THOMAS JEFFERSON’S POPLAR FOREST

THOMAS JEFFERSON’S POPLAR FOREST

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Main floor plan - Poplar Forest

 

 

In 1823, 80 year old Thomas Jefferson made his final visit to Poplar Forest in central Virginia.  He had built the secret house as an escape from his then too-frequently-visited mansion at Monticello, ninety miles to the north. The 2-1/2 to 3 day trip on horseback must have been a profoundly sad day for Jefferson because this little-known house was tied to so many intimate pieces of his life: his family, his illicit relationship with Sally Hemings, his treasured solitude, and perhaps of equal importance as all the rest, his abiding passion for the use of the octagon in architecture. That eight-sided geometric figure had appeared in so many of the President’s architecture and furniture designs that one could argue it contributed in no small way, decades later, to the emergence of the Era of Diagonality: first in the Octagon Fad in the middle of the nineteenth century, then, just before the start of the twentieth century, in the revolutionary work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

In 1800, during his second term as President of the United States, Jefferson was still looking for every opportunity to employ the octagon in which he saw such beauty and utility. It was then he designed a house with an octagon for his daughter Maria at Pantops, in Albemarle County, Virginia. Construction was started — then, so very sadly halted — when Maria died unexpectedly in 1804.  Roughly two years later, Jefferson dusted off the plan and used the octagonal scheme, mostly unaltered, for the design of Poplar Forest. It had only been five years earlier that Jefferson had completed the octagonal dome over the heart of his beloved architectural experiment at Monticello.

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“Plan for Bedford” an early Jefferson floor plan for Poplar Forest

For many years, Jefferson had longed for a place to escape for peace and quiet. He began construction of Poplar Forest when he was 62 years old on a site situated halfway between Lynchburg and Bedford, Virginia. In a letter from Washington, D.C. in 1806, when he was just a year into his second term as president, Jefferson wrote: “[I am] preparing an occasional retreat in Bedford, where I expect to settle some of my grandchildren.” It was not until 1809, just when his second term was ending, that the structure was made habitable. The house is situated ninety miles south of Monticello, (a 2-1/2 to 3 day trip on horseback), and so Jefferson visited the site only twice during the four years the house was under construction. A frequent exchange of hundreds of detailed letters between Jefferson and Hugh Chisolm, his chief carpenter and mason, helped assure the kind of exacting standards Jefferson required as a deeply involved and discriminating architect/owner.

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Poplar Forest is a six-room, two-story house whose basic footprint is an octagon. However, Jefferson would surely have referred to it as a one-story structure, which was the architectural fashion in France, his second home so to speak on the far side of the Atlantic. As at Monticello, a lower level of servant spaces opens to ground level at the rear of the house; an arrangement we, in the modern era, would call a walk-out basement.

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Although the body of the house, exclusive of porches and two enclosed exterior stair towers, is a pure octagon in plan, no rooms within the house, curiously enough, are themselves regular octagons (regular meaning all eight sides are of equal length).  On the main level, a perimeter ring of four elongated octagons frames a square, windowless, two-story, sky-lighted dining room; a spectacular and memorable architectural space. The house is an elegant and elemental mosaic of spaces that is truly expressive of Jefferson’s discriminating and creative mind. As historian Hugh Howard observes in Thomas Jefferson Architect, “The house at Poplar Forest has the purity of a geometry lesson.” (Howard 2003)

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Jefferson left only one of the four elongated perimeter octagons undivided, that is the south-facing parlor. The parlor is a pleasant well-proportioned space with four, floor-to-ceiling windows, fireplaces at both ends of the long room, and a centrally positioned door to a porch that overlooks his formal gardens covering an area roughly 90 by 200 feet. At the front of the house is a gracious, columned entry porch that echoes the layout of the porch at the rear. This front porch leads to one of the four elongated octagons, but this one, as mentioned above, is divided in two by a surprisingly narrow entrance hall. The hall provides access to two small front rooms and also leads directly to the dining room, a glorious twenty-foot cube of space. Surprisingly, the dining room is the brightest space in the house due to the 16’ long slot of skylight that provides a view of passing clouds. The only real view from the dining room to the outdoors is through a door-wide portal that opens onto the rear parlor.

