Given the brouhaha over a proposal by the U.S. government to mandate Neoclassicism as the preferred style of new federal buildings and the success of the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” I’ve decided the time is ripe for a stage production to be called, “Jefferson.” What follows is a synopsis.
ACT 1 opens in 1789 with Thomas Jefferson, forty-six and graying, singing There’s No Place Like Home. He is inside a Manhattan hotel room, having just returned from France after serving as America’s ambassador. Behind him, a mulatto teenager struggles to drag a large trunk delivered by a bellhop. She is sixteen years old and beautiful. The bellhop offers to help Sally Hemings lift the trunk onto a dresser. Jefferson tips the man and tells him not to bother; his servant can manage. When Jefferson’s attention is diverted to an envelope awaiting on a desk, the bellhop whispers to Sally, “You are white. How can he own you?” She confides, “In Paris, I was free. Here, I am a slave of history.”
The envelope contains a letter to Jefferson from George Washington. Jefferson has been asked to become the country’s first Secretary of State. Washington’s letter also requests Jefferson’s help in brokering a deal between Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and a deadlocked Congress. Washington says southern states fear Hamilton’s interpretation of the constitution gives too much power to the federal government. Jefferson is elated, happy to be back in American politics, and out of the machinations of royal dynasties. He does a jig and sings, I’m in the Mood for Love, then gestures Sally to sit with him on the bed.
Jefferson’s upbeat mood is short-lived. Sally tells him she is with child—his child, whereupon Jefferson sings a different tune.
Scene changes to a few months later: Jefferson and James Madison dance a Fandango to negotiate the Compromise of 1790. In return for recalcitrant states accepting Hamilton’s views, northern states agree to move the U.S. capital from New York to the border of Maryland and Virginia. A federal district will be constructed along the Potomac River near the port of Georgetown. In celebration, Hamilton and Washington sing, Hail Columbia, happy land! / Hail, ye heroes, heav’n-born band!
ACT 2. It is now January 31, 1793. Jefferson has convened a jury to review submissions to an open competition for the design of the nation’s “Congress House,” which city planner Charles L’Enfant has sited on Jenkin’s Hill. L’Enfant called the location in the District of Columbia a “pedestal awaiting a monument.”
The setting is a room in Jefferson’s house in Monticello, Virginia. There is significant remodeling going on, but some spaces are finished. We are in his completed library, a half-octagonal area whose entry corridor is lined with bookcases of countless leather-bound tomes. In the hallway also is a three-foot-tall scale wooden mockup of what will become Monticello’s new portico. The façade is a Greek temple and shows evidence of being taken apart and rebuilt multiple times, as if Jefferson is continually refining his aesthetic sensibilities. On either side of an arched entry to the library are alcoves with doors connecting to other rooms.
A lit fireplace warms the library. Above the mantel are framed etchings of Greek and Roman buildings. The room is cozy, comfortable, and graced with crown molding painted to match off-white walls. The tan plank floor is neatly sanded. In the distance is rumbling, and through the library’s tall windows are occasional bright flashes. A rare winter thunderstorm is brewing.
At lights up, we see Jefferson hovering over a wooden table whose top has been raised to the height of a standing desk. It holds a stack of unfurled drawings. “Terrible,” Jefferson says of the first submission. “Amateurish in the extreme,” he says of the next design. “No. No. No.” Jefferson tosses each proposal on the floor. “Architecture is my delight, but these are displeasures.” At the last drawing, Jefferson pauses. “Well, at least this one is well-drafted. But there’s too much froufrou.”
He’s about to discard the last submission when a knock announces Jefferson’s personal secretary, Isaac Coles. “Sir,” Coles says, “a carriage is arriving.” Jefferson asks Coles to send in the first commissioner and to expect more jurors to arrive.
A moment later, there is a massive BOOM! Just outside the library’s windows, sparks fly like a Roman candle. Wild illuminations pattern the room. Jefferson is startled. He is staring at rain sheeting down glass when he senses a presence. Turning, he finds a man in a top hat and long coat standing in front of the left-side door.
“Guten Tag,” the man says and shakes Jefferson’s trembling hand.
“I… I beg your pardon. I don’t speak German well.” Jefferson regains his composure. “If you please, I prefer speaking to a Commissioner of the District of Columbia in English.”
