Today, the remarkable story of how Monticello got
its dome. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
I spent spring of 1954 at an
Army base near Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. I
hid out in the Library at William and Mary College.
It was winter -- off season for the tourists. This
was where Thomas Jefferson went to college. I used
the same buildings he did when he was a student
there in 1760.
The best of those buildings were made in our
distinct Colonial adaptation of baroque European
architecture. When he was 25, Jefferson began
designing his dream mansion in that style.
He chose a remote but stunningly beautiful site he
called the Little Mountain, Monticello. Three years
later he moved in with his new bride, Martha. It
was home during the American Revolution. Then
Martha died in 1781 with the house still
Three years later, Jefferson, still grieving, went
to France as foreign minister. And a strange thing
happened in Paris.
In 1786 the artist John Trumbull took Jefferson to
see the new Grain Exchange building. It was fitted
with a great 130-foot iron dome -- a marvelous feat
There Jefferson met the free-wheeling English
miniaturist Richard Cosway and his wife. She was
the artist and composer Maria Cosway. In October
the Cosways went back to England. By then Jefferson
and Maria had been close friends for several
months, and his heart had quite taken leave of him.
He could only stutter about her departing carriage.
So he went home to write a love letter in the form
of a dialogue between his Head and Heart.
"The art of life is the art of avoiding pain," his
Head tells him. His Heart replies, "What more
sublime delight than to mingle tears with one whom
the hand of Heaven has smitten." This had
definitely been a two-way street.
But something else entirely comes out of this
dialogue. His Heart blames his Head for taking them
off to the Grain Exchange that day. Heart was
interested only in Maria. Head was carried away by
the architectural triumph of that great dome.
So the rationalist Jefferson fused heart and head
in a remarkable action: He returned to America with
Maria, and that Grain Exchange building, on his
mind. He went back to work on Monticello with the
idea that she should come away from royal England,
into the lovely American wilderness, and see it.
He never saw Maria again, but he tore the old
Monticello apart and created a new thing entirely.
The central focus was now a great dome -- the dome
of the Grain Exchange. It was the Monticello you
look at every time you spend a nickel. And
Jefferson's cry of pain was swallowed up in a most
remarkable act of rational self-expression.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Adams, W.H., Jefferson's Monticello. New
York: Cross River Press, Ltd., 1983. (I am very
grateful to the people at Detering's Book Gallery in
Houston, for making this fine volume available to
Bullock, H. D., My Heart and Head: A Little
History of Thomas Jefferson and Maria
Cosway. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1945.
Cripe, H., Thomas Jefferson and Music.
Charlottesville, VA: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1979.
(Helen Cripe is not particularly kind about Maria
Coslaw's music. Indeed, she reports that when Maria
sent Jefferson her compositions, he -- a fairly
accomplished violinist -- said as little as
possible about them. She was much better as an
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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