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Jefferson's Monticello - Its History, Its Significance, And Why It Is On Our Nickel

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

A man of rugged individualism with an undying love for his country, Thomas Jefferson defined the very core of the American people, which can be seen in no better place than Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Virginia.  In Monticello, Jefferson’s use of Greek and Roman architectural precedent connected the United States with the greatness of these historic cultures.  Jefferson desired to define a “new American way of life,” which included a distinct American architecture, philosophy, and education.  He did this by designing in what he believed to be the highest form of architecture as seen in his home.  Built before the United States was yet a nation, Thomas Jefferson designed the Monticello to define a new, yet historically grounded, American way of life.

The Formation of Jefferson as an Architect           

As a young boy, Jefferson grew up on his father’s estate named Shadwell, which was located in the British colony of Virginia.  When he was only fourteen years old, Jefferson’s father died, leaving his estate and family under the supervision of this future president.  In the next few years, Jefferson would design and build a palatial estate located on the crest of one of Jefferson’s favorite hills on his father’s land. 

Before having any thoughts of designing his home in Virginia, Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary from 1760 to 1767 and studied to become a lawyer[3223].  Although he did not specifically study architecture, his training in law also gave him the perfect skills to become an architect as he was well versed in law, order, and logic—all elements necessary for a good architect.  While in college, Jefferson’s love of reading drew him to the many architecture books located in the library at his college.  Thus, Jefferson’s interest was piqued with architecture, but it would be a few more years before his dreams of designing buildings would come to fruition. 

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Architecture In the Early Americas and Jefferson’s Response

During Jefferson’s college years, American colonial architecture was left to craftsmen and those in the building trade. The profession of architecture was not yet imported to the colonies.  Buildings of the day often had rectangular plans and were very modest.  Many of these structures were built in a Georgian style that Jefferson abhorred because of its English roots[3222].  In his architectural designs, Jefferson took a much different approach to the popular architecture of the day.  In his earliest drawings of Monticello, it was clearly evident that Jefferson owed his precedent to the works of Palladio.  Many of his proportions were originally derived from a book named “Rules for Drawing the Orders,” but the influence of this work lessened as Jefferson made more advanced drawings of his future home[3223].  In 1770, Jefferson finally moved into the South Pavilion of the Monticello, and over the next forty years of his life, his home would undergo many changes to perfect the image Jefferson had in his mind.  Every design decision he made was deliberate and full of meaning.  Certain elements of the Monticello were added and subtracted, but at the heart, its meaning stayed the same. 

On the Nickel, but Why?

So, Jefferson’s Monticello still stands today.  After the president’s death, his former home gradually deteriorated but has since undergone restoration to its original state.  Now the Monticello stands as an icon of American architecture.  This seemingly simple building has been placed on the back of our five-cent piece, but why has it been placed there?  What exactly is it that makes the Monticello so special.  The answer lies in the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson—his vision, hopes, and dreams for the United States of America were hidden among the bricks of Monticello.  It connects America with the past but also portrays Thomas Jefferson’s hope for the future.

Construction of the Monticello and Its Style

The first brick was laid on the Virginia hilltop in 1769 after Jefferson tirelessly worked out the plans for his home.  While Jefferson’s freehand drawings were of poor quality, his mechanical drawings show the amount of meticulous detail he put into his home.  The resulting design was one highly influenced by the Italian villas of 16th century architect Andrea Palladio.  Jefferson took the Palladian five-part organization system and turned it backwards to open the building up to expansive mountain views[3225].  Throughout the interior and exterior of the home, Jefferson used many different Roman orders of design including Ionic features in his bedroom and Tuscan columns for the exterior.  Over the next forty years of Jefferson’s life, he would change the Monticello as he saw fit.  The dome, so prominently seen today, was added after Jefferson had stayed in Paris for an extended period of time[3227].  Finally, in 1808, Jefferson must have been pleased with his home and ceased from dramatically changing the building further.

Thomas Jefferson Monticello

Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

The Meaning of Jefferson’s Use of Greek and Roman Architecture

The classical influences within the design of the Monticello are frequent and obvious.  Thomas Jefferson did not just enjoy the architecture of the ancient Greeks and Romans because it was beautiful.  He loved their buildings because of what these cultures stood for.    The concept of democracy originated around 500 BC in ancient Greece.  Every male citizen under the power of the Greeks had a say in their government.  Ancient Greek civilization believed that every man was free as long as they abided within the laws set out by the government.  Years after the onset of Greek democracy, the Romans began to develop a related government of their own.  The forms of democracy seen in these ancient Greek and Roman cultures are much different from the democracy that Jefferson helped develop in the United States, but one aspect of these governments remained constant throughout[3224].  In each of these ancient cultures, the concept of freedom resonated with these people.  Nearly two-thousand years later, Thomas Jefferson desired the same thing for his fellow countrymen—freedom. 

For hundreds of years, ancient Greece and Rome thrived partly on account of their democratic ideals.  As a citizen of a country in formation, it was Jefferson’s wish that the citizens of the United States of America would live in freedom.  Thus, Jefferson employed the architecture of antiquity into his hilltop home, Monticello.  The house features many different Greek and Roman architectural elements including arcades, columns of various orders, and a Pantheon-like dome as the Monticello’s central feature. 

