèrisseau, who had published extensively on Roman antiquities in France. They chose the Maison Carrée, in Nîmes, as the model, though the order was changed from Corinthian to the less-elaborate Ionic and the Richmond building was considerably larger. All the drawings are by Jefferson and he commissioned a plaster model, which was sent back to Richmond.

Jefferson described the importance of the source in a letter to Edmund Randolph, dated September 20, 1785: “How is a taste for a chaste and good style of building to be formed in our countrymen unless we seize all occasions which the erection of public buildings offers, of presenting to them models for their imitation?” In another letter, to James Buchanan and William Hay, dated January 26, 1786, he explained that he chose a “model already devised and approved by the general suffrage of the world.” The next year, when he finally visited Nîmes, and after the plans had been sent back to Richmond, on March 20, 1787, Jefferson began a letter to his friend Madame de Tessé: “Here I am, Madam, gazing whole hours at the Maison quarrée [sic], like a lover at his mistress.” Jefferson did not supervise the construction of the State Capitol and hence many elements, such as the raised basement and portions of the interior, do not follow his plans. The exterior did but has since been altered.

Virginia State Capitol

The State Capitol was the first major government building constructed in the United States after the American Revolution (1775–1783), and the fact that it was designed based on classical influences proved significant. Jefferson also played a central role in the architectural planning of Washington, D.C., and his designs helped establish a dominant classical form there. As secretary of state in George Washington‘s first administration (1790–1793), he supervised preparation for the relocation of the federal government to its new site on the Potomac River. Drawings by Jefferson show a plan for the new city with a central mall, a domed capitol building based on the Pantheon in Rome, and a president’s house based on Palladio’s Villa Rotunda, outside of Vicenza, Italy. Although the plans were not accepted, Jefferson supervised the eventual planning and laying out of Washington, D.C., by Peter L’Enfant, and later Andrew Ellicott. He also was involved in the complicated design competition for the U.S. Capitol (won by William Thornton) and the president’s house (won by James Hoban).

Benjamin Henry Latrobe

As president (1801–1809), Jefferson continued his involvement in Washington’s architecture, offering at times unsolicited advice to Latrobe, whom he appointed as the new architect of the U.S. Capitol in 1803 and commissioned to add the north and south porticos to the president’s house. Jefferson also made modifications of his own to the house, adding wings, designing a garden, and working on the interior.

Later in his life, Jefferson produced a number of designs for Virginia courthouses of which only one, the Charlotte County Courthouse, survives. A small building that overlooks the road, its large, temple-fronted portico is typically Jeffersonian and attests to his belief that governmental architecture ought to be based on the time-tested principles of classical architecture from the past.

Monticello II and Poplar Forest

Jefferson’s living space and its appearance were extremely important to him and he constantly remodeled his quarters, even those he did not own. In Philadelphia, Paris, and New York he paid to change the interiors, and in some cases the gardens, of houses he rented.

Jefferson renovated Monticello beginning in 1796, tearing down portions of the original house, enlarging the number of rooms from seven to twenty-three, and adding a dome. (This renovation has come to be known as Monticello II.) The interior featured a sequence of spaces leading from a museum-like front hall to the large, bow-fronted music room with a view of the garden and a mountain beyond. The west submerged wing, first projected in 1770, was finally built around 1807, and Jefferson redesigned his garden according to the English picturesque style he had observed during a tour of British gardens with John Adams in 1786. (Picturesque gardens imitated idealized images of nature, often based on paintings.) Some of the furniture at Monticello was made by Jefferson’s enslaved cabinet maker, John Hemmings, while other pieces and much of the art came from France. Although the house was largely finished by 1817, Jefferson continued to make alterations until his death.

Extant drawings indicate that Jefferson contemplated a retreat house for many years, but he did not finally embark on its construction until 1806. Located in Bedford County on a large plantation, what came to be known as Poplar Forest sat on land inherited by Jefferson’s wife. Its main house was octagonal in shape with a perfectly cubical room at the center for dining, both examples of Jefferson’s fascination with ideal geometrical forms. As at Monticello, skylights were present and the sequence of spaces again led to a room—a library in this case—with a view of gardens and nature beyond. Practicality ultimately overruled idealism, however, and a long service wing was added to the east side, ruining the symmetry.

