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Thomas Jefferson

Designing the Capitol

Jefferson drew his first design for a Virginia Capitol, possibly for Williamsburg, in the early or mid–1770s.  He had decided to treat the exterior as a giant Ionic temple and had also probably thought of using the Capitol to set a model for "cubic architecture" and the Orders.

The chance to create a new Capitol did not arise until 1785, when the commonwealth's Directors of Public Buildings requested a design from Jefferson while he was serving as minister to France.  The site chosen for the new building, Shockoe Hill, overlooked the falls of the James River in Richmond.  Jefferson consulted certain Greek and Roman temples, such as a temple at Baalbek and the Erechtheum and at this time probably developed the idea of the Capitol as a "temple" to Liberty or Justice.

Jefferson entrusted the preparation of the final drawings to Clérisseau, an internationally celebrated draftsman.  Clérisseau persuaded Jefferson to make a third design, reshaping the Capitol exterior on the example of the Maison Carrée, which Clérisseau convinced Jefferson was one of the greatest Roman buildings.  Intending to leave no doubts about the exterior form of the great specimen of classical architecture that would rise in Richmond, Jefferson adopted the costly European practice of commissioning a scale model of the proposed building and turned to the eminent modelmaker Jean-Pierre Fouquet (1752-1829).

Capitol Model

The plaster model for the Capitol of Virginia arrived in Richmond late in 1786.  Jefferson intended to provide "models of the front and side…in plaister of Paris" along with the drawings of his design prepared by Clérisseau.  Jefferson justified the additional expense of the model by proclaiming it "absolutely necessary for the guide of workmen not very expert in their art." He described the maker of the model, Jean–Pierre Fouquet (1752-1829), as "an artist who had been employed by the… ambassador of France to Constantinople, in making models of the most celebrated remains of ancient architecture in that country."  Fouquet was one of the most accomplished artisans working in the French architectural modelmaking tradition of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  The model for the Capitol of Virginia is his earliest extant work.  Fouquet's model, constructed of plaster of Paris at a scale of 1:60, or one inch to every five feet. and reinforced with internal iron rods, displayed architectural details with precision.

Instructions for unpacking model
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Instructions for unpacking model. 1786.  Manuscript.
Auditor of Public Accounts, Library of Virginia.

Fouquet's model served as a working prototype for the builders of the Virginia Capitol, but upon the building's completion it became an object of historic interest.   The rear wall was added in Virginia, probably to make the model more complete for exhibition in the executive mansion.  At that time, the entire model was given a thick coat of gray primer, apparently to unify the old and new surfaces.  The model was then painted to match the appearance of the stucco on the Capitol building, beginning a tradition of re–painting the model each time the color scheme of the Capitol changed.   Fouquet's original plaster surface is now obscured by as many as fifteen layers of paint.  During recent conservation of the model at Colonial Williamsburg, five nineteenth-century paint schemes were uncovered on the rear wall, each relating to images from particular periods of the Capitol's history:

1. 1798-1820, the original appearance of the Capitol

2. 1820-1840, the second paint scheme

3. 1840-1865, the Capitol before and during the Civil War

4. 1870-1885, the Capitol during the Reconstruction years

5. 1885-1904, the Capitol at the turn of the twentieth century

In June 1786 Clérisseau sent Jefferson his bill for the Capitol drawings and other items that he had provided.  Clérisseau referred to Jefferson's second and third designs for the Capitol when he wrote on his bill that "all these drawings had to be made twice before they were drawn correctly."  The drawings that Jefferson sent to Richmond in January 1786 disappeared after they were lent in 1791 for use in planning Washington, D.C.   Clérisseau also charged for drawings of Jefferson's never–executed conception for a state prison that B. Henry Latrobe designed ten years later.

Clérisseau's bill included a copy of his book, listed as Les antiquités de nismes, illustrating the Maison Carrée, for which Jefferson paid directly.   Along with most of his library, Jefferson sold the copy of the Antiquités to the Library of Congress in 1815.  A disastrous 1851 fire in the Library of Congress destroyed this volume, together with most of Jefferson's other books.

Statement of Account
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Statement of account, Thomas Jefferson to Auditor of Public Accounts.
December 9, 1789.  Manuscript.  Auditor of Public Accounts,
Library of Virginia.

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Invoice, Clérisseau to Thomas Jefferson, June 2, 1786.
Manuscript.  Auditor of Public Accounts,
Library of Virginia.

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Letter, Thomas H. Ellis to John M. Herndon.  April 6, 1868.
Manuscript.  Executive Papers, Governor Henry H. Wells, Library of Virginia.

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Account, C. W. McGinnis for painting model of the Capitol.
June 12, 1834.  Manuscript.  Auditor of Public Accounts, Library of Virginia.