The columns of Carr's Hill rise dramatically to nearly twenty-four feet in height, creating an impressive, if not daunting, approach to the house. The columns, along with the scale of the entire portico and the site, facing south on top of a small hill, evoke a variety of images, ranging from the pavilions across the street to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello on a hilltop a few miles away, to perhaps even the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens, which also occupies a similar dramatic position. Dominance best describes Carr's Hill. In a sense that was the intent behind it: to add a building of distinction to the grounds of one of America's greatest designs, the University of Virginia, and to indicate that the University stood on a par with other institutions of higher learning.
Carr's Hill, both the site and the house, has a long history, as Margaret Klosko well demonstrates in this book. Students lived on the hill many years prior to its selection as the location for the residence of the University's first president and his wife, Edwin and Bessie Alderman. With the selection of Alderman as the first president in 1905, the University shifted from the minimal management mode favored by Jefferson back in the 1820s to a new model that featured a chief executive with extensive administrative powers. The chaos surrounding the great fire of 1895, which severely damaged the Rotunda, and the rebuilding of the Rotunda and construction of the new Cabell, Rouss, and Cocke Halls over the next two years, demonstrated the limitations of Jefferson's system of governance, which called for only two managers: the rector or head of the Board of Visitors, and the chair of the University's faculty. The University lacked a managerial system to handle such a large project. So poorly run was the University that the architects for the rebuilding, McKim, Mead & White, were very glad to be rid of the place when work was completed in March 1898. Also the University suffered in comparison with its peers in both the North and South, as many institutions, beginning in the 1870s, installed strong presidents or chief executive officers. In the same decade, the German model of the university as a center of research and the new concept of graduate programs began to make a significant impact upon American higher education. The University of Virginia, however, lagged far behind. Hence, the fire acted as a wake-up call. Out of the ruins came a new University and the office of president.
The new president needed a residence, and that he chose not to live in the "academical village" but rather in a separate house, amply indicated the elevated status of the office. Instead of being one with the faculty, Alderman stood above his colleagues, as the selection of the site on Carr's Hill indicated. While the president's offices were located on the Lawn, the new chief executive would need space for entertaining without the intrusive presence of students, whose behavior at times could be distracting.
McKim, Mead & White-the leading architectural firm in the country-agreed to design again for the University in spite of the many problems they had encountered during their earlier work on the Rotunda and new halls. Their willingness indicates both their belief that under the new administration support would be available for new buildings and also their respect for Thomas Jefferson as an architect. Although today we hail Jefferson as America's first and in many ways our most important architect, his reputation began to grow only in the 1890s. With the exception of some of the locals in Charlottesville and family members who published biographies, knowledge of Jefferson's architectural activities remained a blank for much of the nineteenth century. The first history of American art, written by William Dunlap in 1834, credited Jefferson with the design of the University, but buried the acknowledgment under Jefferson's architect-comrades Robert Mills and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Dunlap also implied that Mills designed Monticello. This lack of awareness was not surprising since most Americans professed little interest in early architecture, or in American history. Yes, reverence existed for the founding fathers, and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association had "saved" Washington's house in 1858, but Jefferson existed in a sort of historical limbo since his views on state's rights lay behind the arguments of the secessionists and the Confederacy. Also, Charlottesville's location in an obscure rural area helped create a national amnesia about the University and its architecture.
Around the later 1880s, however, interest in colonial-era architecture began to rise, and Jefferson's activities as an architect and specifically with the University began to attract some notice. Herbert Baxter Adams, a historian at Johns Hopkins University, wrote a book in 1888 on the University, identifying Jefferson as a higher education pioneer for his original system of electives rather than the usual required course of study, and his idea of graduate study. Adams praised the University's architecture: "the very ground-plan and structure of its buildings, every material estimate and every architectural detail are the work of Thomas Jefferson."
Charles McKim, the senior member of the McKim, Mead & White firm, had expressed some interest in Jefferson's work in 1890, and then in May 1895, several months before the fire, he visited the University to admire the design. Several of the firm's major projects of the 1890s, such as Columbia University's new campus at Morningside Heights, and New York University's Bronx campus, drew upon the plan of Jefferson's University. It was clear that the firm had tremendous respect for Jefferson's architecture. The fact that the country was just emerging from a severe recession might also have made a major project like this particularly attractive. In any event, soon after the fire of October 27, 1895, William R. Mead, the second name on the letterhead, approached the University about hiring the firm as architects for the rebuilding.