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The two front rooms, separated by the aforementioned entrance passage, are very close to being half octagons, much like the many half-octagonal spaces Jefferson created at Monticello.  For the entrance hall, it appears that Jefferson slavishly followed the much more elaborate Inigo Jones model, which appeared in Designs of Inigo Jones published by William Kent in 1727.

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The two front rooms are almost identical in size and shape to the four semi-octagon chambers created by the division of the two long side bedrooms that flank the dining room in the other direction. These four chambers are the result of Jefferson’s decision to introduce built-in beds in the middle of the spaces much like a table sits in the middle of a dining room.  It’s similar to his design at Monticello, where Jefferson’s bed sits between his much admired bedroom and his office or “cabinet.”

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Like countless houses built during that era, Poplar Forest is somewhat enslaved by its symmetry.  The stair towers just outside the rooms with the built-in beds is a good example of why symmetry can be a design burden as much as a design blessing. The blessing usually consists of balanced aesthetics while the burden might be unnecessary costs and compromised functionality.  One stair might have been more than adequate but two were needed to maintain the visual balance.  In the end, however, Jefferson was forced to abandon the strict symmetry he was intent on creating.  In 1814 he constructed a sizable addition on the west side of the octagon to house his offices. It is hard to imagine Jefferson succumbing to this practical necessity in a manner that would do harm to his cherished Palladian symmetry, but succumb he did.  That is unless he always had in mind building a matching wing to the east, if and when his fortunes increased.

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That would have been none too soon because Jefferson was once again in serious debt. Another addition would have brought his house even closer in line with the perfectly symmetrical, multi-winged Palladian models he so admired.  Had Jefferson built just one stair tower, it could certainly have been successfully incorporated (concealed) into the office complex but this would have required knowledge in advance that the first wing would be built and this does not seem to be the case.  Although the stair towers do echo the historical prototypes that Jefferson had consulted, they fight the purity of the octagonal form and compromise the functionality of the bedrooms. At least on one side, servants had to pass through the bedroom chamber to get to the dining room — but then again, they were the servants.  To my architect’s eye, these stair towers appear clunky and take away from the purity of the building’s basic octagonal shape.  They also visually cramp the windows that flank them. It is likely Jefferson had seen in Gibbs’ A Book of Architecture, published in 1728, an octagon building with towers on both sides, although only one of Gibbs’ towers housed a stair. This view is supported by the fact that Hugh Howard, author of Thomas Jefferson Architect wrote, “ . . . in the 1770s, Jefferson had traced an octagonal plan from . . . [this book]”

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If no room in Poplar Forest is itself a regular octagon, one is apt to ask: Why did Jefferson fit all these non-octagonal and semi-octagonal spaces into an overall octagonal volume?  Did Jefferson begin with that simple overarching octagonal form and then devise an elegant geometric solution to accommodate his required functional spaces?  Or, did he begin doing space diagrams, (what modern architects call bubble diagrams), which, as they evolved, naturally led him to the octagonal footprint?  Or, did Jefferson steer the arrangement of rooms, sub-consciously or consciously, in one evolutionary sketch after another, into the octagonal shape because that was a shape that was embedded in his geometric psyche. This is much the way non-orthogonal shapes are embedded in the psyches of architects during the Era of Diagonality. Ample evidence for this predilection exists at Monticello (both in built and in  un-built studies) and in his many other earlier architectural projects.  Perhaps Jefferson simply came across a plan he liked of an octagon house in one of his many pattern books by British architects, such as Morris’s Select Architecture?

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Monticello

Whatever the many possible sources, and whatever the impact on Jefferson’s thinking, there is an exceptional elegance to his plan, much like a concise mathematical formula.  Nothing is extraneous, the parts fit together as if inevitably.  Each shape is married to those that are adjacent — each, in fact, shaping the geometry of its neighboring room.  Consider the placement of the fireplaces on the perimeter and their impact on what would otherwise be lozenge-shaped spaces.  The consequence of these fireplaces is that they spatially carry forward the octagonal theme of the house.

