Monday, February 16, 2015

Building of the Week: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Virginia, United States

The West Front Facade
To begin with, Jefferson’s famous Virginia estate is quite a bit newer than I originally thought. I’ve become so accustomed to buildings and objects from the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries that I had mentally categorized Monticello as falling into the latter era of building. However, the Palladian mansion that stands today was actually built in the Nineteenth Century.

The original structure at Monticello was a more modest two-story mansion that was erected in 1768 and occupied by Jefferson in 1770. After that, Thomas Jefferson was appointed Minister of the United States to France and subsequently moved from the U.S. During his travels, Jefferson became intimately acquainted with the architecture of Europe and saw first-hand the beautiful buildings he’d only seen illustrated in books. It was his viewing of French and Italian Palladian-style architecture which seems to have planted the seeds of his idea for his own home.
The East Front Facade
Beginning in 1794, Jefferson returned to the U.S. and began working on designs for a major overhaul of Monticello which would incorporate the ideals of the architecture he’d seen abroad. The remodeling continued for many years and lasted until 1809.
The "Dome Room"
One of the first orders of business was to double the size of the house by adding a parallel set of rooms and resituating the floor plan of the house. Massive East and West facades in a Palladian style were constructed with perfectly proportioned pediments and columns. The entire full-story second floor was completely removed and replaced with a more utilitarian mezzanine bedroom floor. Thomas Jefferson had two reasons for this. First, he was not a big fan of having too much furniture in the house (we’d not have been good friends) and didn’t feel that it was necessary to waste space with beds and wardrobes and other such nonsense. The bedrooms in the new design amounted to cupboards with sturdy Murphy beds and lots of built-in storage space. Secondly, by removing the second floor, he made room for the mansion’s most famous feature—its octagonal dome which is vaguely reminiscent of the dome of Italy’s Pantheon.

The Entrance Hall
The mansion itself is not as large as it looks. It is, certainly, not a small house—amounting to 11,000 square feet. But, it appears to be much bigger than that. This owes in large part to the perfect scale of the structure. Every detail is perfectly measured and absolutely correct in scale. While the house is somewhat under-decorated, the architecture is superb.

Monticello, after Jefferson’s death, had several different owners before becoming a museum. It is the only private residence in the U.S. which has been designated as a World Heritage Site. Painstakingly restored, Monticello is open to the public. On rare occasions, the public is even allowed in the intimate dome room which has been painted in two of Jefferson’s favorite colors—“Mars Yellow” for the walls and “Grass Green” for the floors. If you’re in the Virginia area, you should visit this magnificent monument which served as the home, and now the burial place, of one of our most intriguing presidents. 

"The Tea Room"

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