Other Houses

Jefferson also provided house designs and advice to many friends and acquaintances in the Piedmont region of Virginia. The total number of designs remains unclear, but it could have been about fifteen. In some cases Jefferson provided drawings, as he did for Governor James Barbour‘s house at Barboursville, which was intended to be a Palladian-styled house with a dome, although the dome was never built. For his friend George Divers, who owned the Farmington plantation just outside of Charlottesville, Jefferson in 1802 designed a massive east wing with a giant Tuscan-columned portico, nine round windows, and a two-story interior space. An offspring of the house is the similarly named Farmington (1815–1816), in Farmington, Kentucky, built for the Speed family. (Lucy Speed, the wife of John Speed, was related to the Divers family of Charlottesville.)

Architectural Plans for Montpelier

For James Madison‘s house, Montpelier, located near Orange, Jefferson provided advice for several additions between 1797 and 1800, and 1809 and 1812, and even loaned out his workmen, James Dinsmore and John Neilson. Historians have disagreed about who completed the surviving drawings, although the consensus appears to lean toward Dinsmore rather than Neilson. For William Madison, James Madison’s younger brother, Jefferson apparently designed in 1793 a Palladian-styled house at nearby Woodbury Plantation. Jefferson also provided some advice for Madison’s brother-in-law and sister, Isaac and Nelly Madison Hite, in building Belle Grove (1794–1797) in Frederick County, but exactly what is unclear. Bremo (1817–1820), General John Hartwell Cocke‘s house in Fluvanna County, contains many Jeffersonian features and he certainly advised Cocke, who was a close associate. But the surviving drawings and other correspondence indicate that Neilson did the final design. The same may have been true of Edgemont (1796), near Monticello. While often attributed to Jefferson, it may have been designed by a workman.

University of Virginia

Pavilion No. VII W. Doric Palladio.
Pavilion No. VII W. Doric Palladio.
Lower Story of Dorick Pavilion
Lower Story of Dorick Pavilion
Library Section of the Rotunda
Library Section of the Rotunda
South Elevation of the Rotunda
South Elevation of the Rotunda

The design and construction of the University of Virginia occupied much of Jefferson’s life after the presidency and until his death in 1826. His concern with establishing a state-sponsored institution of higher education dated to 1779, when he first proposed that Virginia create a three-tiered public education system, including primary, secondary, and university levels. The General Assembly never passed such a bill, but Jefferson continued to promote the idea. He also regularly advised that schools ought not to rely—as did Jefferson’s alma mater, the College of William and Mary—on a single, large structure. He argued that it made them vulnerable to fire and sickness.

In 1814, Jefferson produced a plan for a secondary school, the Albemarle Academy, that consisted of a large, U-shaped field bordered by nine pavilions for the teachers and rooms for students in between. Under a new state charter in 1816, the academy was renamed Central College, and the next year land was purchased for the school about a mile outside of Charlottesville. Construction began the following year. Then in January 1819 the name was changed again, this time to the University of Virginia.

Virtual Tour of the Academical Village at the University of Virginia

Jefferson’s original plan underwent many modifications as he consulted with William Thornton, the first architect of the U.S. Capitol, and then Benjamin Henry Latrobe. The huge U-shaped field—what came to be known as the Lawn—shrank from 257 to 60 yards wide, while the number of pavilions for the professors increased to ten. Meanwhile, the Rotunda, a large building based on the Pantheon in Rome, dominated one end; the other remained open during Jefferson’s lifetime. His initial concept featured garden spaces ringing the entire composition, but in March 1819 he proposed that a road, another row of buildings, and gardens flank both sides of the Lawn’s colonnades to the west and east. A month later, he inverted this concept, putting the gardens in between the row of buildings—what came to be known as the Ranges—and the back of the colonnades. By July 1819, he had settled on what became its final form: serpentine walls enclosed the gardens in between the rear of the colonnades and each Range, providing a picturesque element to what was otherwise a very rigid and logical neoclassical plan.

