The Capitol of Thomas Jefferson
by Priscilla Williams
That Thomas Jefferson not only founded the University of Virginia but designed its buildings and campus, planning even the minutest details, is familiarly known. He is even called "the Father of the University of Virginia." But that he selected the Maison Carée, an old Roman temple at Nimes, France, as the model for the Capitol of Virginia and made the drawings adapting the old temple to the use of a State capitol while he was minister to France is known chiefly perhaps to student of architecture.
Little has been written on the Capitol, and the prevailing belief was for a long time that Jefferson with his political activity could not have been the actual designer of the building. Various ones have been given credit for designing it. Clérisseau, the distinguished French architect, whose advise and aid Jefferson sought and whose assistants made the plans of Jefferson's design, has been credited with its design, and Mordecai in his Richmond in By-gone Days even names Samuel Dobie who was merely one of the builders.
Dr. Fiske Kimball, however, not so many years ago, made a scientific study of the material in his thesis, "Thomas Jefferson and the First Monument of the Claissical Revival in America," which was submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the University of Michigan. In his thesis, through the correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and the Directors of the Public Buildings of Virginia who had charge of the building, Jefferson's accounts with the State for the plans of the Capitol and the architectural drawings of Jefferson in the Thomas Jefferson Coolidge Jr. collection in Boston, Dr. Kimball proved that Thomas Jefferson not only chose the model for the Capitol but was the chief architect in its design.
Ask Jefferson's Aid In Planning Capitol
Jefferson's interest in the new Capitol began before the capital of the State was moved from Williamsburg. It was he who drafted the first bill providing for the removal of the seat of government from Williamsburg to Richmond. This bill was presented to the House of Delegates in October, 1776.
This bill failed to be passed, but another with similar wording was introduced and passed in 1779 which made Richmond the capital of Virginia after the last day of April, 1780.
Jefferson's elaborate plan for the separate building for each department of the government was beyond the ideas and resources of the time, and as soon as he had left the country on his mission to France the law was modified. The act was passed in October, 1784.
When the capital was first moved to Richmond the assembly met in a wooden building on the northwest corner of Fourteenth and Cary Streets, but in the first session of the assembly an act was passed selecting the squares on Shockoe Hill as the site of the Capitol, and the directors were named beginning with his excellency Thomas Jefferson, who was then Governor of Virginia.
Later, in 1785, when the land had been purchased and plans were being made for the actual building of the Capitol, the directors wrote to Jefferson who was then Minister to France:
"Richmond, March 20th, 1785.
"The active part which you took before your departure from Virginia, as a director of the public buildings, leads us to believe, that it will not be now unacceptable to you, to co-operate with us, as far as your engagements will permit.
"We foresee, that in the execution of our commission, the Commonwealth must sustain a heavy expense, and that we can provide no shield so effectual against the censures which await large disbursements of public money, as the propriety of making them. For this purpose we must intreat you to consult an able architect on a plan fit for a Capitol, and to assist him with the information of which you are possessed.
"You will recollect, Sir, that the first act directed separate houses for the accommodation of the different departments of government. But fearing, that the Assembly would not countenance us in giving sufficient magnificence to distinct buildings, we obtained leave to consolidate the whole under one roof, if it should seem advisable. The enclosed draught will show that we wish to avail ourselves of this license. But, altho' it contains many particulars, it is not intended to confine the architect except as to the number and area of the rooms.
"We have not laid down the ground it being fully in your power to describe it, when we inform you that the Hill on which Gunns yellow house stands, and which you favored as the best situation, continues to be preferred by us: and that we have located 29 half acre lots including Marsdens tenement, and Minzies' lots in front of Gunns; the Legislature have not limited us to any sum, nor can we, as yet at least, resolve to limit ourselves to a precise amount. But we wish to unite economy with elegance and dignity--at present the only funds submitted to our order are nearly about £10,000 Virga. Currency.
"We have already contracted with Edward Voss of Culpeper, for the laying of 1,500,000 bricks. He is a workman of the first reputation here, but skillful in plain and rubbed work alone. We suppose he may commence his undertaking by the beginning of August . . . This circumstance renders us anxious for expedition in fixing the plan; expecially too as the foundation of the Capitol will silence the enemies of Richmond in the next October session.
"We shall send to Europe for any stone which may be wanted.
"The roof will be covered with lead, as we conceive that to be better than copper or tiles.
"In the remarks, which accompany the plan, we have requested a draught for the Governor's house and prison. But we hope that the Capitol will be first drawn and forwarded to us, as there is no hurry for the other buildings.
"We trust sir, you will excuse the trouble which we now impose on you, and will ascribe it to our belief of your alacrity to serve your country on this occasion. Etc. etc.
Wm. Hay on Behalf of the Directors."
Jefferson's immediate reply has been lost, but there are many letters from him to the directors which show the enthusiasm with which he complied with their request. These letters are now preserved in the Library of Congress in Washington.
Plaster Model in State Library
Jefferson has little to say of his own part in the plans which is only natural when he was urging their acceptance of the grounds of their superiority. Subsequent letters show that, although the foundations of the Capitol had been laid and the walls started, they were changed and adapted to Jefferson's plans when they arrived from France.
The plaster model which Jefferson had made and sent over from France has been preserved and is a familiar object in the Reading Room in the State Library.
Dr. Kimball, in his study of Jefferson's accounts with the State, now in the Virginia Archives, points out that the amounts paid to Clérisseau were not what his fee for professional services as architect of the building would have been. Clérisseau was one of the most distinguished architects in France. He had spent 19 years in drawing the remains of ancient architecture, and he had been chosen by the French Academy to design a palace for the Empress Catherine II of Russia. Had he been the chief designer of the Virginia Capitol, his fee would have been very different from the small amounts, entered so evidently for his services in an advisory capacity to Jefferson and for his assistants for drawing the plans of the design which had already been made by Thomas Jefferson. One of the items states specifically: "1788 June 2, Pd. Clérisseau for his assistants in drawing the plans of the Capitol and Prison, 288 livres."
Clérisseau's letter of acknowledgment of same date mentions only payment of expenses and makes it clear that he regarded the transaction, as Jefferson did, as a loan of his draughtsmen for the drawing up of Jefferson's design.
Still further proof that the original design was that of Thomas Jefferson may be found in the drawings of the Virginia Capitol which are preserved with Jefferson's architectural drawings in the Thomas Jefferson Coolidge Jr. collection in Boston. This collection has never left the hands of Jefferson's descendants. By identification of the paper on which they are made and by identification of Jefferson's technique by comparison with other of his drawings, they are proven conclusively to have been done by him. Notes and corrections are shown in soft pencil lines in the margins by Clérisseau.
But the Virginia Capitol that had been planned so grandly as a copy of the famous Maison Carée had a long and arduous road to completion.
Virginia Revises Classic Trend in America
It was not until 1797 that there was an appropriation for completing the exterior, but even in its unfinished state it was one of the handsomest public buildings in America.
Virginia had not only been the first State after the Revolution to provide a new capital with new and more adequate buildings for the new republican form of government, but through the inspiration of Thomas Jefferson was the first to erect a building designed along classical lines in America. There had been a revival of classical architecture in Europe during the last half of the eighteenth century which German scholars called the second Renaissance, and this movement had its beginning in America in Jefferson's introduction of classical architecture in the Virginia State Capitol.