Jefferson Home Reflects His Ideals

Monticello Jefferson AP

It is said the American home is the ultimate expression of self. Thomas Jefferson set that standard 200 years ago with the home he designed and built himself, Monticello.

"It really gives us a picture of how Jefferson wanted himself to be understood and how he understood himself," says architectural historian and author Dell Upton.

That picture, according to Upton, developed over the course of Jefferson's life, as this self-taught architect tinkered with his home, expanding and remodeling it to fit his republican image and aristocratic needs.

"This is a very big household," Upton explains. "This is a house that besides himself, has his slaves. It has various members of his family at various times, all living in this house. And yet the main floor of the house is him. The entry hall is himself as teacher - teaching you about natural history, teaching you about anthropology."

Another thing learned from the architecture of this home, is something that in its time made it uniquely American - its incorporation of slavery. Jefferson took great pains to design this house to make sure its focus was on him and that those serving him were hidden behind doors and underground passages.

"If you go into the dining room, you have him and, apparently, his guests in the dining room. But you have people below sending up wine, and the dumbwaiter," Upton notes. "People standing in the hall, putting things on the lazy Susan door, and spinning it around so that other people's work that is necessary is all masked."

The same principle was applied to the landscape around Monticello. Jefferson terraced the mountaintop so that his view from the house would include nature's beauty and hide the working areas of the plantation below. But more importantly, he believed building his home on the elevated and isolated site would contribute to the image he wanted to project.

"Look at this man being solitary. Look at this man immersing himself in learning. Look at this man improving himself. It is a metaphor for republican citizenship. That is the independent man, on his independent property educating himself," says Upton.

For Jefferson, the key to making the young American republic a success was the education of its citizens. So he founded and designed one of the nation's most notable centers of learning. From his perch at Monticello, he watched the construction of his other great architectural achievement, the University of Virginia.

"One of the greatest lessons about UVA is that architecture frames an idea," says Karen Van Langen, the school's Dean of Architecture.

According to Van Langen, that idea is the Jeffersonian concept of blending independence and unity, as embodied in our Constitution.

The architectural focal point of the university is a classically designed structure, the Rotunda, which was used as the main library. But it's the public lawn that represents the centerpiece of what Jefferson called the "Academical village."

"It is the great gathering space that is framed by a colonnade, which both separates and unites the lawn space, the collective space from the more private spaces on the edge. And those private spaces are made up of five pavilions interspersed with student rooms. And each of those pavilions has a very different expression in terms of architecture," Van Langen explains.

The pavilions originally housed classrooms on the lower floors and faculty residences on the top floors. Today they are faculty homes and dean Van Langen invited Sunday Morning to hers.

"This Pavilion is thought to be one of the most beautiful on the UVA lawn," she said. "It has a very unusual feature which is the exedra that allows the sun to come in from above but it is still covered. If you look at the hallway, what's wonderful about the organization of the natural space is that it unites the back garden, which is the private garden, with the public garden in front. So when the doors are open you feel like you are in this garden space."

Touches like these are also seen at Monticello and are the hallmark of Jefferson's domestic architecture: the integration of the house with nature, now so much a part of the modern American home. So the next time you look out that bay window or sliding glass door, enjoy the view and thank the Architect of America, Thomas Jefferson.

(Original Episode Airdate: May 18, 2003)
  • Austin Burke

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