Thomas Jefferson was America’s first great native-born architect. Though classicism was his foundation, his distinctly American buildings incorporate a “melting pot” of design ideas.
Building a Harmonious Whole
There were no architecture schools in colonial Virginia, so Jefferson learned architecture from books. His “bible” was Andrea Palladio’s The Four Books of Architecture, which taught him the rules of classical design. Jefferson also looked to his contemporary world for ideas.
As a young man, Jefferson abhorred the architecture of Virginia and set himself the task of upgrading it. Poplar Forest, the Virginia State Capitol, his home at Monticello and the University of Virginia are considered to be his masterpieces. He also influenced the planning of Washington, D.C. Jefferson owned several plantations but built elaborate houses for his personal use at only two of them—Monticello and Poplar Forest. In 1806, Jefferson began the construction of his octagonal brick house at Poplar Forest—the centerpiece of an intricate villa design.
By the time Jefferson constructed his retreat at Poplar Forest, he was in his sixties. He had one final opportunity to synthesize all that he had learned, and no one to please but himself. The house is highly idealistic in concept with only a few concessions to practicality, and it is so perfectly suited to Jefferson alone that later owners found it difficult to inhabit. 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.
Poplar Forest was the embodiment of a classical idea: the Roman villa retreat. Since antiquity, the villa has remained remarkably consistent in form and purpose: a home in the country designed for pleasure and repose, a place where owner and guests can forget the cares of the everyday world.
Jefferson’s Poplar Forest is a quintessential villa, perhaps the first in America.
At Poplar Forest, Jefferson also utilized many of the architectural ideas he had collected throughout his years of study and his travels abroad. He incorporated many French design ideas and conveniences he had observed in Paris, such as floor-to-ceiling windows, alcove beds, a skylight, and an indoor privy.
Writing in 1812, Jefferson revealed his pleasure in the quality of the design of his retreat:
When finished, it will be the best dwelling house in the state, except that of Monticello; perhaps preferable to that, as more proportioned to the faculties of a private citizen.