In Jefferson’s Shadow: The Architecture of Thomas R. Blackburn

by Karen L. Mulder

In Jefferson's Shadow: The Architecture of Thomas R. BlackburnIn Jefferson's Shadow: The Architecture of Thomas R. Blackburn by Bryan Clark Green. New York: Virginia Historical Society and Princeton Architectural Press, 2006. 256 pages. 120 color and black-and-white illustrations. ISBN: 1-56898-479-0. $50.00

How is taste in this beautiful art to be formed in our countrymen, unless we avail ourselves of every occasion…of presenting models for study and imitation?   

     —Jefferson to Madison, 1875


By their very nature, historical studies never quite arrive at a complete resolution. Details demand further exploration, misconceptions call for correction, and cherished biases eventually cry out for reassessment. Less frequently, the entire endeavor receives a boost when an overlooked cache of new archival materials surfaces. Such is the case with an extremely rare set of leather folders that yielded the lifework of one relatively anonymous Virginian builder, Thomas R. Blackburn (1795–1867). When the sketchbooks appeared on the market in the late 1990s, the rarity of the find created an immediate frisson of urgency among Virginia’s archivists—still smarting, perhaps, from the dismal turn of affairs a century earlier that siphoned Thomas Jefferson’s papers into the Massachusetts Historical Society. Against the odds, the Virginia Historical Society secured a hefty grant to purchase and preserve 108 architectural drawings dating from 1826 to 1858, in addition to a treasure trove of handwritten contracts, deeds and building specifications. Crisp reproductions from Blackburn’s files were recently released in Bryan Clark Green’s monographIn Jefferson’s Shadow: The Architecture of Thomas R. Blackburn.

Blackburn’s sketches constitute an extraordinary discovery because they yield concrete insights into the building arts at a time when materials, skilled labor and the practical aspects of construction challenged its practitioners to a “painful” degree in Virginia, according to the book’s introduction. Jefferson chose another way to describe the situation, in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), when he decried the lack of workmen who could even draw the classical orders, let alone build them, and dismally concluded that “the genius of architecture seems to have shed its maledictions over this land.” He experienced this shortfall firsthand, while overseeing the construction of Virginia’s State Capitol in Richmond during the 1780s. With typical efficiency, the Sage of Monticello eventually took the matter in hand by training Virginian workmen, including dexterous slaves, in the finer aspects of decent and civilized architectural construction, allowing them to copy from one of his editions of Palladio’s sixteenth-century treatise, I Quattro Libri. Green’s thorough introductory chapter reiterates well-established facts in the narrative; for example, Jefferson owned multiple copies of the 1720 Leoni edition of Palladio. The transference of Vitruvius’ first-century Roman classicism into Palladio’s sixteenth-century neoclassical treatise, and subsequently into stolid Virginian brick, wood and cast-iron elements, always seems tinged by a form of alchemy. Much as Jefferson cherished Charlottesville, the town existed in the middle of nowhere. Much as he adulated all things classical, the new republic had yet to settle on a truly “American” architectural expression for civic buildings when Jefferson instigated the University of Virginia’s “Academical Village” in 1817.

Palladio’s text provided the key paradigm, supplying proportioned drawings that enabled builders to compose accurate classical façades at various scales, allowing Jefferson to achieve the first use of the gigantic classical orders on the North American continent. As a rural builder, the young Blackburn undoubtedly apprenticed by example and through acquaintance with eighteenth-century pattern books and guides such as Asher Benjamin’s American Builder’s Companion, Batty Langley’s Builders’ Jewel, the Carpenter’s Pocket Dictionary and William Chambers’sTreatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture (1791). Green surmises that Blackburn, as a 22-year-old “mechanik” or “artificer,” answered Jefferson’s ad for carpenters in one of twenty-one papers. These ranged from small town tabloids to more substantial dailies as far away as Philadelphia—the country’s leading construction center and cultural capital. The most useful texts about the Lawn—such as the slim but thorough Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village: The Creation of an Architectural Masterpiece (1993) and Frederic Doveton Nichol’s monograph on Jefferson’s architectural drawings (2001)—frequently mention Jefferson’s reliance on Ulstermen John Dinsmore and John Neilson, as well as Monticello’s John Hemings (brother of the much-discussed Sally Hemings). Blackburn figures as a mere cipher in the account books. Green’s research dispels Blackburn’s previous anonymity as one of more than 200 workers on the site (inclusive of a Trump), but clearly demonstrates how Blackburn’s stint on the Lawn gave him direct access to an extraordinary architectural resource.

