Architecture at Poplar Forest
Poplar Forest is considered Jefferson’s most mature architectural masterpiece. At Poplar Forest, elements from ancient, Renaissance Palladian and 18th century French architecture, as well as British and Virginian design, fuse into a harmonious whole. The 16th century architect, Andrea Palladio, greatly influenced Jefferson’s plan for the revival of ancient Roman architecture and integration of landscape design into the architectural design.
The design of the house at Poplar Forest is highly idealistic in its elegant geometry. Its exterior walls form a perfect, equal-sided octagon. Inside, the space is divided into four elongated octagons surrounding a central square. The simplicity of the floor plan displays Jefferson’s attraction to the precision of mathematics.
The central space is a perfect cube, measuring twenty feet in all directions. With no exterior walls, it is lit from above: a sixteen-foot skylight streaks the room with exquisite light. This room also supplies an architectural surprise: a soaring two-story space in what appears, from the front, to be a single-story house. Perhaps most important, the entire Poplar Forest retreat, house and landscape, radiates out from this elegant central space.
In classical architecture, a building’s proportions or room’s “order” determines the proportions and appearance of its columns, capitals, entablature, and decorative trim.
For the exterior of the house at Poplar Forest, the two octagonal privies, and the bedchambers inside the house, Jefferson used the Tuscan order. Tuscan columns and capitals are plain. The simplicity is meant to convey a sense of naturalness and integrity.
Adhering to the proper hierarchy, following the use of the Tuscan Order in the passage, Jefferson used the Doric order in the central room—a more ornate decoration. For the room’s entablature he commissioned a sculptor to replicate an ancient frieze from the Roman Baths of Diocletian. This source used the face of Apollo, the sun god, alternating with triglyphs, a “grill of three vertical bars common to Doric friezes.
Jefferson broke the rules of neoclassical architecture, by adding a third element, ox skulls, to the design. He explained to the confused sculptor, “You are right…those of the Baths of Diocletian are all human faces….But in my middle room at Poplar Forest I mean to mix the faces and ox-skulls.” In this private building, he felt he could follow his “fancy,” which, he wrote, “I can indulge in my own case, although in a public work I feel bound to follow authority strictly.”
For the parlor, Jefferson used the even more elegant Ionic order, commissioning his sculptor to replicate the entablature of the Roman temple of Fortuna Virilis. The delicate frieze consisted of small putti, or cherubs, alternating with ox skulls, connected by swags of foliage.
Among Jefferson’s earliest architectural sketches, made when he was in his twenties, is a plan for a freestanding octagonal chapel. He based his design on Andrea Palladio’s round Temple of Vesta, transforming it into an octagonal from using a prototype from an 18th century British book. This represents an early example of Jefferson’s lifelong tendency to create something original from two or more prototypes.
The geometry of octagons appealed to Jefferson’s mathematical mind. There was a practical reason too: octagonal rooms, studded with large windows, create light-filled interior spaces. The residence at Poplar Forest was Jefferson’s ultimate octagon: the only fully octagonal building he ever constructed and one of the first octagonal homes in America.
Jefferson adopted many aspects of the house’s interior design from buildings he had seen in France. He especially liked the light-filled interiors there, and both the skylight in the dining room and the floor-to-ceiling windows in the parlor are French touches. Jefferson filled the south wall with triple-sash windows: when the bottom two portions are raised the window opening serves as a doorway to the porch. Jefferson often read in this south-facing room, which would have been flooded with light.
In each of the large bedchambers, Jefferson’s workmen installed “alcove beds,” which Jefferson felt saved space. An indoor privy—or toilet—was tucked away beneath the stairwell next to Jefferson’s bedchamber, an unusual convenience for the time.
One important aspect of the exterior was also influenced by French architecture. Jefferson had observed that “all of the new and good houses” in Paris were of a single story. He designed the house Poplar Forest to be built into the crown of a hill, so that his two-story house would appear to be a single store from the front.
For all his love of geometry and classicism, Jefferson yielded to practical concerns at Poplar Forest. In 1806, after construction of the house had just begun, he added two porches, two stair pavilions, and six doorways. Although they compromised his perfect octagon, it is easy to understand why Jefferson made these changes.
The front (north) porch—called a portico in the vocabulary of classical architecture—protected the entrance during bad weather and gave the house a neoclassical look. The rear (south) portico provided an ideal spot to view the lawn and countryside beyond.
Jefferson disliked staircases because he believed they wasted space. Without them, however, anyone walking between the upper and lower floors would have had to go outside. Even with the addition of internal stairs, anyone moving from the lower level to the main floor would have entered one of the bedchambers, underscoring the informality of Jefferson’s retreat.