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What is known is that Jefferson did not start with an octagonal footprint in his sketches for Poplar Forest.  Around 1800, Jefferson visited his plantation in Bedford County, Virginia, future site of Poplar Forest and then began to prepare various studies for his hideaway. A notation in Jefferson’s handwriting, on one of the studies reads “Plan for Bedford,” (see plan above). This indicates these were likely early studies for Poplar Forest. The drawing with this notation illustrates, like his other sketches of that period, a rectangular building footprint featuring an octagonal room akin to Monticello.  It also had bedrooms with alcove beds, a feature he learned in France, and two small, almost hidden circular stairs symmetrically disposed to the centerline of the octagon.  What appear to be thin partitions, presumably of wood frame construction, enclosing the circular stairs create an octagonal end to the other large space in the house.  These are all familiar Jeffersonian architectural features that appear in Monticello and later at Poplar Forest.  However, in the end, the plan for Poplar Forest was, as Jefferson stated to his son-in-law, John Wayles Eppes, some years after Poplar Forest was built, “exactly on the plan once thought of for Pantops.”  (Chambers 1993)

Did Jefferson store away the idea for an almost pure octagon house until he could finally realize it for himself, later in his life?  Did he view the Poplar Forest project, reportedly the first octagonal house built in America, as some form of final realization of a life-long infatuation with the eight-sided geometric figure.  As early as 1760, during his two-year stint at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, the colonial capital of Virginia, Jefferson certainly would have seen the octagon-shaped brick Magazine that had been built there in 1715 to house rifles, pistols, bayonets and ammunition required to defend this early, politically-important settlement.

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No doubt, this would have been his first exposure to a freestanding octagonal structure because octagons in architecture were few and far between in colonial times.  It should be added that Jefferson saw the Magazine at the very impressionable age of seventeen, when his receptive eyes and mind were just opening to new thoughts in many diverse disciplines.  Unusual architectural models would no doubt have caught the eye of a free-thinking, non-conformist with strong aesthetic proclivities.  It should also be noted that in 1766, on a trip to Philadelphia, Jefferson likely saw and appreciated the hexagonal German Reform (Dutch Calvinist) Church, which had been built there in 1747.  Given his many books on architectural design, Jefferson also may have seen a design for an octagonal garden temple, which appeared in the book Neue Garten-und-Landschafts-Gebäudepublished between 1788 and 1789 by Wilhelm Gottlieb Becker.  (Chambers 1993)  Jefferson’s plan for Poplar Forest and this garden-temple plan are strikingly similar. What is particularly noteworthy is that Jefferson purchased a copy of the book in June 1805, a few months before he had sent his builder to the property to start preparing for the construction.  Allen Chambers writes the following regarding Jefferson’s sources:

Octagonal plans had been published in many architectural books before his time, for structures as diverse as garden temples, baptisteries, churches, and, on occasion, houses.  In 1727, British architect William Kent had shown an octagonal house in his DESIGNS OF INIGO JONES, a volume Jefferson owned by 1779. That design is for a far larger building than Poplar Forest, and the plan, though encased in an octagon, has none of the logical arrangement of spaces developed in Jefferson’s plan.” (Chambers 1993)

