Assessment of American Architecture
"The private buildings are very rarely constructed of stone or brick, much the greater
pottion being of scantling and boards, plaster with lime. It is impossible to devise things
more ugly, uncomfortable, and happily more perishable. There are two or three plans, on one
of which according to its size, most of the houses in the State are built. The poorest
people build huts of logs, laid horizontally in pens, stopping the inerstices with mud.
These are warmer in winter, and cooler in summer, than the more epsnesive constructions of
scantling and plank. . . . The only public buildings worthy of mention are the Capitol, the
Palace, the College, and the Hospital for Lunatics, all of them in Williamsburg, . . . .
The Capitol is a light and airy structure, with a portico in front of two orders, the lower
of which, being Doric, is tolearbly just in its proportions and ornaments, save only that
the intercolonnations are too large. The upper is Ionic, much too small for that on which
it is mounted, its ornaments not proper to the order, nor proportioned within themselves.
IT is crowned with a pediment, which is too high for its span. Yet on the whole, it is the
most pleasing piece of architecture we have. The palace is not handsome without, but it
is spacious and commondious within, is prettyily situated, and, with the grounds annexed
to it, is capable of being made an elegant seat. The College and Hospital are rude, mis-shapen piles, which, but that they have roofs, would be taken for brick kilns. There are
no other public buildings but churches and courhouses in which no attempts are made at
elegance. Indeed it would not be easy to execute such an attempt, as a workman could
scarcely be found here capable of drawings an order. The genius of architecture seems to
have shed its maledictions of this land. Buildings are often erectd, bu individuals, or
considerable expense. To give these symmetry and taste would not increase their cost. It
would only change the arrangmenmen of the materials, the form and combination of the
members. This would often cost less than the burthen of barbarous ornaments with which these
buildings are sometimes charged. But the first principles of the art are unknown, and there
exists scarcely a model among us sufficiently chaste to give an idea of them."
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia ed. by William Peden
University of North Carolina Press, 1954 [1781, 1787], 152-153.
"The inhabitants of Europe, who dwell chiefly in houses of stone or brick, are surely as
healthy as those of Virginia. These houses have the advantage too of being warner in winter
and cooler in summer than those of wood; of being cheaper in their first construction, where
line conveninet, and infinitely more durable. . . . A country whose buildings are of wood,
can never increase in its improvements to any consierable degree. There duration is highly
estimated at 50 years. Every half century then our country becomes a tablua rasa, wheron
we have to set out anew, as in the first moment of serating it. Wherea when buildings are
of durable materials, every new edifice is an actual and permanent acquisition to the state,
adding to is value as well as to its ornament." Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of
Virginia ed. by William Peden (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954 [1781,
"London, tho handsomer than Paris, is not so handsome as Philadelphia. Their [England]
architecture is the most wretched stile I ever saw, no meaning to except American where it
is bad, nor even Virginia where it is worse than any other part of America, which I have
seen." Thomas Jefferson to John Page, May 4, 1786, Papers, 9:445-46.
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