"Thomas Jefferson's U-Shaped Campus Done to a T"
By Benjamin Forgey, Washington Post Staff Writer.
In part, this is a matter of physical sensation--the body reacts to the variety of spaces and materials. The long, terraced green field, defined by a procession of trees and classical brick buildings, is open to the sky. The old hardwoods tower above. The buildings seem distant. You can feel alone there, small.
Yet the architecture is reassuring. Your eyes acknowledge the orderliness of the simple rows of white columns that frame the field. As you move toward one side the other, you begin to take in the differences in the family of two-story pavilions peeking above the low colonnade. Closer still, the details of doors, windows, shutters and bricks exert a tactile appeal: You want to touch them.
The nobility of the conception can take your breath away. The ensemble is commanded by the Rotunda--a domed classical building, bigger than the pavilions but, like them, put together with baked Virginia clay and chiseled Italian stone. The balances between intimacy and openness, architecture and nature, man and the chilling universe, speak of a hard-won harmony.
Then, too, the place is rich in associations. Adding to the experience of the Lawn is knowledge that the Rotunda was intended to house the university library--a center of humankind's intellectual efforts to know, and control, its fate. And that this building, based upon the Pantheon of the Roman Republic, was intended as a symbol linking the American democracy to its ancient progenitors.
And that the whole was conceived by Thomas Jefferson.
"Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village: The Creation of an Architectural Masterpiece, 1817-1826," an exhibition at the OCTAGON museum, is a superb introduction to the subject. Organized by the university's Bayly Art Museum, it contains a treasure trove of more than 50 original Jefferson drawings and many related items: letters by and to Jefferson, architecture books he consulted during the design, hand-written lists of materials and design specifications, and prints and photographs attesting to nearly two centuries of fascination with the place.
To examine Jefferson's original drawings and documents is, as always, a privilege and a thrill. It brings the great man close--in particular, his passion for this, his last project. In his final year he was still issuing long, admonishing lists about everything, from minor to major. The ditches dug in the mountainside for water pipe must be just so, he cautioned. "Make haste in finishing of dome and dome room," he urged. Completion "is to be pushed by every possible exertion...by employing all the hands which can be got."
Understandably, Jefferson considered the university one of his greatest achievements. It was a manifestation of his conviction that education was the key to the stability of the democracy. "No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness," he wrote, than "the diffusion of knowledge among the people."
And it was a testimony to the centrality of architecture in Jefferson's life and thought. ln a letter penned shortly before his death, he confidently stated that "it will be a splendid establishment, would be thought so in Europe, and for the chastity of its architecture and classical taste leaves everything in America far behind it."
Wilson writes that though Jefferson "explicitly allowed for religious services in the Rotunda," his conception of the University as fundamentally secular went against the American grain at a time when most such institutions were branches of this or that church organization.
Yet in many other ways Jefferson the educator and architect was typical of his time and place. His originality lay in his ability to extend or elaborate on existing national norms. Even the concept of the college "campus" was basically an American invention--the Latin word, meaning simply "field," was first used to describe a college by a Princeton student in the late 18th century.
In his book "Campus: An American Planning Tradition," historian Paul Venable Turner notes the enduring traits of this American creation. Unlike its models in medieval England, the campus on North American soil was not enclosed and cloisterlike. Rather, it almost always was situated in an open, green space. Unlike its counterparts in continental Europe, the American university habitually was located in rural or countrylike settings. And it presumed a close, continuous, almost familial interchange between faculty and students--it was a separate, live-in environment.
Jefferson's university was all of these things, brilliantly. And it was something else. The retired president spent most of the last 15 years of his long life perfecting the design and getting it built; he tolerated very little opposition. In 1816, before a university bill was taken up by the state legislature, he made sure that old friends James Madison and James Monroe (the sitting president and the president-to-be) were appointed to the institution's first board of visitors.
Jefferson was a master of supple adjustments to the terrain, to the limitations of the builders' craft, and to the ideas of others. When the actual site proved too small for the original plan, he greatly reduced the Lawn's width and thereby greatly improved its final effect. When the land proved too hilly for the flat greensward he envisioned, he carefully reconciled the design to the necessary terraces. When speed required that a skilled builder use a different pattern book for certain details, he conceded the point.
Though Jefferson eagerly solicited advice from talents he respected, he retained possession of the design. As shown in an original letter, the brilliant Benjamin Henry Latrobe contributed the concept of a central, larger domed building to give the composition hierarchical focus. Jefferson recognized the aptness of the idea. But he tinkered with it until he could call the result his own, even crossing out or erasing references to Latrobe in one of his Rotunda drawings.
The design as realized is by far the fullest embodiment of Jefferson's special architectural skills. From beginning to end he held to his vision of a U-shaped campus bordered by pavilions for classrooms and faculty residences, these connected by a colonnade and rooms for students--a self-sufficient "academical village." He constantly refined the plan, adding, for instance, the outer "ranges" of "hotels" and dormitories, connected to the Lawn by gardens and his beautiful serpentine walls. He struggled successfully to make each pavilion a model of "taste and good architecture," so that the ensemble, drawing on many sources, is quite different from anything else in the world.
Of course, there were flaws in the ointment. African Americans were not welcome on the Lawn, except as slave labor. Women were welcome as servants and as pretty guests. The familial relationship of professor and student was an ideal more often honored in the breach. The university spread out in other directions, so that the Lawn became no more than its symbolic center.
But what a symbol! With the Declaration of Independence and other deeds and writings, Jefferson helped build a philosophical foundation for all Americans ultimately to enjoy full citizenship. Similarly, with his university Jefferson provided architectural and educational ideals to emulate. "The Lawn presents itself as a picture of what we could be," architect William Hubbard observed. "Realizing this, we are grateful that the Lawn is the way it is."
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