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Jefferson Architecture Collection


Exhibition and lecture Fall 2017

Jefferson Architecture Collection (OBIS records)

About the Collection

  • One-to-one match of books owned by Jefferson
  • Available for viewing by appointment in the Clarence Ward Art Library

WHEN CLARENCE WARD, Oberlin’s first director of the Allen Memorial Art Museum and first art professor with a doctorate, arrived in Oberlin in 1916 one of his first projects was to found an art library in what is now the museum’s East Gallery. Inspired by his friend I.T. Frary—the architectural critic, historian, photographer and author of  Thomas Jefferson, architect and builder (Richmond, 1931)—Ward looked to Thomas Jefferson’s library as a model.  Although he had more contemporary resources available, the painstaking process of reconstructing Jefferson’s library was a means of pulling together an authoritative basis for modern artistic and technical knowledge about architecture, landscape, decorative and mechanical arts, and fine arts.  When he retired from the college in 1949, the library, now in the second-floor gallery, had grown to nearly 25,000 books, prints and photographs; the Jefferson Architecture Collection had grown to 46 volumes and was housed in a seminar room dedicated to the study of American architecture.

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.

THE OBERLIN COLLEGE LIBRARY continues to expand the Jefferson Architecture Collection; in 2017 it includes all but a handful of the 62 books listed in Fiske Kimball’s 1916 bibliography. Clarence Ward began building the Jefferson collection that same year, and it has been relied upon by subsequent art librarians for the past 100 years. Today Oberlin’s replica collection is certainly the finest such collection outside of the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University.

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

Barbara Prior, Head, Clarence Ward Art Library

NEXT: Reconstructing Jefferson's Libraries

Last updated:
October 25, 2017