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Jefferson the Architect

ISSUE:  Winter 1932

Thomas Jefferson, Architect and Builder. By I. T. Frary. With an Introduction, by Fiske Kimball. Richmond: Garrett and Massie. $7.50.

First impressions and final conclusions are the strategic points of contact between writer and reader. Mr. Frary is happy in the one case and cogent in the other. A volume containing almost one hundred plates, printed from fine-screened copper engravings, of buildings designed or influenced by Thomas Jefferson is surely sufficient stimulus to arouse interest, introduced as it is with a word of approval by Fiske Kimball, the authority, on Jefferson’s activities as architect. And the last sentence of the book, repeating Jefferson’s own statement of his point of view in this matter, “Architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements,” leaves the reader with the assurance that the author is essentially sound in his attitude toward his subject.

Between first impression and final conclusion, however, several reflections worthy of note are likely to be made. On the one hand, there are the photographs themselves. Most of them, we may suppose, were taken by the author, though he speaks of his indebtedness to Mr. Waller Holladay for some which he has used to fill gaps. They are divided into three groups, each group being preceded by ten pages or so of text. Reproductions of significant plans and prototypes are also included. Once or twice the order of the photographs does not follow the order of the comment in the text, causing unnecessary confusion, especially as there are no references from text to plate and the legends under the photographs bear such a skittish relationship to the text that they require later comment. But by and large the photographs are highly, satisfactory. Whether the plate shows a detail or a facade or a wide composition of light and color and form, the restrained beauty of the Federal architecture of Virginia is once more made apparent. Not only is this section of the book adequate, but it provides a valuable complement to Fiske Kimball’s privately printed study, “Thomas Jefferson, Architect,” where room was found only for the reproduction of manuscript designs.

When the reader turns, on the other hand, to the pages of text, his attitude is likely to become more critical. The first section centers around Monticello, and here as elsewhere the writer attempts little more than a summary of the conclusions already reached by Kimball and others, But now and then a point of view creeps in which can only be called romantic, or the conflicting statements of others are reconciled on the basis of immediate interest rather than of the lowest common denominator, and all is not well. For instance, there seems no reason any longer to doubt that Palladio was Jefferson’s chief preceptor and guide in his study of classical forms, that Jefferson was essentially a traditionalist, that he adopted a legal, mathematical attitude toward his architectural problems, that he was highly ingenious in his adaptations, and that in a sense he created the Roman phase of Federal architecture—in Palladian form, but with a texture of brick and wood, and a color scheme of red and white set in green. He may also be credited with the skill to train craftsmen, with the eager enthusiasm of the amateur to experiment with materials, and so on. But if an author goes beyond such limits as these, he imperils his own sobriety, as a critic, the reader’s ability to follow, and the best interests of Jefferson’s reputation as gentleman architect. For there are other influences to be considered beside Palladian. Professor Gilbert Chinard’s studies of Jefferson in relation to French art suggest one of them. In fact, Mr. Frary himself stresses the Hotel de Salm in Paris as a companion inspiration to the Tivoli temple (known to Jefferson through Palladio) for the design of Monticello. And there is English influence. Despite Jefferson’s failure to appreciate the beauty of the colonial campus at Williamsburg (a blind spot which makes it difficult to credit him with more than an amateur’s status), he later followed Inigo Jones in his designs for Poplar Forest. The reader will also recall Clerisseau’s collaboration on the Capitol at Richmond, and the help of the English trained architect, Latrobe, at the University of Virginia. In other words, for an author to make Jefferson a creator of a style, or even the leader of a revival is to overplay his hand. Italian, French, and English influences are all present to too great a degree.

And while we are at Monticello, let us consider Jefferson’s ability as a practical designer, basing our conclusions on the house as it was rebuilt over a long period of years. Mr. Frary will be our unwitting guide. Three stories, he points out, were made to look like one, the stairways were tucked away in corners and were too narrow for convenience, the second-story library of the earlier building was sacrificed to “awkward, inconvenient rooms adjacent to his bed-rooms,” and the upper windows came too near the floor. A hall, two piazzas, and additional bed rooms were gained, it is true; but the reader will conclude the exchange was hardly a fair one, or a clear proof of Jefferson’s genius as a practical architect.

Finally, when one reads about and sees photographs of the numerous ingenious devices at Monticello, the compass, and clock, and cannon-ball calendar, and three-sashed windows, one is persuaded once more that Jefferson was an amateur of talent (and let us recall that he thought of himself in such terms), and not a creative genius. In fact, this very, ingenuity controls many of the characteristic features of his later designs: making the front and back of a house fundamentally different (Barboursville), creating a moat or a terrace to provide differences of level where there was none (Barboursville and Poplar Forest), using circular windows to disguise second stories, and so on. Clearly, Jefferson fares better in the hands of his critics than of his friends.

The text of the last two sections of the book, which discuss primarily the University of Virginia and the residences, may be considered more briefly. The former section opens with the statement that Jefferson was revolutionary in his architecture, as he was in his politics. The reader will venture to question such an absurd statement, and Mr. Frary himself quickly qualifies it. But it is several pages before this welcome statement is made: “These men (i. e., Latrobe and others) were elevating into a profession the practice of architecture with which Jefferson had struggled as an amateur.” The Villa Rotunda at Vicenza, the Maison Carree at Nimes, the pavilions and Lawns and Ranges at the University of Virginia, the consultations with Latrobe and Thornton-all mark an interesting chapter in the story of the adolescence of American architecture. Incidentally, Pavilion VII is said to be Palladian in the text, but is left unclassified in the legend under the photograph. It is also worthy of note, perhaps, that the author cannot resist the temptation to mention Poe and Burr in his annotations.

The only comment which need be made here on the last section has to do with the previously mentioned lack of correlation between text and plates. Redlands is the first example. The text says that on internal evidence the building is Jeffersonian, and gives reasons for so thinking. The legend says, “No documents exist to prove the plan was Jefferson’s, but evidence points to him,” without indicating the intangible nature of the evidence. Again at Estoute-ville, the text says that it shows Jefferson’s influence, and was “erected about 1830.” . . . “One writer states that it was begun in 1815.” The legend reads “. . . was begun about 1815.” The reader will recall that Jefferson died in 1826. Again at Frascati, the corners are trimmed; while less aptly but more accurately at Ash Lawn, where only some preliminary correspondence connects Jefferson’s name with the house, the illustration is limited to the box hedges! And finally at Morven a mantel is reported in the text to have been ordered from Paris by Jefferson, according to local tradition. The legend omits the warrant and merely states a fact. Needless to say, the publicity of the publishers accepts all the mansions as Jeffersonian. But, great enjoyment awaits the reader who values charm and ingenuity in architecture, as he browses through Mr. Frary’s rich album of photographs.


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