Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Thomas Jefferson's Trompe l'Oeil

Thomas Jefferson makes for very interesting reading because he was both brilliant and quirky. There can be no denying that he was obsessive/compulsive. He had an odometer on his carriage, literally had every bean from his gardens counted, and thought nothing of tearing down his house and starting over. Jefferson's pursuit of architectural perfection for his home was endless, and accounts from Monticello's steady stream of guests reveal that the place was a busy construction site and in constant upheaval throughout Jefferson's life. Only in our time is it complete and serene.

Now I'll share one of my favorite details from Monticello, a clever solution to a problem that would have eaten away at our third president's perfect vision.

Jefferson wanted a balustrade to go completely around the roof line of the house. I've shown that by color coding it blue. The problem is that the balustrade would be interrupted as it met the exterior wall of the dome (shown in red).

Jefferson's solution was to have a very thin, flat balustrade affixed to the side of the dome, so that there would be an optical continuity.

And from the ground level, it works perfectly. Incidentally, Jefferson was an avid billiards player, and the dome originally housed a billiards table. Unfortunately for Jefferson, Virginia outlawed billiards, and the dome fell into disuse. Susan R. Stein, author of The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, writes of Margaret Bayard Smith's impression of the dome, when Smith visited Monticello in 1809:

'[Jefferson] afterwards took us to the drawing room, 26 or 7 feet diameter, in the dome. It is a noble and beautiful apartment, with eight circular windows and a sky-light. It was not furnished and being in the attic story is not used, which I thought a great pity as it might be made the most beautiful room in the house."

The image of the dome interior is from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation.
All other images are from Jefferson's Monticello, William Howard Adams, 1983.
Photography by Langdon Clay.


  1. I had no idea that the side balustrade was fake! Thats ingenius (as one would expect from Jefferson!). Thanks for pointing out this detail.

  2. Hi, Stefan. I hope you've had a chance to visit Monticello - it would be a great day trip for you, and there are ingenious details at every turn!

  3. Mark, I've been a few times, but still have never seen up in the dome! I hear it's open to the public now.

  4. I love creative solutions to architectural and interior design problems like this. I find it both intelligent and creative. I was once to Monticello and nobody ever drew my attention to this unique detail. This is why I enjoy your blog so much. You always have such interesting subjects and you illustrate and explain them so well.

    Incidentally, I never tire of classic red brick, white wood trim, and mullioned sash windows. They have a certain charm and modest elegance. To me, these details say, "Home."

  5. I have been wanting to see Monticello for a long time now. Your post makes me even more determined to make a trip happen, sooner rather than later! How clever Jefferson was to create this flat balustrade. His steady devotion to perfectionism is certainly our gain. The dome is beautiful.


  6. Hi, SwF and H.H.! Terry, I think a docent would have to spend several days showing all the ingenious details in this wonderful house. One of the great stories about Monticello is that both of Jefferson's front doors open simultaneously when only one is pulled. It wasn't until the 1930's, when workers excavated around the front door, that the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation figured out how he'd done it. He had devised a chain very much like a bicycle chain to wind around drums in a figure-eight, and this very da Vinci arrangement was attached to the doors underneath.

    H.H., Now is a good time to visit Monticello; more of his original items are finding their way back home, and as I mentioned in one of my first postings, the wall paints are more accurate now.