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Jefferson Built Monticello With France in Mind

July 30, 1989|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — This bicentennial year of the French Revolution may be the most fitting time to visit Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson, who witnessed the beginnings of the Revolution, spent only a few years in Paris, but France had a profound influence on his taste ever after.

In fact, a love affair in Paris may have contributed to the feature most associated with Monticello--the wondrous dome that overlooks the verdant hills of central Virginia. It was the first dome erected over a private home in America.

In 1786, Jefferson, then the American minister (or ambassador) in Paris, met Maria Cosway, a 27-year-old English-born, Italian-educated painter, at the Halle aux Bleds, the new and expansive grain market in central Paris.

Its enormous dome was the architectural delight of the city. But Jefferson, a 43-year-old widower, seemed at that time less interested in the dome than his new friend, whom he described later as "the most superb thing on earth."

Maria Went Home

Biographers do not agree whether the friendship flamed into a love affair, but if so, it did not last very long. Maria returned to London with her husband after six weeks, then made another visit to Paris in 1787 for three months, but did not see Jefferson very often that time.

Historians believe it significant that Jefferson, when he rebuilt Monticello after his return to the United States, modeled some aspects of the dome after the Halle aux Bleds.

"Jefferson, in tearing down and rebuilding Monticello after the pattern of the place where he first met Maria Cosway," wrote Fawn M. Brodie, one of his biographers, "may have been unconsciously defining and redefining the ideal woman, which he had clearly not yet found in his own life."

Monticello, a glorious legacy of early America, stands on an 867-foot hill a few miles east of Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded and designed.

Tourists are always fascinated by the home, for its crannies and gadgets and art and design reflect all of Jefferson's intelligence and sensibility and attention to detail. It is an idyllic monument to the voracious curiosity and sweeping knowledge of a remarkable statesman.

Minister to France

But visitors do not always understand the French influence fully. Jefferson represented the Continental Congress as minister to France from 1784 to 1789, during the transitional period between the end of the Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution. It was the only time in his life that Jefferson spent any time outside North America, and the future President was clearly enthralled by France and the French.

"A more benevolent people I have never known," he wrote years later. "Nor greater warmth and devotedness in their select friendships. Their kindness and accommodation to strangers is unparalleled."

French liberal friends like the Marquis de Lafayette tried to draw Jefferson into their politics of reform, for he was known throughout France as the author of the American Declaration of Independence.

Although Jefferson resisted taking part, he did commute to Versailles frequently to hear the debates in the new National Assembly that was challenging the authority of King Louis XVI. He witnessed some of the major moments of the French Revolution, and heard firsthand accounts on the same day of other events, like the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789.

Jefferson left Paris in late 1789, expecting to return, but soon accepted an appointment by President George Washington as the first secretary of state in the new American government under the Constitution. He never returned to France.

Built in Two Phases

Monticello was built in two phases. Although it was still unfinished when Jefferson left for France in 1784, it already impressed visiting Europeans.

"Mr. Jefferson," wrote the Marquis de Chastellux, who had been a commander of the French army in America, "is the first American who has consulted the Fine Arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather."

The second phase began after Jefferson tired of Cabinet squabbling and resigned as secretary of state in 1795. Returning to Monticello, he redesigned the house and started to enlarge it from eight to 21 rooms, adapting many ideas from Parisian architecture and placing classical French art and exquisite French crafts throughout.

"Were I to proceed to tell you how much I enjoy their architecture," Jefferson had written to a friend from France, ". . . I would want words."

In his most dramatic change, Jefferson removed the second story of the original Monticello and set the distinctive octagonal dome upon it. Although his use of glass and wooden ribs followed the architectural principles of the Halle aux Bleds, Jefferson based the overall design of the dome on that of the Hotel de Salm, near his own Paris home on the Right Bank of the Seine.

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