Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 813:
TWO MONTICELLOS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 813.

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 unfinished.

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 of construction.

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 work.

(Theme music)


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 me.)

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 artist.)





The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.


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