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Initial Conception
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Initial Conception

Thomas Jefferson's conception of a university for the state of Virginia evolved over a period
of decades. The genesis is found in his bill for the general diffusion of knowledge in 1778,
and his mature thinking can be found in the establishment of the University of Virginia in
the nineteenth century. Not content to make the Virginia university just "another" school or
college, Jefferson conceived the idea of designing and building his school unlike others of
his day. The idea is apparent as early as 1805, when he wrote Littleton Waller Tazewell that
the "Large houses are always ugly, inconvenient, exposed to the accident of fire, and bad in
case 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.
These may be built only as they shall be wanting. In fact a university should not be a house
but a village." [20] Jefferson gave this concept greater expression five years later when
writing to Judge Hugh White of Kentucky:

I consider the common plan 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 separate
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, instead of a
large and common den of noise, of filth and of fetid air. It would afford that
quiet retirement so friendly to study, and lessen the dangers of fire, infection
and tumult. Every professor would be the police officer of the students adjacent
to his own lodge, which should include those of his own class of preference,
and might be at the head of their table, as I suppose, it can be reconciled with
the necessary economy to dine them in smaller and separate parties, rather than
in a large and common mess. These separate buildings, too, might be erected
successively and occasionally as the number of professorships and students
should be increased, or the funds become competent.[21]

An early ground plan for a cluster of structures based on the pattern indicated to White was
drawn by Jefferson in the summer of 1814 for the Albemarle Academy, an educational
institution which existed on paper only and of which Jefferson was a trustee. The academy's
board of trustees received the drawing in August 1814 from a committee previously
appointed to "form some idea of the probable cost of improving a site in the vicinity of the
town" for erecting the proposed academy near Charlottesville.[22] Jefferson's simple drawing
illustrates his concept of a large open square containing a series of individual pavilions
connected by student dormitories on three of the square's four sides. Notations on the
drawing suggest the buildings would front an open square of 257 yards. Gardens placed at
the backs of the buildings brought the square's outside limits to 357 yards. The ground plan
is on the verso of Jefferson's early study for a "typical" pavilion, a drawing showing the
elevation and floor plans for a two-story pavilion measuring 34 feet wide by 26 feet deep
and connected by dormitories of 10 by 14 feet surmounted by a Chinese railing.[23] These
drawings, purportedly the earliest of his college- or university-related drawings, may be the
plans that Jefferson presented to the Board of Visitors of the Central College for its
consideration in May 1817.[24]


20. TJ to Littleton Waller Tazewell, 5 January 1805, ViU:TJ; see also Norma Lois
Peterson,Littleton Waller Tazewell, 37-39. Littleton Waller Tazewell (1774-1860), who was
born in Williamsburg, was prominent in public service for nearly four decades: Virginia
House of Delegates, 1798-1801, 1804-1806, 1816-1817; United States House of
Representatives, 1800-1801; United States Senate, 1824-1832; Virginia Constitutional
Convention, 1829/1830; governor of Virginia, 1834-1836; died in Norfolk. Tazewell is
buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Norfolk.


21. TJ to Hugh White, c. 1810, DLC:TJ; see also Mulligan, Virginia: A History and Guide,


22. Minutes of the Trustees of Albemarle Academy, 19 August 1814, ViU:TJ.


23. The drawings are in ViU:TJ. For a description of the drawings, which were one time
thought to date from 1817, see Sherwood and Lasala, "Education and Architecture: The
Evolution of the University of Virginia's Academical Village," in Wilson, Thomas
Jefferson's Academical Village
, 12-13, and Lasla, "Thomas Jefferson's Designs for the
University of Virginia," #00-01, and #00-02. Facsimiles of the drawings can be found in
ibid., and see also Nichols, Thomas Jefferson's Architectural Drawings, 26.


24. Minutes of the Board of Visitors of Central College, 5 May 1817, ViU:TJ.