Monticello, Jefferson's Home: Architecture & Garden

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about the architecture and gardens of Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello. We will high key architectural points of interest and we will learn about the gardens surrounding his home.

Monticello: An Exquisite Plantation Home

If you ever get the opportunity to visit Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, located in Charlottesville, Virginia, it will likely be an experience you will not easily forget. The plantation home of America's third president is stunning: it sits atop a hill and the view of Virginia countryside is spectacular. The property contains exquisite gardens, beautifully landscaped floral areas, and even Thomas Jefferson's final resting place. If you ever have the chance to visit, be sure to stop by his tombstone and pay your respects. The house itself is an architectural delight. In this lesson, we will explore the architecture and the surrounding gardens of Monticello. Let's dig in!

Architecture of Monticello

We all know that Thomas Jefferson was the third President of the United States and that he wrote the Declaration of Independence, but sometimes we forget what a ''Renaissance man'' he was. This term means he excelled in a number of diverse areas. For example, he was also a gifted inventor, philosopher, and naturalist (scientist). He also had a deep passion for architecture and was himself a talented architect. He once wrote to a friend, ''Architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements.'' Thomas Jefferson designed and constructed Monticello himself. It proved to be a highly sophisticated and efficient house.

Thomas Jefferson was a true Renaissance man. He was gifted in many areas, one of which was architecture

Construction on Monticello began around 1768 or 1769 when Jefferson was just 25 or 26 years old. As the site for his home, Jefferson chose a round hill overlooking the Charlottesville area. Most of the home was built by white laborers, although John Hemming, one of Jefferson's slaves and a master craftsman in his own right, worked on the interior. The first portion of Monticello was finished in 1772, but what we need to understand is that the home was a continual work-in-progress. Up until his death in 1826, Jefferson was always making improvements, additions, and remodeling.

Monticello is constructed in a neo-classical architectural style. Neo-classical architecture draws from classical Greek and Roman architecture. Columns, pillars, arches, and domes are common elements of neo-classical architecture. Some of the best examples of neo-classical architecture are in Washington, D.C. If you look at buildings like the U.S. Capitol, the Jefferson Memorial, the Supreme Court Building, and others, you will be able to gain an understanding of the central features of neo-classical architecture.

In his construction of Monticello, Jefferson was highly influenced by Italian architecture. The word ''Monticello'' itself is an Italian word meaning ''small mountain'' and Jefferson considered his home a sort of Italian villa. Italian influences were strong in the first construction of Monticello. Jefferson was also influenced by French architecture. Writing to a friend in 1785, he stated: ''Were I to proceed to tell you how much I enjoy their architecture, sculpture, painting, music, I should want words.'' Jefferson lived in France during from 1784-1789, and upon his return to Monticello, he remodeled the house to reflect some of the influences of French neo-classical architecture. Among his most significant French influences was the Hôtel de Salm, in Paris, which provided him with inspiration for the 1790s remodeling and additions of Monticello.

The Hotel de Salm in Paris provided Jefferson with inspiration for the design of Monticello

Monticello contains 43 rooms and 11,000 square feet of space. It is laid out with an East and West portico (a porched area in which columns support the roof). Extending north and south are raised terraces (walkways). If you're looking at Monticello from above, in some ways it resembles a plus sign. In the center is a dome. The house contains numerous windows, allowing for ample natural light. Square, pentagonal, and even an octagonal rooms make up the interior. Bright colors, such as yellows, greens, and blues are featured in the interior color scheme.

While Monticello contained elements of Italian and French neo-classical influence, Jefferson's own renditions made him an influential architect in his own right. His designs at the University of Virginia and elsewhere influenced American neo-classical architecture for the next two centuries.

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