March 07: ‘an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed’

2012/03/06 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1825 the first class of students matriculated at the University of Virginia.

Think about what this must have been like.  Institutions of higher learning did not exactly dot the landscape like they do today (they’re even more prevalent than the arenas built for professional sports teams; Clio wishes communities were just as eager to have visible, successful emblems of education as they are to have spiffy stadiums, but that’s another rant for another day).  It must have been pretty amazing to arrive at this place, whose academic offerings were dreamt up by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), a somewhat controversial yet overwhelmingly revered public figure at the time.

And then there’s the environment itself: an architectural setting that was like none other in the young country.  Even for the students who had access to cities growing up, this would have looked amazingly impressive, new, modern, unprecedented.  Arranged around a tiered green lawn, a U-shaped colonnade joining ten houses for professors, in which small classes met, linked together by private students rooms, all of it centered on a great domed library.  Overall a radically Classical aesthetic, with the great variety of which Classicism avails itself.

In part, the impressive architecture was a function of the fact that Mr. Jefferson was a very fancy man, and he really knew how to spend money on fancy things.  But it wasn’t just a matter of making beauty for its own sake (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Jefferson had a long affair with architecture that developed parallel to his marriage to public service.  In his famous criticism of buildings in his home territory (recorded in his sole book publication, Notes on the State of Virginia of 1781), he castigated all kinds of architecture:

The private buildings are very rarely constructed of stone or brick; much the greatest proportion being of scantling and boards, plaistered with lime. It is impossible to devise things more ugly, uncomfortable, and happily more perishable.

Public buildings were scrutinized even more severely.  The Capitol in Williamsburg was, relatively speaking, “the most pleasing piece of architecture we have,” although its Orders were incorrect and proportions wonky.  It was the College and Hospital that really gave him fits: they were so “rude” and “mis-shapen” that, if they had no roofs, they would be mistaken as brick-kilns.  Jefferson ascribed these (and many more) sins against good taste as a total lack of understanding about architecture’s first principles.  Jefferson hoped for an educational system that would spread knowledge among talented young architects, but in the meantime, recognized that another group could and should provide leadership in enhancing America’s architecture.  On September 20, 1785 he wrote to his protégé James Madison (a young member of the Virginia House of Delegates):

But how is a taste in this beautiful art to be formed in our countrymen, unless we avail ourselves of every occasion when public buildings are to be erected, of presenting to them models for their study and imitation? . . . .  You see I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile them to the rest of the world, and procure them its praise.

With his plans for his homes at Monticello and Poplar Forest, the Virginia Capitol and the University, Jefferson put his pencil where his mouth was.  He designed buildings that represented the newest thought on architectural taste, modern buildings for the new country based in the irrefutably good models of Classical antiquity.  They celebrated the idea of the United States–which Jefferson, of course, had done so much to define already–and provided models for future development that would speak of the country’s confidence, strength, decorum, taste and promise.  Jefferson recognized that as a man of wealth, privilege, opportunity and power, he had a duty to enhance the status of his country and the experience of his countrymen.  Would that more politicians felt that way today.

image: early view of the University’s “Academical Village” in its pastoral setting outside of Charlottesville (from this source)

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You are currently reading March 07: ‘an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed’ at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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