Another factor not previously cited by historians is that what may have figured in Jefferson’s thinking at the time he designed Poplar Forest, was construction of what is referred to as the “Octagon House” in Washington, DC. It was just being finished around the time that Jefferson became serious about designing his own octagonal retreat.  However, the Octagon House in Washington was an octagon in name only. Nevertheless, its polygonal plan and its distinctive name may have influenced Jefferson’s thinking. It was built at the intersection of New York Avenue and Eighteenth Street about the same time that the White House was under construction. Both were designed by the same person, Dr. William Thornton, a physician, architect, inventor (of a particle board made of wood shavings), city planner, painter, philosopher, and horse racer.  William Dunlap described Thornton as a man “full of talent and eccentricity . . . a man of infinite humor, humane and generous.”  The Octagon House was built for Colonel and Mrs. John Tayloe, owners of Mount Airy, one of the oldest and most venerable Virginia estates. In 1797, the Tayloes decided to build a townhouse and chose Philadelphia as the location. However, their close friend, President George Washington, intervened.  Washington, who himself had an octagon-shaped garden shed on his property at Mount Vernon, made the case that the new capital was a far more suitable location.  Washington painted a glowing picture of the new capital with its dramatic, Versailles-inspired city plan and its advanced radial boulevards (a scheme, which at this point was only on paper).  The Tayloes fell under Washington’s spell.  The house was finished in 1800, one year after President Washington died. They paid $1,000 for the V-shaped lot but then did not know where to turn for someone who could make sense of this challenging site configuration.  They turned to a man who was ‘nothing if not ingenious.’  It is possible that their friend, George, had suggested Thornton because Washington had himself selected Thornton’s competition entry for the design of the nation’s Capitol, beating out trained, professional architects.  Thornton was born to Quaker parents on the Island of Tortula in the Virgin Islands and was educated in England.  The plan of the house is more of a hexagon than an octagon but the Tayloes called it their Octagon House and the name stuck.  That name no doubt resonated in Jefferson’s mind and perhaps he may have thought, “Well, if they can build an Octagon House, so can I, and the geometry of my house can be truer to the geometric appellation.”  It is very likely that Jefferson visited the house because it was a magnet for important people in the new capitol for the first quarter century after its construction.

Regarding other sources for octagonal design ideas authorities have also suggested Andrea Palladio’s renowned 16th century, Villa Rotunda, mentioned above (even though it is not an octagon — although the central plan and projecting porches are reminiscent), and also several octagonal designs that appeared in Robert Morris’s Select Architecture.  Fiske Kimball, who has written extensively on Jefferson’s architecture, reports that Jefferson had a copy of Morris’ book as early as 1783.  Jefferson referred to Morris’ book frequently, according to the late art historian, Clay Lancaster, who built a version of the Tower of the Winds, the first recorded octagonal building in the world, still standing in Athens Greece. [see the article on the Tower of the Winds in the Projects section of this website]

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Diagonals that spring from the corners of the square dining room to bisect the sides of the octagon is a theme frequently adopted by 20th century architects such as in Louis I. Kahn’s Goldenberg House1959 project in Rydal, PA (unbuilt) in which diagonals spring as structural elements from a central square and then find expression as exterior diagonal walls that dramatically contrast with the otherwise orthogonal arrangement of spaces. [Fig 2.1.21]  Kahn later said he always starts with a square but recognized that a house is a complex and fluid composition of spaces driven by internal needs. He felt that a house requires flexibility and a radiating scheme, which, absent an over-riding symmetry, was mandatory. Interesting is the fact that Fiske Kimball published his book Thomas Jefferson, Architect in 1916 just a few years before Kahn entered the school of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Perhaps this book which described Poplar Forest as “ . . . a type hitherto unused in America — a single regular octagon” fell into Kahn’s hands and the notion was stored away for future use. (Chambers 1993)

Behind artificial mounds that were formed on each side of the house, Jefferson constructed beautifully proportioned privies, or necessaries, as they were called. Octagonally-faceted domes cap the octagonal outhouses.  One is inclined to ask: Was there a reason Jefferson was so attracted to this eight-sided form for his necessaries?  It’s been said that he saw functional advantages to the octagon, such as for air, light, and the views.  But these advantages, save for fresh air, do not apply to a windowless privy.

