Jefferson the Architect

This week on With Good Reason we’re taking a close look at how Jefferson’s vision for a secular society stood up to the test of time.

Perhaps nowhere did Jefferson make his vision for society more clear than at the University of Virginia. Designed as a scholarly utopia where students and professors mingled, his “Academical Village” was anchored by an enormous library modeled on the ancient Pantheon in Rome.

Left: Jefferson’s Rotunda; Right: Pantheon in Rome. Nailed it.

Some might raise an eyebrow at the choice to center the world’s first secular university on an imitation pagan temple, and indeed, some – many – did. For much of its history, the Rotunda was simultaneously admired and reviled for its intricate symbolism and secular ambitions. But there was one group of people who rarely disparaged Jefferson’s work — architects.

Jefferson designed his village as an “architectural pop-up book,” according to Kate Atkeson, a university guide at the Rotunda. And it shows. From the steps of the Rotunda, looking south across the long, green lawn, the Academical Village looks, at a glance, remarkably uniform. But on closer study, every choice of detail reveals something about the intended use of each building, or pavilion.

Ignore the Annex — Jefferson never intended the factory-like block attached to the rear side of his spherically perfect Rotunda.

Pavilions were originally meant to function as part-classroom, part-professors residence. The upper floors, connected to each other by elevated walkways, allowed Jefferson’s imported European professors to socialize with each other without bothering with the student rabble.

But their classrooms, on the ground floor, were built into the Lawn Rooms, early student residences (preserved, as intended, without bathrooms, to the chagrin of the lucky few who take up residence there today). Good luck skipping class when you live downstairs from your professor.

Left to right, from top: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, “Modern Ionic”, Corinthian, and Composite columns. Click to enlarge.

Even the columns tell a story. The lowly students’ doors were adorned with the lowest, Tuscan order, but as the professors and disciplines became more august, their columns increased in size and decoration, culminating in the Corinthian columns on the Law Pavilion (Jefferson’s favorite).

And inside his magnificent temple, the Rotunda, the column’s orders ascend until the Dome Room, where the highest, composite order is used – the only place on the University of Virginia campus, to this day, where they can be found.

Indeed, everything at the Village seems to be aimed at creating a sense of unlimited diversity within a strict order — a belief very dear to an early scientist like Jefferson.

If there’s one thing that looks out of place, it’s the ~mysterious~ Pavilion VII. Its cornerstone was laid by the Freemasons, and it was one of the earliest built. But a Masonic conspiracy is not to blame for its eccentricity — just Jefferson’s early experiments with arcades, which he decided let in too little light. That hasn’t stopped UVA’s secretive Seven Society from imbuing it with occult meaning, though…

Pavillion VII. The arcades, on the lower floor, obstruct the flow of light to the aisle around the lawn.

Despite the detail of his vision, Jefferson actually never got to see his dream come to fruition. For reasons we explain in this week’s episode, he likely died thinking his grand vision of a secular university was a failure.

Nowadays, though the University of Virginia has long since outgrown its Academical Village, the Rotunda remains the centerpiece of the university. As one architecture professor put it (with characteristic understatement), “It’s on the letterhead.” And over the past two years, new renovations redesigned it as a place for students to study and connect. Once again, the success or failure of Jefferson’s grand vision is in the hands of students.

We’ll be talking a lot more about Jefferson’s Rotunda and his project for a secular nation in this week’s episode and in the Short Listen. If this tour through his architectural accomplishments has whetted your appetite, check out the show at the top of the page.