In addition to the Monticello, Jefferson also designed the Virginia State Capitol Building, the University of Virginia, and a retreat home for himself called Poplar Forrest.  Each of these structures was based upon ancient Greek and Roman precedent in much the same way as Monticello.  The Virginia State Capitol was modeled after the Maision Carree in Nimes, France, once again connecting the ancient Roman government with the modern democracy of the United States[3225].  At the time of the capitol’s construction, the United States was an entity free from the government of England.  This contrasts with the Monticello, which was constructed approximately six years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Despite this, the Monticello is by no means less of a symbol of Jefferson’s vision for America.  Much to the contrary, as the Monticello was under constant revision, Jefferson had the opportunity to in fact make his home more connected to the ancient Greeks and Romans. 

The Evolution of the Monticello

Original plans of the Monticello included a two-story portico highly influenced by Palladio’s Villa Rotunda.  However, after living in France for a several years, Jefferson was highly impressed by the contemporary and historic architecture around him.  Specifically, Jefferson was “violently smitten” with the Parisian Hotel de Salm and was compelled to tear down the two-story portico, replacing it with the dome existing today[3227].  He reduced the entry portico to one-story and was able to harmoniously add the Pantheon-like dome.  Jefferson added many modern touches to his home, but at its heart, the Monticello remains a building rooted in the past.  It is the building where Jefferson would live out the best of his days.  Jefferson wrote in a letter that "I am as happy nowhere else and in no other society, and all my wishes end, where I hope my days will end, at Monticello”[3226].  Jefferson did not care to live in any other place.  It was his home, looking toward the future but wholly rooted in the past, where Jefferson would be laid to rest.

While living his days out in the Monticello, Jefferson had an opportunity to design an institution of higher learning to be constructed just a few miles of his home.  In much the same way he did with Monticello, Jefferson connected the University of Virginia to the ancient Greek and Roman cultures.  He called the university an “academical village” in which students would be surrounded by the highest forms of architecture[3225].  This concept of surrounding his countrymen with superior architecture did not start with his design of the University of Virginia.  Rather, it began with the construction of the Monticello. 

Jefferson’s Vision of Architecture in the Americas

  Even as Jefferson began developing a penchant for the study of architecture, he had a disdain for the Georgian architecture so often seen in and previous to the 1760s.  Instead, he desired to develop an architecture that was truly American, one which would expose his fellow countrymen to superior architecture of the past.  He believed that “Architecture is worth great attention… as we double our numbers every twenty years, we must double our houses.  It is, then, among the most important arts; and it is desirable to introduce taste into an art which shows so much”[3220].  At that time the American colonies were undergoing a rapid population growth, and Jefferson was concerned that people would develop an inferior type of architecture to live in.  Certainly if architecture was “among the most important arts,” it had the ability to influence those who lived in carefully designed buildings. 

Before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, those living in the colonies had a reputation of being uncivilized.  These “frontiersmen” were of low class when compared to the wealth of those in Paris.  Indeed, the North American continent was largely undeveloped, and Jefferson saw this as an opportunity essentially civilize the American people.  In a letter to James Madison, Jefferson wrote, “I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts.  But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile to them the respect of the world, and to procure them its praise”[3227].  And so Jefferson began with the Monticello.  It was his first attempt to expand America’s knowledge through the vehicle of architecture. 

The Greek and Roman influences displayed in Monticello were of a “high class.”  Not only did it connect America with history, but it also connected the American people to the high social standing of these ancient citizens.  This would bring respect from the world community and would help to lessen the American image of being uncivilized.  For Jefferson, the Monticello was a step in refining his fellow countrymen.  Jefferson’s initial designs had a tremendous effect on the course of American architecture.   His love of the architecture of antiquity would permeate the halls of government and homes of the citizenry in the centuries to come.  Jefferson’s home was indeed a symbol of his vision for the American way of life, one in which all were free but were rooted to the ground around them. 

Sitting alone on its Virginia mountaintop, Monticello was one of the first mansions of its kind.  Instead of resting near a river, Jefferson chose to build his home overlooking the great rolling mountains of the Virginia countryside. His home was rooted in the land, and this is what he desired of the American people.  The United States was largely undeveloped; it was rugged and free.  With this much space, Jefferson’s believed all Americans could live on small farms and survive off of the land. 

Monticello, America, and the Nickel

Jefferson’s Monticello still exists as a symbol of America’s uniqueness and special destiny.  Certainly the Monticello was pertinent to Jefferson’s contemporaries by connecting the United States with the greatest civilizations in history.  It served to heighten citizen’s tastes in the arts and laid out a desirable American ideal.  This may have been important hundreds of years ago, but that does not seem reason enough to place this structure on the back of our nickel.  In actuality, its placement is justified because its meaning is just as pertinent today as it was in Jefferson’s time.  The Monticello today is still a symbol of the rugged individualism and freedom of every American citizen.  This is a freedom which stretches as far as the Virginia landscape surrounding the Monticello.  Jefferson’s home surely connects us with the greatest civilizations of history but also connects us with our rich heritage.  Perhaps most importantly though, the Monticello boldly looks forward.  It was initially built with great hope for the future, and now, this one building still seems to be looking at the rising sun—still looking forward to the greatness that America can accomplish.  The Monticello is an unprecedented icon of American architecture because it simultaneously reaches into the past, touches the present, and hopes for the future.



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