In spite of the major managerial and financial problems surrounding their work of 1896–98, McKim, Mead & White agreed to return to Charlottesville, and in a letter, they stated: "A great honor was conferred upon us when we were asked to restore Jefferson's beautiful rotunda and complete the campus of the University of Virginia, which we consider in many ways the most beautiful groups of collegiate buildings in the world." Alderman offered the firm two projects, a dining hall (Garrett Hall) and the president's house, specifying that he wanted the effect created by them "not to be pretentious" but to be "modest." He also wished that "they may harmonize with the spirit of our architectural standards." Unfortunately, and presaging future problems, Alderman warned that the University would oversee the construction in order to save money.
With Stanford White in charge, the firm immediately began to design the new resident's residence, but White's ideas differed from Alderman's. In a letter, White cited as examples for the president's house Monticello, Madison's Montpelier, and the "college buildings on the grounds." He also argued that the new house should be "patrician in character."
The old architectural adage "With the house the woman rules" proved very true in the ensuing months as the firm struggled to provide an acceptable plan. Margaret Klosko provides a full narrative of how Mrs. (and Mr.) Alderman wanted a plan close to a house they had probably visited in New Orleans. Extremely dissatisfied with White's original submissions of two plans (which apparently do not survive), Bessie Alderman went to New York to discuss the project with Stanford White.
The Aldermans seemed not to understand that bringing the carriage drive right to the front door, or portico, would be difficult given the grade at the front. White's sudden death on June 25, 1906 (he was murdered), tossed his design into limbo. The person who took over the project was not one of White's assistants but Charles McKim's right-hand man, William M. Kendall, who had just become a partner in the firm. Kendall recognized the problems of White's plans and, following another architectural adage -"Give the client what he wants" -he acquiesced to Mrs. Alderman's demands and followed the New Orleans model, albeit with changes.
In its unique adaptation of a New Orleans plan, Carr's Hill also reinterprets Jefferson's pavilions at the University and other elements of his work. The house is a large square structure with a symmetrical front façade and an entrance at the middle, in effect an enlarged pavilion from the Lawn moved across the street and placed on top of a hill. Pedestrians entered from the front up a steep walk, while on the west side, a porte cochere was provided for carriages. The large swelling bay on the east side off the dining room distinctly recalled many of Jefferson's plans, though Jefferson would have balanced it with a similar bay on the opposite side. Whether McKim, Mead & White ever advocated a similar symmetry remains unclear. Had they proposed another bay, the University's money problems probably would have prevented it.
Additionally, the variegated red and black brick laid up in a Flemish bond recalls the brickwork of buildings on the Lawn. The laying up of the bricks and the joints of Carr's Hill's lacks the precision of the original Lawn masonry by William Phillips, but it is far better than the brick laying for Cabell Hall and the other buildings at the south end of the Lawn. Also mimicking Jefferson are the tall ground-floor windows and the smaller second-floor windows. Distinctly un-Jeffersonian are the triangular pediments over the windows, but they were not in McKim, Mead & White's drawings and may have been an addition of William Lambeth, who oversaw the construction for the University. McKim, Mead & White had proposed flat brick arches similar to those of Jefferson, while the replacement pediments crowd the façades and make them too busy. The small second-floor balcony on the front recalls Jefferson's at the University, but lacks their integration and purpose. Jefferson's balconies allowed the pavilions' professors to visit one another without descending to the student level, but at Carr's Hill, the balcony is only for show. Originally, a balustrade capped the top of the house, but that was removed in 1991. McKim, Mead & White employed spindles for the balcony and balustrade, not Jefferson's usual Chinese Chippendale railings. The Chinese Chippendale motif does appear on the porte cochere, however.
Distinctly non-Jeffersonian is the front door with its elaborate fan-and side-lights, and involved ornamentation. Here McKim, Mead & White appear to have looked at buildings from the so-called Federalist period (1780–1820) and the involved ornament employed by one of Jefferson's rivals, Charles Bulfinch of Boston. The origins of Bulfinch's work lie with the Englishman Robert Adam, whose work Jefferson knew well as he had visited several Adam houses while in England during 1786. Jefferson in general rejected Adam's involved ornament, but McKim, Mead & White used it, no doubt because it was of "the period." Also the architects probably believed that such an important house needed an impressive entrance door.
