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Jefferson Architecture Collection

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Significance

In late 18th-century America books were the means not only to imbibe the strong European traditions of classical and gothic architecture (along with their various renaissances and elaborations), but also a vital source for establishing a formal and ideological break with those traditions. Jefferson collected for both of these reasons: edification and revolution.

By the 19th century, books were the means by which mere “mechanics” and “gentlemen amateurs” became architects. Books provided and communicated not only vital technical and aesthetic information, they also systematized knowledge about architecture as an intellectual discipline, allowing for the emergence—arguably, for the first time in history—of the professional architect. Jefferson’s “bibliomania” set the tone for the future development of American architecture: his library and its various simulacra provide key insights into the development of American architecture as a whole.

Curiously, especially when he was so prolific in many other areas, Jefferson never offered a comprehensive, or even summary, statement of his architectural ideas. He could be generous, even deliriously giddy, in his notes on various monuments and landscapes he visited, but much of his scattered writing on architecture tended to be damning. As architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson has noted, “Jefferson might be claimed as the originator of America’s slash-and-burn school of architectural criticism.”

Instead of a systematic body of writing, Jefferson left other clues behind as to the nature of his architectural thought: his architectural designs and his library. A remarkably prolific designer—especially for a man whose primary calling was politics—Jefferson often worked directly from books, synthesizing forms and ideas into his own  designs.

Instead of a systematic body of writing, Jefferson left other clues behind as to the nature of his architectural thought: his architectural designs and his library. A remarkably prolific designer—especially for a man whose primary calling was politics—Jefferson often worked directly from books, synthesizing forms and ideas into his own  designs.

For all of the scholarship poured into the topic of Jefferson’s libraries, however, the fact remains that neither Jefferson nor the librarians who managed his bibliographic legacy were able to preserve a definitive collection since so many volumes were lost. A fire at his home, Shadwell, destroyed Jefferson’s entire first library—including the 400 books he inherited from his father—in 1770. Between 1770 and 1815 he collected a second library, his most famous, which reached some 7,000 volumes, and which he sold to the young Library of Congress to help replace the books destroyed when the British burned Washington in 1814. Another fire in 1851 destroyed approximately two-thirds of that collection. What is preserved in the Oberlin collection, then, is perhaps as close to an original Jeffersonian library of architectural books as can be found anywhere.

John Harwood, Ph.D.
Oberlin Ohio, Fall 2011

              

 

Revised and enlarged Oct. 2017

Barb Prior, Head, Clarence Ward Art Library


Last updated:
October 31, 2017