Architecture Planning and Preservation Thomas Jefferson and Architecture
Louis Nelson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0091


Thomas Jefferson (b. 1743–d. 1826), the author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States, is widely recognized as one of the founding voices of American democracy. He was also a celebrated Enlightenment thinker reading in and even contributing to bourgeoning fields of inquiry, including botany and other natural sciences, agricultural improvement, archaeology, political economies, modern languages, and many others he deemed “useful.” Often characterized as the first American architect, he was deeply engaged in the project of architecture both as a private interest and as a public necessity; a well-educated citizenry, he believed, was one conversant in the fundamentals of the arts, most especially in architecture. Jefferson’s commitment to race hierarchies meant that such a citizenry excluded people of color. His most important public designs were those for the nascent democracy in his home state of Virginia—the capitol building in Richmond and the University of Virginia—but his contributions to architecture and planning of the federal city of Washington, DC, are also important. Monticello, the residence on his home plantation, and Poplar Forest, his retreat villa also on a plantation, each consumed much of the remainder of his architectural energies, besides consulting with peers on the designs of their own houses. Although he had no formal education in architecture, he was very familiar with those books—most especially Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture, but others as well—that offered training in the fundamentals of the classical tradition. The substantial collection of Jefferson’s drawings betrays his dependence on accepted antique and modern models and adhering to established principles of order and proportion in the creation of new forms. He declared disinterest in aesthetic theory and his highest priority in his architectural design was to offer rightly proportioned and detailed models for an American audience he found lacking in taste. To that end, Jefferson played a critical role in laying the foundations of architecture as a discipline in the new nation. He corresponded with all the most important architects working in the new United States: Pierre Charles L’Enfant, Benjamin Latrobe, and William Thornton, among others. His influence also extended to many younger designers and builders; Jefferson mentored Robert Mills, often recognized as the first American-born professional architect, and he also played a key role in training William Blackburn and other prolific builders in early-19th-century Virginia. The bulk of his architectural drawings can be found in the collections of the University of Virginia and the Massachusetts Historical Society.

General Overviews

The majority of the first generation of scholarship on Jefferson’s architecture undertook to define the scope of his work and to argue that he be taken seriously as an architect. An essay in the inaugural volume on Jefferson’s architecture, Lambeth and Manning 1913 works hard to give Jefferson credit for the majority of his key projects. But Lambeth and Manning 1913 also gives Jefferson credit for some projects in which he simply served as an advisor to his peers on their own building projects. This early volume is significant because it includes an essay by Manning that rightly notes Jefferson’s keen interest in landscapes alongside buildings. Published soon thereafter, Kimball 1968 (originally published in 1916) undertakes to critically analyze an important collection of Jefferson’s surviving drawings, opening a subfield of study that would command the attention of a number of later Jefferson scholars. Kimball’s important research uses the drawings to note Jefferson’s working practice and to begin to differentiate Jefferson’s drawings from those of the builders who worked alongside him. Frary 1931 largely echoes the earlier scholarship but does include an important collection of photographs of the surviving buildings. Nichols 1961 (cited under Architectural Drawings) picks up from Kimball’s work, expanding the early analysis to include drawings not included in the earlier study. William O’Neal, whose work would generally focus on Jefferson’s art collections, produced an important bibliography, O’Neal 1969, which is included here largely for its comprehensive scope. Adams 1976a and Adams 1976b, both published during the nation’s bicentennial, capitalized on the wave of national patriotism and the Jefferson fever of its own moment to significantly elevate the depth of research on Jefferson and the arts, including research on architecture. The Worlds of Jefferson catalogue (Stein 1993) marked the second major exhibition on Jefferson’s material worlds, this time focusing exclusively on objects from Monticello. Reflecting the current interpretive methods of its moment, the volume seeks to complicate Jefferson by seeing him, through multiple simultaneous frames. Giordano 2012 is the only work to date that attempts to survey the whole body of Jefferson’s work. DeWitt and Piper 2019 is the first to focus exclusively on Jefferson’s architecture and is the first major catalogue to take seriously Jefferson’s engagement with slavery and racism, even if those essays are relegated to the back of the volume.

  • Adams, William Howard. The Eye of Thomas Jefferson. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1976a.

    One of two foundational volumes that would create a new scholarly standard for scholarship on Jefferson and the arts. This served as the catalogue for an enormous bicentennial exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. The essays in this catalogue, most by Adams, situate Jefferson’s artistic interests in both American and European contexts. Other essays focus specifically on architecture, including important essays on architecture in the late eighteenth century and on Jefferson’s role in the competition for the President’s House in Washington, DC.

  • Adams, William Howard. Jefferson and the Arts: An Extended View. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1976b.

    An expansion on the exhibition catalogue, this volume includes a wider range of essays that include important essays on Jefferson as an architect, his tours of English gardens with John Adams, and his role in the planning of the National Capitol.

  • DeWitt, Lloyd, and Corey Piper. Thomas Jefferson, Architect: Palladian Models, Democratic Principles, and the Conflict of Ideals. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019.

    A volume of excellent essays that accompanied an important exhibition on Jefferson’s architecture at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. This is the first volume to include essays that take seriously Jefferson’s intellectual engagement with the classical tradition and his assumptions around race and his dependence on enslaved labor.

  • Frary, Ihna Thayer. Thomas Jefferson, Architect and Builder. Richmond, VA: Garrett and Massie, 1931.

    Depending heavily on earlier work by Lambeth and Kimball, Frary introduces Jefferson’s historical context and his oeuvre but also includes a wide range of high-quality black-and-white photographs of the surviving works, including some wrongly attributed to Jefferson by early scholars.

  • Giordano, Ralph. The Architectural Ideology of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.

    This volume is the only book that surveys Jefferson’s entire body of work. Authored by an architect, the book’s chapter touches on all of the major areas that would be required of a general survey of Jefferson’s architecture, but the prose meanders and lacks scholarly focus. Even so, it is a helpful aggregation of the essential information.

  • Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Edited by Frank Shuffleton. New York: Penguin, 1999.

    In Jefferson’s only published book, he critiques the quality of the built environment in his native state, including its public buildings in Williamsburg. He also lays out his ideas about racial slavery, agriculture, and the natural history of Virginia.

  • Kimball, Fiske. Thomas Jefferson, Architect. New York: Da Capo, 1968.

    Originally published in 1916 (Boston: Riverside). Catalyzed by an important collection of Jefferson’s architectural drawings, the Coolidge Collection, this volume offers an early but excellent overview of Jefferson’s body of work and his development as an architect.

  • Lambeth, William A., and Warren H. Manning. Thomas Jefferson as an Architect and a Designer of Landscapes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913.

    The first volume to offer a comprehensive introduction to Jefferson’s work both as an architect and as a landscape designer. Lambeth, the superintendent of buildings and grounds at the University of Virginia and author of the essay on Jefferson as an architect, includes a host of important information drawn from Jefferson’s own letters and those of his contemporaries.

  • O’Neal, William B., ed. “An Intelligent Interest in Architecture, A Bibliography of Publications about Thomas Jefferson as an Architect, Together with an Iconography of the Nineteenth-Century Prints of the University of Virginia.” American Association of Architectural Bibliographers 6 (1969): v–131.

    An important bibliography of the founding generations of scholarship on Jefferson’s architectural production.

  • Stein, Susan. The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. New York: Harry Abrams and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1993.

    This important volume amplifies Jefferson’s worlds—as a connoisseur, architect, scientist, and planter—through his vast collections of fine and decorative arts collections at Monticello, but also objects of everyday life. The object essays depend on the growing body of careful provenance research undertaken by the curators at Monticello.

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