Article, History

Happy Birthday Mr. Jefferson

Happy Birthday Mr. Jefferson:
Philip Johnson at the University of St. Thomas

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, which would make him 277 today. It is impressive that his ideas, including those that were architectural, still have such relevance.

Best known for serving as the third President of the United States, as well as the nation’s second Vice President, first Secretary of State and second Minister (ambassador) to France — not to mention the lead author of the Declaration of Independence — Jefferson hardly needed to add to his resume. Nonetheless, he was also a very accomplished architect, designing two renowned homes for himself as well as his great public project, the Academical Village for the University of Virginia. This project of 1817-1826 surrounded a large lawn on three sides, with a library at its head, known as the Rotunda, and a mix of homes for students and professors flanking the sides. Architecturally, this has served as a model for exquisite campus design ever since.

In 1954, arts patron extraordinaire Dominique de Menil asked Philip Johnson to design the campus for the Houston-based University of St. Thomas. It was Jefferson who Johnson first referenced in his design, although unlike Jefferson’s nineteenth-century reference to Andrea Palladio’s classicism, Johnson employed the refined modernism of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Note this was precisely the time that Johnson was assisting Mies on the Seagram Building in New York (1954-1958). Johnson already was connected to Dominique and John de Menil via their art world relationships; in fact, he had produced a refined modern home for them in Houston in 1950 that would later lead to much more work in Texas.

In 1997, Johnson would complete the Chapel of St. Basil for the University of St. Thomas, architecture that in no way was a nod to Mies, but rather to the sculptural manipulation of geometric forms that had caught Johnson’s fancy at the end of the 20th Century. Its placement at the head of a green lawn, just as in Jefferson’s work in Charlottesville, Virginia, makes it a variation on the Rotunda. At the time, Johnson noted how it was important to build in a contemporary manner, rather than in the stripped down modernism he had Incorporated into his mid-century design (and in which he still lived at the Glass House). The community-building aspect of the academical village concept persists whatever the architectural language employed.

Hilary Lewis
Chief Curator & Creative Director
The Glass House
April 13, 2020

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