Green locates direct connections between Blackburn’s watercolor and gall-ink sketches and John Neilson’s field sketches, each marked by the pricking, scoring and penciling required to create accurate copies. We learn that, in practice, Blackburn preferred the simpler Tuscan and Doric orders to the Ionic—probably because they were more readily achieveable with Virginia’s stubborn materials and spotty workmanship; he never elected to use the more complicated Composite order. Underscoring Jefferson’s influence, Green reports that Neilson owned an astounding number of books for a builder (248 by 1741), and that Blackburn emulated the practice, although his descendants dispersed his collection long ago. Palladian premises and Jeffersonian predilections obviously influenced Blackburn’s subsequent projects. Blackburn’s use of oversized keystones in expansive wooden interior arches compares more obviously to features at Monticello or Poplar Forest, although they could just as well indicate a fashionable trend. Like Jefferson, Blackburn avoided large central staircases and selected Palladian proportions for his exteriors, while choosing interior plans that functioned more practically than Palladio’s squared grids, designed for ideal country villas.

During the Lawn project, Blackburn met bricklayer William Phillips, and their subsequent collaborations in Charlottesville indicate that the young builders clearly benefited from their associations on the Lawn. Primarily, Jefferson’s acquaintances, lawyer friends or relatives hired them. Jefferson’s great-nephew-in-law, John Davis, moved back to the Lawn as a professor of law shortly after Blackburn finished his house, only to be gunned down in front of Pavilion X by an unruly student in 1825. As for Blackburn, he eventually moved west to Staunton, where he answered demands for new housing and civic buildings brought on by the growth of manufacturing mills and a tourist industry centered around the area’s hot springs and caves. This led him to the project that occupied the greater part of his career, at the Western Lunatic Asylum. The circle of influence tightens when one considers that William Small, one of Benjamin Latrobe’s students, began the asylum; that Jefferson, as president, appointed Latrobe as the first official surveyor (architect) to Washington, D.C.; and that Latrobe influenced the shape of several structures on the Lawn. 

Green’s confident overview of Blackburn’s plans and schemes for the asylum introduces the book’s most original section. Few realize that Jefferson, like other Enlightenment-tinged thinkers, relied so fervently on reason that he believed orderly architecture contributed directly to ordered thinking—even in the case of documented lunatics. Surprisingly, the nation’s first asylum went up in 1773. Jefferson’s holistic architectural agenda for society included landscaping, ordered planning and idealized notions of human interactions within a space that, in and of itself, might provide a spontaneous cure for insanity. Consider the radical equanimity of this approach in comparison to the eighteenth-century English or European institutions that gave us “bedlam”—a contraction of Houses of Bethlehem—where the criminally insane or mentally ill were left to languish in appalling, unhygienic squalor. Additionally, Small’s initial design reflected the same innovations as state-of-the-art prison architecture—an X-shaped structure radiating out of a central collection point, that seems strikingly similar to John Haviland or Latrobe’s penitentiary designs in Pennsylvania. Unlike the prisons, however, the asylum needed to impress the relatives of affluent lunatics, inspiring the elegant use of cupolas, spiral staircases, delicately carved mullions and tracery, and Chinoiserie-patterned balustrades. As Green points out, when future president Millard Fillmore and philanthropist William Wilson Corcoran visited an asylum church service, witnesses relayed their astonishment upon seeing patients worshipping reverently and calmly in Blackburn’s austere Palladian chapel.

Other elements of architectural practice discussed in the book include recipes for “Brilliant Whitewash Stucco” and Blackburn’s ostensible “trade secrets” for transforming linen-wrapped wood frames into classically astute stone columns. Whether or not the reader requires all the detail provided on the vagaries of house joinery or asylum construction, Green’s contextual information and the drawings supply palpable connections to a previously overlooked eighteenth-century legacy. While working for the Virginia Historical Society, Green’s expanding expertise as a Blackburn scholar no doubt strengthened his temptation to link Jefferson’s circle in tighter arcs. Nevertheless, Green’s intimacy with the material sanctions these oversights and assumptions. In the process, he reveals a fascinating narrative about one man’s journey beyond the shadow, and past the circle of one of the nation’s greatest classicists.

Bryan Clark Green currently teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and advises Commonwealth Architects of Richmond.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2007, Volume 24, Number 2