• U.S.

Thomas Jefferson: His Essay In Architecture: Mirror Of The Man

3 minute read
TIME

He placed his mind, like his house, on a lofty height, whence he might contemplate the whole universe,” an admiring French aristocrat wrote of Thomas Jefferson. Today, Monticello is a restored testament to Jefferson’s exacting vision. But in 1768 that lofty height outside Charlottesville, Va., was a wildly impractical place for a compulsively practical man to start building a home. After a lifetime of “putting up and pulling down,” as he called it, Jefferson completed his personal universe, but he died still enslaving dozens who had built it for him.

Innovative

Jefferson was captivated by the view from his mountain and didn’t want it cluttered with outbuildings. His elegant solution was to use the slope of the hilltop to conceal the structures- kitchen, smokehouse, stables, icehouse, brewery, laundry-in a pair of wings extending from each side of the main house. From above, these dependencies form wide, L-shaped terraces. From below, the rooms open to the hillside and connect to the house by a covered passage that continues under the main house

Adaptive

Jefferson’s first design for Monticello was a reflection of the classical Italian architecture he had studied in books. When he began building the second, larger house, he incorporated contemporary ideas he had seen in France, such as skylights to illuminate interior spaces

Two features in particular-the dome and the tall east windows-are a nod to the Hôtel de Salm, a house Jefferson admired in Paris

Efficient

Jefferson designed even the smallest details of Monticello “with a greater eye to convenience”

The weather vane atop the east portico has an indicator that can be read from any of the front windows

The clock in the entrance hall also marks the days of the week along the wall

A dumbwaiter connects the dining room to the wine cellar directly below

Puzzling

The first floor has grand rooms but no grand staircase. Jefferson saw such things as a waste of space, so he tucked very narrow, steep staircases at each end of the central hall. Fine for him: he lived on the first floor. But women wearing long dresses or carrying a baby or a tray faced a dangerous climb

The octagonal room under the dome is perhaps the house’s most striking space. But what was it for? Not much, apparently. It briefly served as a bedroom for Jefferson’s grandson but most often was just storage space. One problem: those treacherous stairs make it hard to get large pieces of furniture up there

Personal

Jefferson devoted nearly a third of the main level to his private apartment. He rarely admitted visitors to this area, as it was perfectly tailored to his pursuits: a study where he maintained voluminous correspondence (even using a machine called a polygraph to copy letters as he wrote them); a collection of scientific instruments for studying the weather and the stars; a greenhouse for cultivating new plants; and, most important, space for his vast library

JEFFERSON STARTED BUILDING MONTICELLO WHEN HE WAS 25… …HE ADDED THE FINAL TOUCHES WHEN HE WAS 80 YEARS OLD Sources: Thomas Jefferson Foundation monticello.org) The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, by Susan R. Stein; Monticello in Measured Drawings, commentary by William L. Beiswanger; Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello; Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder, by Jack McLaughlin

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com