Jefferson’s Landscape Design

While there is still much to learn about the nature and location of specific features of the landscape, it is clear that Jefferson’s retreat design drew from elements of Roman and Palladian traditions. Like the Roman villa concept, 61-acre space Jefferson delineated as his retreat environment combined the ornamental with the functional. That space, which Jefferson called the “curtilage,” may have featured orchards, gardens and support buildings. Defined by Black’s Law Dictionary, curtilage means “…the enclosed area of land around a dwelling,[that] harbors the intimate activity associated with the sanctity of a man’s home and the privacies of life.” Beyond the curtilage fence lay the agricultural operation; within it lay Jefferson’s new, retreat space.

The octagonal house sat at the heart of that personal space. From it radiated the geometry of much of his landscape: the house sat within a circular drive, which was set within a 10-acre square space, which sat within the approximately rectangular 61-acre curtilage.

The most highly ornamental part of the design is believed to lie within the circle. To create the circle, Jefferson directed a road to be laid “540 yds round” and had it lined with paper mulberry trees.

At the center of the circle, Jefferson clearly expressed the Palladian concept of seamlessly integrating house and grounds– in the way that he interpreted Italian architect Andrea Palladio’s five-part architectural plan. Palladio’s architecture normally featured a central architectural mass, flanked by two wings, each ending in a pavilion. However, Jefferson substituted landscape elements for bricks-and-mortar: double rows of paper mulberry trees formed the “wings” and earthen mounds replaced the pavilions.

The wings and pavilions of Palladio’s Villa Barbaro (top) are made of bricks and mortar. At Poplar Forest (below) Jefferson used landscape elements instead.

In Europe, Jefferson had seen mounds placed away from the houses to serve as vantage points for surveying ornamental grounds. Here, Jefferson placed his mounds close to the house, planted them with circles of aspens and willows, and used them as a component of his symmetrical landscape.

The house, “wings” comprised of trees, and earthen mounds formed an east-west axis, separating the ornamental grounds within the circle into two distinct areas which Jefferson designed to reflect opposing sensibilities. At the front of the house, he created a landscape that appeared natural, even wild, like gardens he had seen in England. Behind the house, the landscape was rational and geometric. Inspired in part by contemporary landscape ideas and what he had seen during visits to French and English gardens, Jefferson incorporated tree “clumps,” oval shrub beds, and rows of trees into his planting scheme.

Through archaeology we are discovering the evidence needed to understand and restore the design and functioning of Jefferson’s elaborate landscape as well as the farm that was its setting and reality. As archaeological investigation continues, the full story of Jefferson’s retreat home will continue to be revealed