To William Buchanan and James Hay Paris, January 26, 1786

The Letters of Thomas Jefferson


-- I had the honor of writing to you, on the receipt of your orders to procure draughts for the public buildings, and again, on the 13th of August. In the execution of these orders, two methods of proceeding presented themselves to my mind. The one was, to leave to some architect to draw an external according to his fancy, in which way, experience shews, that, about once in a thousand times, a pleasing form is hit upon; the other was, to take some model already devised, and approved by the general suffrage of the world. I had no hesitation in deciding that the latter was best, nor after the decision, was there any doubt what model to take. There is at Nismes, in the south of France, a building called the Maison quarree, erected in the time of the Caesars, and which is allowed, without contradiction, to be the most perfect and precious remain of antiquity in existence. Its superiority over any thing at Rome, in Greece, at Balbec or Palmyra, is allowed on all hands; and this single object has placed Nismes in the general tour of travellers. Having not yet had leisure to visit it, I could only judge of it from drawings, and from the relation of numbers who had been to see it. I determined, therefore, to adopt this model, and to have all its proportions justly observed. As it was impossible for a foreign artist to know, what number and sizes of apartments would suit the different corps of our government, nor how they should be connected with one another, I undertook to form that arrangement, and this being done, I committed them to an architect (Monsieur Clerissault) who had studied this art twenty years in Rome, who had particularly studied and measured the Maison quarree of Nismes, and had published a book containing most excellent plans, descriptions, and observations on it. He was too well acquainted with the merit of that building, to find himself restrained by my injunctions not to depart from his model. In one instance, only, he persuaded me to admit of this. That was, to make the portico two columns deep only, instead of three, as the original is. His reason was, that this latter depth would too much darken the apartments. Economy might be added, as a second reason. I consented to it, to satisfy him, and the plans are so drawn. I knew that it would still be easy to execute the building with a depth of three columns, and it is what I would certainly recommend. We know that the Maison quarree has pleased, universally, for near two thousand years. By leaving out a column, the proportions will be changed, and perhaps the effect may be injured more than is expected. What is good, is often spoiled by trying to making it better.

The present is the first opportunity which has occurred of sending the plans. You will, accordingly, receive herewith the ground plan, the elevation of the front, and the elevation of the side. The architect having been much busied, and knowing that this was all which would be necessary in the beginning, has not yet finished the sections of the building. They must go by some future occasion, as well as the models of the front and side, which are making in plaister of Paris. These were absolutely necessary for the guide of workmen, not very expert in their art. It will add considerably to the expense, and I would not have incurred it, but that I was sensible of its necessity. The price of the model will be fifteen guineas. I shall know in a few days, the cost of the drawings, which probably will be the triple of the model: however, this is but conjecture. I will make it as small as possible, pay it, and render you an account in my next letter. You will find, on examination, that the body of this building covers an area, but two fifths of that which is proposed and begun; of course, it will take but about one half the bricks; and, of course, this circumstance will enlist all the workmen, and people of the art against the plan. Again, the building begun, is to have four porticoes; this but one. It is true that this will be deeper than those were probably proposed, but even if it be made three columns deep, it will not take half the number of columns. The beauty of this is insured by experience, and by the suffrage of the whole world: the beauty of that is problematical, as is every drawing, however well it looks on paper, till it be actually executed: and though I suppose there is more room in the plan begun, than in that now sent, yet there is enough in this for all the three branches of government, and more than enough is not wanted. This contains sixteen rooms; to wit, four on the first floor, for the General Court, Delegates, lobby, and conference. Eight on the second floor, for the Executive, the Senate, and six rooms for committees and juries: and over four of these smaller rooms of the second floor, are four mezzininos or entresols, serving as offices for the clerks of the Executive, the Senate, the Delegates, and the Court in actual session. It will be an objection, that the work is begun on the other plan. But the whole of this need not be taken to pieces, and of what shall be taken to pieces, the bricks will do for inner work. Mortar never becomes so hard and adhesive to the bricks, in a few months, but that it may be easily chipped off. And upon the whole, the plan now sent will save a great proportion of the expense.

Hitherto, I have spoken of the capitol only. The plans for the prison, also, accompany this. They will explain themselves. I send, also, the plan of the prison proposed at Lyons, which was sent me by the architect, and to which we are indebted for the fundamental idea of ours. You will see, that of a great thing a very small one is made. Perhaps you may find it convenient to build, at first, only two sides, forming an L; but of this, you are the best judges. It has been suggested to me, that fine gravel, mixed in the mortar, prevents the prisoners from cutting themselves out, as that will destroy their tools. In my letter of August the 13th, I mentioned that I could send workmen from hence. As I am in hopes of receiving your orders precisely, in answer to that letter, I shall defer actually engaging any, till I receive them. In like manner, I shall defer having plans drawn for a Governor's house, &c., till further orders; only assuring you, that the receiving and executing these orders, will always give me a very great pleasure, and the more, should I find that what I have done meets your approbation.

I have the honor to be, with sentiments of the most perfect esteem, gentlemen,

your most obedient and most humble servant,

P. S. I must add a prayer for some Peccan nuts, 100, if possible, to be packed in a box of sand and sent me. They might come either directly or via N. York.