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Reading 2: Building the Academical Village
Jefferson's early experiences and observations about education led him to conclude that the practice of housing students, faculty, classrooms, and dining halls in a single large building was not a satisfactory arrangement. While serving as President, Jefferson wrote a letter to Littleton Tazewell, one of the delegates to the Virginia Legislature, offering his observations on a proposal to create a new state university:
...the greatest danger will be their overbuilding themselves by attempting a large house in the beginning, sufficient to contain the whole institution. Large houses are always ugly, inconvenient, exposed to accident of fire, and in bad cases of infection. A plain small house for the school & lodging of each professor is best. These connected by covered ways out of which the rooms of the students should open would be best. These may then be built as they shall be wanting. In fact, an University should not be a house but a village. This will much lessen their first expenses.1
After retiring from the Presidency, Jefferson's thoughts about an ideal university were taking clear shape, even though Virginia's state representatives had not yet passed legislation to create a system of public education:
No one more sincerely wishes the spread of information among mankind than I do, and none has greater confidence in its effect towards supporting free and good government. I, am sincerely rejoiced, therefore, to find that so excellent a fund has been provided for this noble purpose in Tennessee.... I consider the common plan [for colleges] followed in this country, but not in others, of making one large and expensive building, as unfortunately erroneous. It is infinitely better to erect a small and separate lodge for each professorship, with only a hall below for his class and two chambers above for himself; joining these lodges by barracks for a certain portion of the students, opening into a covered way to give a dry communication between all the schools. The whole of these arranged around an open square of grass and trees would make it what it should be in fact, an academical village.... Much observation and reflection on these institutions have long convinced me that the large and crowded buildings in which youths are pent up are equally unfriendly to health, to study, to manners, morals, and order.2
Once the law establishing the university was enacted, Thomas Jefferson personally transformed his ideas into reality. He applied his remarkable intellect to design a university whose physical presence and course of studies would produce an educated citizenry capable of defending the freedom and democracy of the new United States of America. Jefferson produced beautiful neoclassical plans, including those for the five pavilions to house faculty and students which he designed in an astonishing 15 days. He enthusiastically described his plans to mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch in his letter of October 26, 1818:
The legislature passed an act establishing a university, endowing it for the present with an annuity of fifteen thousand dollars and directing commissioners to meet to recommend a site, a plan of buildings...etc.... The plan of building is not to erect one single magnificent building to contain everybody and everything, but to make of it an academical village in which every professor should have his separate house [called 'pavilions'], containing his lecturing room with two, three, or four rooms for his own accommodation according as he may have a family or no family, with kitchen, garden, etc.; distinct dormitories for the students, not more than two in a room; and separate boarding houses [called hotels] for dieting them by private housekeepers. We concluded to employ no professor who is not of the first order of the science he professes, that when we can find such in our own country we shall prefer them and when we cannot we will procure them wherever else to be found.3
Jefferson not only drew the architectural plans of the buildings but also made the four-mile trip between his home, Monticello, and the University on horseback almost every day to oversee construction. The elder statesman was as attentive to detail as he was to the overall concept; for example, he stipulated that the university's bronze bell have an acoustical range of two miles, and he also designed the brickyard to supply the university's construction.
Construction of the university was slow and plagued by tight budgets, religious and political opposition, and critics of the university's aesthetics. Nonetheless, by the time the University opened its doors to the first 125 students in 1825, 10 pavilions had been constructed to house the first professors and their families. A colonnaded passageway bordered the east and west sides of the Lawn (the central open space), connecting the two-story pavilions with the adjacent student dormitory rooms. The south end of the Lawn was intentionally left open to views of the mountains beyond. At the head of the Lawn stood the Rotunda, an impressive domed structure, which housed the University library. This building was modeled on a famous Roman temple, the Pantheon, which had been built between 118 and 128 A.D. Two rows of secondary buildings, known as the East and West Range, were constructed parallel to the Lawn. The Range contained more student rooms interspersed with 6 dining halls, linked again by a covered passageway. Between the buildings of the Lawn and the Range Jefferson included gardens enclosed by serpentine brick walls that were shared by the professors and hotelkeepers (the families who ran the student dining halls). Thomas Jefferson had succeeded in taking his ideals about education and democracy, transforming them into a working plan, and producing the University of Virginia.
Questions for Reading 2
1. What did Thomas Jefferson not like about the traditional practice of housing all university functions in a single building?
2. Describe the major components of the "academical village" envisioned by Thomas Jefferson.
3. How did the rural, western setting of the University of Virginia and its ground plan reflect Jefferson's ideas about education and American's future?
Reading 2 was compiled from Richard Guy Wilson, ed., Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village (Charlottesville, Va.: The Bayly Museum of the University of Virginia, 1993); Bernard Mayo, ed., Jefferson Himself: The Personal Narrative of a Many-Sided American (Charlottesville, Va: The University Press of Virginia, 1942); and Andrew Lipscomb and Albert Bergh, editors, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 20 Volumes, (Washington, D.C.: 1903-1904).
1Letter from Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., to Littleton Waller Tazewell, January 5, 1805, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.