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Writer Hugh Howard’s claim that Jefferson liked the octagon shape because “ . . . it meant that the windows faced not four directions, but eight, increasing interior light and ventilation.” (Howard 2003)These are the same virtues identified by Orson S.  Fowler in his book, A Home for All – The Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building, which started an octagon home building craze later in the century.  One wonders whether Fowler learned of the design of Poplar Forest and Jefferson’s reported statements of its merits from contemporary news reports when the house burned in November, 1845, leaving it a roofless shambles.  On November 24, the Lynchburg Virginian reported the tragedy but made no mention of the design although indicating that by that time it was ‘extensively’ known that Jefferson had built and owned the house.  (Chambers 1993)  In his book, Fowler includes a plan for an octagon house, which he calls the best plan yet.  It was recommended to him by his engraver, Mr. Howland, whom Fowler describes as a man with “quite an architectural taste and talent.”  The Howland plan is surprising similar to Poplar Forest.  It has a central square with four surrounding rooms and diagonal partitions that spring from the corners of the square echoing Jefferson’s basic parti or scheme. The four surrounding rooms have truncated corners that are somewhat like semi-octagons but their primary spatial impact is orthogonal.  A major difference from that Howland’s central square is in proportion to the rest of the design and is used as a stair hall not a dining room.  Similar to many Fowler-era floor plans, triangular spaces are used freely with questionable utility.

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Late in life, around 1821, Jefferson wrote his friend and protégé William Short, that [I] like to “. . . pass my time there [Poplar Forest] in a tranquility and retirement much adapted to my age and indolence.”  (Chambers 1993).  And for twenty years it served that purpose.  In 1822 he was still ordering plaster ornaments for the dining room frieze, but by this time he was too frail to make the three-day trip to his almost finished secret retreat.  In 1823, three years before he died, Jefferson gifted the house and property to his grandson, Francis Eppes. Eppes might have repaid the kindness by not penning his last letter to his grandfather, who was then in a seriously compromised state of health. Eppes reported that the roof (and skylight) at Poplar Forest was leaking “not in one but a hundred places.”  Twelve days later, Jefferson died at Monticello.The date was July 4th, the same day his good friend John Adams died in New England!

A replica of Poplar Forest was almost built in the beginning of the nineteenth century when Jefferson responded to a request from his friend, Joseph Cabell. For one reason or another, it was never built. However, in 1933, on the Farmington estate previously owned by Divers, two architects from Lynchburg, Virginia, Stanhope S. Johnson and R. O. Brannan actually created a version of Jefferson’s Poplar Forest for their clients Mr. And Mrs. E. J. Perkins. Poplar Forest was reincarnated at Farmington as Oak Forest.  This was one of the first future reincarnations similar to the history of the octagonal Tower of the Winds, also octagonal, recreated many times through the centuries, throughout the world and most recently at the end of the 20th century by the late art historian, Clay Lancaster, on his estate in Kentucky.

Jefferson’s name is associated with other octagon-based designs executed in the beginning of the nineteenthth century. But it was left for Orson Fowler in the middle of that century to start what is known as The Octagon Fad that resulted in thousands of octagon-shaped houses, barns, schoolhouses, and at least one hotel built across the United States. In 1896, Frank Lloyd Wright, very early in his career, designed what has become known as the “Romeo and Juliet Windmill” near Spring Green, Wisconsin. The plan of this landmark structure is based upon an acutely angled diamond penetrating halfway into an octagon. Sexual inferences aside, the geometry makes perfect structural sense for a tower built at the crest of a windy hill. Architectural historian Neil Levine has written, “Wright called the composition Romeo and Juliet, likening its conjugate geometry to an amorous union.”

It is possible that Wright’s mother, who was deeply involved in her son’s education and career-selection, brought Frank’s attention to at least ten octagon houses that were built in Wisconsin prior to his work on the windmill.  Octagon houses during that period were a popular novelty. Even if Wright had not actually seen one of these, they would certainly have appeared in the news with great fanfare. The tower, to be discussed elsewhere on this site in greater detail, can be regarded as a most auspicious start to the Era of Diagonality in the modern world. Fortunately, it still stands on top of a hill, the flagship of a new, daring, and revolutionary geometric order.

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It was the very same year, 1823, that the German artist Caspar David Friedrich completed his iconic painting The Wreck of the Hope and that Thomas Jefferson made hist last visit to Poplar Forest. Over time, both Jefferson’s house and Friedrich’s painting changed the geometric course of art and architecture in the modern era. Both projects were almost unkown at the time they were executed, but their angular geometry ignited a new vision in the minds of those who later saw them.

 

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