One of the most unusual aspects of the university’s design was Jefferson’s insistence that the fronts of the professor’s pavilions be “no two alike,” as he wrote to William Thornton on May 9, 1817, “so as to serve as specimens for the Architectural lectures.” The consequence is a variety of column orders and fronts that run up and down the Lawn. Jefferson intended that it be planted with trees and grass; he even hoped to introduce a botanical garden off to the northwest but died before it could be created.



Thomas Jefferson helped establish an American architectural image based on Greek and Roman designs. He was not alone—certainly other designers, such as Charles Bulfinch, in Boston, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe assisted—but in many ways he was the most important. Monticello and the University of Virginia are celebrated internationally as highlights of American architecture. The State Capitol, in Richmond, was the first major public building built after the American Revolution and helped establish classicism as the governmental image.

Equally important was Jefferson’s legacy of training a skilled group of builders and architects who carried his influence through Virginia and elsewhere. Individuals such as Dinsmore, Neilson, and Thomas R. Blackburn continued after his death to design and build in the Piedmont area. The construction of the University of Virginia was accomplished by a large group of builders—more than 300 have been documented—who were, in a sense, trained under Jefferson. He worked closely with them and in some cases loaned them his books to copy. As a result, a large group of courthouses both in Virginia and elsewhere, along with houses and even several universities and colleges, all display his architectural influence.

Thomas Jefferson studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.
The hillcrest upon which Thomas Jefferson plans to build his plantation house is cleared and leveled.
Construction begins at Monticello.
ca. 1770
Thomas Jefferson constructs a small brick house with one room on the main floor and a kitchen below. He and his wife will live there while he works on building Monticello.
Thomas and Martha Jefferson and their young children, Martha and Jane Randolph, move into Monticello I.
June 1, 1779
The General Assembly elects Thomas Jefferson to succeed Patrick Henry as governor. His term begins the next day.
Thomas Jefferson completes work on the first version of Monticello.
August 1784—September 1789
Thomas Jefferson serves first as minister plenipotentiary to negotiate commercial treaties with foreign powers, and then as minister to France.
While in France, Thomas Jefferson designs and submits plans for a statehouse in Richmond based on the Maison Carrée, in Nîmes.
While serving as minister to France, Thomas Jefferson goes on a tour of nineteen English landscape gardens with John Adams, using Thomas Whately's Observations on Modern Gardening (1770) as a guidebook.
Construction begins on the renovation and enlargement of Monticello.
A dome, modeled after a drawing of the Temple of Vesta that appears in Andrea Palladio's Four Books on Architecture (1570), is constructed atop Monticello II.
President Thomas Jefferson appoints Benjamin Henry Latrobe the new architect of the U.S. Capitol.
Construction begins at Poplar Forest on the octagonal house and ornamental grounds.
By the time that Thomas Jefferson retires, the remodeling of Monticello is mostly finished. Construction of the dependencies under the North and South Terraces is also largely complete.
Thomas Jefferson makes his first drawings for a college. His design concept includes nine pavilions, each of which contains a professor's lodging and teaching quarters, connected by colonnades of single-celled student rooms.
May 5, 1817
Thomas Jefferson submits his plans for Central College (later chartered as the University of Virginia) to its board of visitors.
July 18, 1817
Thomas Jefferson assigns ten enslaved men to clear what had once been James Monroe's cornfield. This marks the beginning of construction of what will become the University of Virginia.
September 1826
Construction of the Rotunda, the final structure in Thomas Jefferson's design for the University of Virginia, is completed.
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APA Citation:
Wilson, Richard. Thomas Jefferson and Architecture. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/jefferson-thomas-and-architecture.
MLA Citation:
Wilson, Richard. "Thomas Jefferson and Architecture" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 22 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2024, April 04
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