The giant portico with its tall columns (three inches shy of twenty four feet) is the most overtly Jeffersonian element, and equally, a departure. Jefferson helped introduce the classical temple front into American architecture. Although there were several predecessors, Jefferson's designs for the Virginia State Capitol (1785 onward), his second Monticello (1796 onward), and the University of Virginia help make the large columnar temple front an identifying feature of American architecture. Giant porticos, influenced in many cases by Jefferson and his followers, began to dot the American landscape north and south. The Roman origin of the portico was one of the reasons why McKim, Mead & White, who led the classical revival of the turn of the century, found such sympathy with Jefferson's architecture. Unlike Jefferson's porticos, however, the portico that McKim, Mead & White devised for Carr's Hill is not integrated into the design, nor does the portico's entablature continue on the rest of the front façade as on the Lawn's pavilions. Only the small upper element, the corona, continues around the rest of the exterior of Carr's Hill. The pediment, on the other hand, does contain a typical Jefferson fanlight, as seen at Monticello and on buildings on the Lawn.
The Greek Doric order of Carr's Hill's portico both refers to Jefferson and expands upon him. For the pavilion fronts on the Lawn, which Jefferson explained were to "serve as specimens for the architectural lectures," he turned to façades and details from various ancient Roman buildings. Jefferson's source for the pavilion fronts came from two books: the first by Andrea Palladio, a sixteenth-century Italian architect and treatise writer, and the second by Fréart de Chambray, a seventeenth-century French architect and author. Both on his drawings and in his specification book, Jefferson precisely outlined the details and the sources. In Jefferson's mind, Palladio represented the modern, or contemporary, whereas Fréart de Chambray represented the ancient. Thus Jefferson set up a dialogue between the past and the future on the Lawn. As noted, all of the sources were ancient Roman (not Greek), as for example the Ionic from the Temple of Fortuna Virilis for Pavilion II, and the Ionic of the Theater of Marcellus for Pavilion IV. Each pavilion referred to a different Roman source. In contrast to Jefferson's Roman sources, McKim, Mead & White turned to Greek architectural details for their additions to the south end of the Lawn. Greek in origin were the pediment sculpture by George Julian Zolnay and the inscription in Greek on Cabell Hall's façade, along with the pediment acroterions on all three buildings.
The Doric order at Carr's Hill, with the smooth column bases that rise for eight feet with fluting above, can be found in a number of Greek and Roman sources, but perhaps most prominently on stoas, such as the Stoa of Attalus in Athens. The lack of fluting on the lower portion prevented chipping caused by people rubbing against the columns. Throughout the ancient classical world, from tombs in Alexandria to examples in Pompeii, these two-thirds-fluted columns can be found. McKim, Mead & White quite clearly continued the dialogue that Jefferson had instituted on the Lawn, but now Greek sources entered into play.
On the interior, the University's penurious position meant that Carr's Hill lacked many of the elaborate decorative touches of other McKim, Mead & White houses, as well as some typical Jeffersonian features. Jefferson demanded large and heavy moldings in his rooms, imitating and continuing the exterior details, but at Carr's Hill, the moldings are minimal and small in scale. Distinctly un-Jeffersonian is the large and prominent staircase in the hall. Jefferson preferred staircases to be hidden, as at Monticello. The large arch separating the stairs from the hall recalls Jefferson's interior arches in the dining room at Monticello, but its proportions are distorted. The interior woodwork around the doors was originally painted a variety of green colors, and sliding mahogany doors were used for the main rooms off the hall. Who supplied the fireplace mantels remains unclear. McKim, Mead & White wanted them made in New York, but again cost probably ruled, and they were made locally.
Labeling McKim, Mead & White's design for Carr's Hill can be difficult. McKim, Mead & White are usually identified as Beaux-Arts architects, even though only Charles McKim ever attended the Ècole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. White and the firm certainly followed the classical principles of the Beaux-Arts, however. White wanted a "patrician" house, and the building as completed incorporated elements of the Aldermans' New Orleans beau ideal, along with Jeffersonian and American architecture from the period, 1800 to 1850. The great portico that Jefferson employed in his buildings became a ubiquitous feature as it was replayed countless times, especially in the homes of the wealthy across the American South. Indeed, the great portico or columnitus giganticus became inaccurately known as "olde Southern colonial," even though it appeared in northern states. In a sense, the giant columns were part of a search for a southern historical identity, and it succeeded. The great Greco-Roman portico became a staple of popular culture, while Carr's Hill became another element in the architectural dialogue of the University that Jefferson originally projected, now incorporating the ancient Greek past and the American South.
Faced with problems of finances and also a client with very specific wishes, McKim, Mead & White were able to adopt a variety of sources. They recognized the genius and power of Jefferson's original design across the street. Their intention was never to mimic or copy exactly, but to reinterpret creatively and add a new element to the architectural conversation of the University. Architecture to them needed to be decently respectful of the past, while also serving a new purpose. Jefferson's vision was reinterpreted once again, creating a new architectural landmark.