Monticello and U.Va. Restore Jeffersonian Columns
This past spring, Monticello’s famous West Portico began to more closely resemble its look during Thomas Jefferson’s life. Workers removed numerous layers of white paint from its columns and revealed and conserved the original tan colored stucco finish. The work is similar to that conducted on the University of Virginia’s Pavilion X, and two adjoining student rooms, in 2009.
Since 1923, Monticello has been owned and operated by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, a private, nonprofit organization. In 1987, Monticello and the University’s Academical Village, both designed by Jefferson, were jointly inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Throughout most of Jefferson’s life, temporary columns made from the trunks of tulip poplar trees supported the West Portico—the “nickel view” of Monticello. Proper Doric columns made of brick replaced them in 1823. While stone formed the bases and capitals of the new columns, specially molded, wedge-shaped “compass” bricks formed the shafts. Workers then covered the bricks with a stucco-like finish, called “render,” using a lime-based mortar.
If painted during Jefferson’s lifetime, workers would have used a lime-based whitewash, compatible with masonry and plaster. Over the years, however, they have received at least 19 coats of white oil-based paint. Historic paint consultants analyzed the paint and discovered that the original render had a heavy dirt layer, suggesting that it had remained exposed for many years, leading them to conclude that the columns were not painted white until sometime after Jefferson’s death in 1826.
Monticello’s architectural team also concluded that since the East Portico columns and rusticated woodwork were sand-painted to look like stone, Jefferson most likely intended the West Portico to have a similar look.
The University of Virginia launched a comparable project in 2009 to re-create the original appearance of the exteriors of Pavilion X and the two adjacent student rooms. The University re-created the 8 1/2-foot parapet at the pavilion’s roof. Parapets or balustrades were original on five of the 10 pavilions, but all were removed over the years. Pavilion X’s parapet, which survived until the 1890s, is the first one re-created.
Other alterations included changing the color of Pavilion X’s shutters to a medium green, changing the color of the pavilion’s wooden trim from white to a stone color, and removing white paint and restoring a tinted stucco surface to the column shafts.
The University has no immediate plans to alter the other nine pavilions. For now, the Pavilion X project allows the University to show a building that reflects Jefferson’s original intentions next to pavilions and student room whose appearance has evolved over time.
©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Robert L. Self