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ARCHITECTURE : Jefferson's Dream Realized in Monticello

January 08, 1994|JOAN BRUNSKILL | ASSOCIATED PRESS

"Architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements."

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Meet Thomas Jefferson, father of American architecture.

Spurred by the celebration of the 250th anniversary of the great statesman's birth in 1743, a traveling exhibition draws attention to his achievements as an influential and inventive architect.

The exhibition, which opened in Manhattan and is scheduled to travel to Cambridge, Mass., and Washington, D.C., focuses on what was literally closest to home for Jefferson: the house he built at Monticello.

Perhaps that should be phrased houses, because Jefferson spent nearly 40 years putting up, pulling down, then putting up again this very personal dream palace in Charlottesville, Va., that was also a laboratory for experiment. He called it "my essay in architecture."

The exhibition was designed "to give people an opportunity to see the process of Jefferson's thinking about architecture, by which he comes to building this important structure," said Nancy Davies, director of the Octagon Museum, Washington, D.C.

"It shows you the sources he saw and how he applied them to his own house," said Davies, who helped organize the exhibition.

The exhibition gives plenty of evidence of his hands-on involvement with his project--at least 30 of his original drawings, manuscripts and notebooks, enthusiastically specifying everything down to the last nuts-and-bolts details.

A central feature of the house, its dome--the first neoclassical dome in America--is re-created as part of the installation in the Equitable Gallery in mid-town Manhattan. Visitors can walk into and under a model of the dome's wooden framing scaled to three-eights full size, placed for display on classically simple pillars evoking the building's style.

The architect's practice is brought to life with displays of the professional tools the self-taught Jefferson used--his protractor, divider and parallel rule. Beside these are paint-color patches, wooden roof baluster and bracket, and metal-ornament details from the house.

In 1764, Jefferson inherited from his father's estate nearly 3,000 acres of land in what is now Albemarle County, Va., and four years later he began his building project. He chose a site on top of a small mountain-- monticello in Italian--with a view he loved.

By 1779 all the rooms in the original plan were built and habitable. But Jefferson's tour as American minister to France opened up other visions of architecture from European countries. He came back with a host of new ideas and started on lengthy, and costly, renovations to Monticello.

Some of Jefferson's European sources are documented in the exhibition--period maps, drawings and books, many referring to the architecture of Paris.

A computerized video presentation conjures up the whole sequence of the house's evolution--vividly telescoping decades of change, from ground-breaking through complex phases of construction and reconstruction.

Another video glides through sunlit rooms on a tour of the house, dwelling on detail, passing through interiors in the elegant neoclassical style Jefferson so much admired and introduced into the later phase of the building's development.

Large-scale color photos show Monticello as it is today: in polished and shining condition after a checkered history that's included periods of neglect and financial difficulty. The exhibition features drawings made by the Historic American Buildings Survey that are part of long-range preservation plans for Monticello as a historic landmark.

The house isn't only a national treasure--it's also the only American home ever named to UNESCO's World Heritage List, along with such monuments as the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China.

Today's professionals haven't overlooked Jefferson's achievements. There on the wall among other exhibits hangs the handsome Gold Medal awarded posthumously to him, earlier this year, by the American Institute of Architects. It's their highest award.

Jefferson looked for and obviously found satisfaction in the place in his own lifetime. "I am as happy nowhere else, and in no other society, and all my wishes end, where I hope my days will end, at Monticello," he said.

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The exhibition "Thomas Jefferson and the Design of Monticello" has been jointly organized by the American Architectural Foundation at The Octagon and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation at Monticello.

It is scheduled to travel to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum in Cambridge, Mass., from Feb. 10 through April 24 and the Octagon (architecture museum) in Washington, D.C., from July 28-Oct. 2.

Monticello is owned and operated by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, a private, nonprofit organization formed in 1923 to buy, preserve and maintain the home as a national monument to Jefferson.

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