April 13: Mr. Jefferson

2012/04/13 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1743 Thomas Jefferson was born.

A muse can hardly help but feel warmly for this day and the person it celebrates, for his heart thumped with a certain warmth for her, too.  Jefferson (d. 1826) was a rare soul of tremendous achievement, and among all people who it’s hard for Clio to shut up about, it’s really hard to shut up about Mr. Jefferson.

Shall she wax on about his desire to stay out of public life but, once he was compelled into it, his extraordinary service to his colony and later country?  Shall she praise his efforts on behalf of public education and religious liberty?  Shall she swoon over his violin-playing and ice-cream eating?  Shall she drop 100,000 words on his involvement with major public works (the plan of Washington, the design of the US Capitol, the State House of Virginia and the University of Virginia) or his extraordinary residential projects (how could she choose between Monticello and Poplar Forest?)?

She shall not.  She shall talk about a garden pavilion, which encapsulates some of Mr. Jefferson’s finest qualities in 185 square feet.

Neither Order nor dome (and Clio’s people know, Clio loves a dome) ornaments this wee shelter, articulated by four simple brick walls with arched openings hung with floor-length windows that double as doors, with a thin “Chinese” rail at the top.  Room inside for one or two chairs for people taking rest among the large (1000 x 80 ft.) olitory.  “Olitory” means “kitchen garden” for those of you who didn’t go to college in the eighteenth century, but it means more than just a place to grow your peas, for if you call  that place where you grow your pease an “olitory,” you’re doing more than growing peas.

Maybe you’re growing over two dozen variety of peas, because they’re your favorite vegetable, but also, because you have a mammoth brain that just cannot quit, even when you’re thinking about veg.  Maybe the whole olitory is a giant, practical experiment in agriculture, and you keep meticulous notes about the behavior of the plants and the passing of the seasons, the qualities of the weather.  Maybe you take these notes in small booklets as you kneel in the red Virginia dirt, and carry them to the little pavilion to consider and study.  And then maybe you set them aside and pull out another volume: maybe it’s modern poetry, or ancient philosophy.

And maybe you’re doing this as recreation in your retirement from public life, because you’re the seventy-year-old former president, vice president (the one who made the Louisiana Purchase), secretary of state, ambassador to France, author of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of Virginia, and a dozen other spectacular lines, any one of which on a single resume in one family would be cause for multi-generational pride.  But you did it all in your thirty-five year career.  And for you, those years you spent in the halls of power, some of which you helped to design, just as you designed the course for the country you ran for a time, were years well spent, although you count the greatest achievements as the documents you put in place that honored and protected political rights, religious liberty, and intellectual freedom.  And as great as your amazing Neo-Classical house is, you really just want to sit in a small brick pavilion, meditate on your peas, and watch the sun set over your garden.

Image: reconstructed garden pavilion at Monticello, orig. 1812 (Clio’s picture)


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You are currently reading April 13: Mr. Jefferson at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.


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