As an architect, Thomas Jefferson envisioned buildings for a new republic — not old-world kings. The domes and columns in his designs recalled ancient Greece and Rome to symbolize liberty and democracy.
And yet enslaved Americans were involved in the actual construction. They helped build everything from Virginia’s Statehouse — a precursor to the Capitol Building in Washington — to the University of Virginia and Jefferson’s home of Monticello.
That contradiction is woven into a new art exhibit that explores Jefferson’s highly influential architectural ideas. The show, which opens Saturday in Virginia, offers another reckoning over the founding father’s legacy and the role of enslaved Americans.
The exhibit follows the nation’s August commemoration of the 1619 arrival of enslaved Africans to what is now Virginia. And it comes a year after Monticello opened new exhibits spotlighting the lives of its enslaved workers.
“When people think about Jefferson today, you can’t not deal with the question of slavery and race,” said Erik H. Neil, director of the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk and the exhibit’s curator.
“The paradox — or hypocrisy, to be harsher — is that he’s creating an architecture that’s for liberty and against monarchs and aristocracy,” Neil said. “And yet it’s dependent upon slave labor.”
Jefferson was not a professional architect. But he was a key influencer of early American building design, whether it was through his own drawings or in conversations with people like George Washington during the planning of the nation’s capital city.
The exhibit is entitled “Thomas Jefferson, Architect: Palladian Models, Democratic Principles, and the Conflict of Ideals.” Most of it focuses on Jefferson’s influences and ideas, including models based on his designs.
For example, one model shows his anonymously submitted imagining of the White House. Boasting a dome and based on a 16th Century Italian villa, Jefferson’s idea was ultimately rejected in a 1792 competition.
But the exhibit juxtaposes Jefferson’s visions with the realities of slavery. On display are nails and a brick that were made by his enslaved workers.
A 19th Century photograph shows Isaac Jefferson, a metalsmith who was enslaved during Jefferson’s lifetime. Another photo shows enslaved UVA cook Lucy Cottrell.
There is also a paneled door furnished by John Hemmings. He was an enslaved woodworker and a brother of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman whom scholars say had children with Jefferson. The siblings spelled their last names differently.
Louis P. Nelson, an architectural historian at the University of Virginia, writes in an essay for the exhibit’s catalogue that Jefferson’s designs also limited white society’s view of enslaved workers. An example would be the then 8-foot-high garden walls at UVA.
“Jefferson the architect was incredibly important, and his legacy is worthy of investigation on its own terms,” Nelson said by phone. “But we would do a profound disservice if we limit ourselves to a celebratory history.”
Mabel O. Wilson, an architecture professor at Columbia University who also wrote a companion essay, added that Jefferson’s contradictions on race are emblematic of America’s.
“It’s important to understand how integral slavery was in shaping the United States,” she said in an interview. “We have not quite reckoned with those contradictions. And that’s why we’re struggling as a nation in so many different ways.”