Michael Dennis







    The United States of America was not among the last Roman colonies, but then the idea that it was could appear equally plausible. Across the entire country there is evidence of a rational and powerful society, the background of which could have been Greco-Roman. If the town grids exhibit a lack of closure and an occasional confusion about cardo and decumanus, and if temples to unknown deities are rivaled in their freedom of distortion only by the greatness of their numbers, then all of this might only too easily be explained by remoteness of original models and the relative lateness of colonization. But in spite of insistent visible evidence of grid towns and temples—and even an occasional pantheon—there is no trace, crucially, of forum or agora, thus assuring that the United States is a product of another time and another culture, that its Roman ties are indirect, assumed, or both.


    After returning in 1787 from almost two years in Europe, Charles Bulfinch devoted himself for some thirty years to providing his provincial hometown of Boston with an urban architecture. His sources, like his background, were English, primarily Robert Adam and William Chambers. Although his projects for Park Street, Colonnade Row, and the Tontine Crescent no longer exist, they provided the inspiration for many surviving projects that still place Boston closer than most American cities to the European urban tradition. The partially realized Tontine Crescent was especially significant. Planned around 1793, it was the first (and almost the only) American example of a unified enclosed urban space. Although there were earlier squares and greens, such as those of Savannah, Philadelphia, and New Haven, they were neither enclosed nor unified; and although there were subsequent examples of unified enclosed squares, there were very few, and fewer still outside of Boston.

    The Tontine Crescent was originally designed as two opposing crescents of regular houses with an oval park in the middle and the Franklin Theater at one end. As finally realized, the northern crescent was replaced by a straight row of houses, but the integrity of the composition was maintained. The Tontine Crescent could have been the prototype for an American tradition of enclosed urban spaces; that this was ultimately not the case may be due as much to the project's English derivation as anything else. Bulfinch's Crescent, along with his other projects, renewed the connection to English architecture and culture that had been broken for thirty years. But while the English tradition may have been highly coveted in Boston, it was predictably less so in the rest of the country. Having just broken away from England through revolution, the rest of America certainly did not want an English architecture as a symbol of their new nation. It may have been more than the Britishness of Bulfinch's Boston, however, that made its acceptance difficult.

    America was born on a cusp of history, a philosophical and architectural turning point between the spatial tradition of the Renaissance and the iconic stirrings of the Enlightenment; and although it would be disingenuous to suggest that the country as a whole was consciously aware of it, there was a general longing for expression. Architects were seeking an American architecture, one that was both an instrument of and an appropriate symbol for a country that was a product of the Enlightenment, not the Renaissance. Of course, the ironies of the gardens of Versailles serving as the model for the capital city of a new democracy have often been noted, but even this ultimate symbol of the ancien régime took on a different meaning when it was reinterpreted by New World Neoclassicism. Washington, D.C. established the importance to America of the French tradition, which, embodied in the French Enlightenment, had its greatest impact on American architecture and urbanism. In this respect, it was Jefferson, and not Bulfinch or Latrobe, who played the role of Serlio to the New World.



    Naturally, it was the latter that had the most pervasive influence on Jefferson's work. During his first year in Paris, he lived in the new Chaussée d'Antin section beyond the boulevards, and since Ledoux's Hôtel de Montmorency and Hôtel Guimard were just around the corner, Jefferson must have known them. He appreciated the sophistication of French planning, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the development of his own house at Monticello. Before Paris, Monticello was an incomplete and slightly awkward combination of a symmetrical English plan with simple rooms and a modified Palladian facade. Afterward, it was not just completed but transformed into an elaborate Franco-Roman villa incorporating all the latest developments from Neoclassical Paris. The outside was modified to read as a one-story pavilion like the Hôtel de Salm, which he had much admired, and the inside was extended and particularized to a degree achieved only in the best French plans. The house has a great variety of rooms, highly developed service areas, and a separation and contrast between the public and private sequences resulting from the ingenious arrangement of the private rooms in two tiers around the double-height public rooms.

    All of these are distinctly French traits, yet one glance reveals that the plan is not French, but something quite different. In the typical Neoclassical French plan, the idiosyncrasies and irregularities are always contained within a rectangular configuration—simple on the outside, complex on the inside—and the central axis of the building is almost always blocked. Jefferson's final plan for Monticello is the opposite. The central Palladian axis is maintained through the sequence of regular public rooms, and the smaller, more specific private rooms are thrown to the outside of the plan. In addition, the perimeter of the plan is loose, articulate, particular; here the center is simple, the perimeter complex. It is as if a French plan had been modified by English influence, rather than the reverse. Later, this kind of modification actually happened when the influence of the English cottage ornée loosened the French perimeter and made the axes of the plan even more casual. Then, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Americans reestablished the axes again while maintaining the English preference for the picturesque perimeter. Thus Jefferson's little house may be seen as a historical shortcut and a magnificent preview of what would be one of America's most poetic urban inventions—the one-family house on Elm Street.





    Satyric street scene,
    Sebastiano Serlio (left)

    “Elm Street" (New Haven,

    Connecticut, Temple Street),
    c. 1863 (right)



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    Vincent Scully, American Architecture and Urbanism (New York, 1969), 12.

    A. E. J. Morris, History of Urban Form (London, 1972), 219, 222.

    Ibid., 222.

    For the various phases of American Neoclassicism, see William H. Pierson, Jr., American Buildings and Their Architects: The Colonial and Neoclassical Styles (New York, 1970).

    P. L. Ford, ed., Works of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1904), 9:146-47.

    For a complete description of "Jefferson's Paris," see Howard Rice, Jr., Thomas Jefferson's Paris (Princeton, 1976).

    Ibid., 15. Letter to James Currie, February 5,1785.

    J.-C. Krafft and N. Ransonnette, Plans, coupes, élévations… (Paris, c. 1802?).

    C.-N. Ledoux, L'Architecture considérée sous le rapport de l'art, des moeurs et de la législation (1804).

    Each of the Parisian streets and their hôtels may be seen on the Maire plan of Paris, 1808.

    Awareness of the problem is not recent; see V. Scully, American Architecture and Urbanism (New York, 1969), 245.

    Regarding this antipathy toward the American city, see Morton White and Lucia White, The Intellectual Versus the City: From Thomas Jefferson to Frank Lloyd Wright (Cambridge, Mass., 1962).

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