The man nods and says, “Adolf Loos at your service.”
Jefferson apologizes for bringing Loos out in such weather for naught. All of the entries to the competition are unsatisfactory. Designs range from Renaissance to Georgian, each wrong in different ways. “There is little of merit here to judge, I’m afraid.”
Stepping over discarded sheets scattered about the floor, Loos walks to the desk and studies the remaining proposal. “I agree. French detailing is unacceptable for an American congress hall. All of this bric-a-brac, do away with it, I say. Do away with all anachronisms.” With that, Loos removes his hat and breaks into song: Ornament is crime / Culture marches in time.
Jefferson isn’t sure what to make of Loos’ line, Freedom from decoration is a sign of spiritual strength. Jefferson’s library holds more architecture books than almost anywhere in the country—forty titles. In his own designs, Jefferson favors symmetry, proportions, and colonnades. He is fascinated with Italian villas and Greek temples. He is an expert on the Corinthian, Ionic, and Doric orders. Jefferson loves pediments, friezes, crowning statues, balustrades, rusticated stonework, engaged pilasters—and ornamentation. He adores Neoclassicism so much that he is reconstructing Monticello as an ode to Palladio.
Instead of arguing with Loos, Jefferson implores the man to call the congressional building The Capitol, not a Congress House. “We must show the world that we are the rightful heirs to the glory of Rome.” America’s civic architecture should be the equal of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill. Jefferson surveys the floor and laments, “The point of the matter, however, is that there isn’t a Capitol building in this lot.” Noticing paper crumpled in a corner of the room, he says, “Good Lord, can you imagine the scandal were we to have an American government housed within a Georgian—as in King George of England—building?” Face-palming, Jefferson says, “The Crown would laugh its head off. No. We must hark back to ancient democratic Greece and the Roman Republic to find the truth. From Greco-Roman roots, we will grow a mighty American tree.”
Loos is about to speak when lightning strikes again, Another deafening POWWW! and a new person appears, this one at the right-side door. The visitor calls himself Albert Speer. Loos and Speer immediately launch into a discussion about degenerate buildings. They speak in German.
Jefferson quickly intercedes. “Gentlemen, I beg of you. I know only a few words of your language.”
Speer hangs his hands from his lapels. “Ja wohl, Mein Führer. Herr Loos and I were simply agreeing that architecture needs no decoration.” Jefferson asks for an explanation. Speer says ornamentation is superfluous when classic forms and massing are used: arches, cubes, pyramids, spheres, and cylinders explain themselves. “We can reduce Classicism to its essence.” He pulls a discarded submission off the floor and begins sketching on its back a monster ribbed dome supported by a ring of minimally detailed columns. “Zee? Ein Volkshalle.” Jefferson studies the sketch as Speer goes on. “Powerful architecture makes powerful governments even more powerful.” Speer breaks into a rousing rendition of Deutschland über Alles.
There is yet again a massive CRAAACK! and a third Commissioner enters the library. He is wearing a cape and porkpie hat. “I almost agree with Mr. Loos, but certainly not with that man Speer.” The newcomer waves his walking stick at the other commissioners. Jefferson asks the person to identify himself. “I am Frank Lloyd Wright. I don’t speak German, but I can sing.” Wright croons, Architecture is nature / Nature is architecture, and then retrieves another discarded competition entry off the floor. He turns it over and pulls a pencil from his vest. “There’s nothing wrong with ornament if it’s done right.” At the double entendre, he winks. “Let me show you what I’m talking about.” All men gather round as Wright finishes a sketch of a heavily-textured concrete Mayan Revival ziggurat. “Now, this truly is an American Capitol.”
“I don’t get a dome?” Jefferson asks. “Hadrian’s Pantheon has a dome. Bramante’s Tempietto has a dome. Why can’t I have a dome?”
“A Roman dome is not in the nature of Mesoamerica.”
Cricccck KA-BOOOM! A fourth man enters. He is smoking a cigar. “May I suggest an alternative approach?” Walter Gropius launches into, A breach has been made with the past / We envisage a new architecture at last. On the back of another submission, he creates thumbnails of a vast, open-span, flat-roofed, all-glass and steel trussed structure. To Jefferson, he says, “Behold the purity of transparency, which is symbolic of a people’s government, nein?”
Heated, rapid-fire, germanic-sounding words fly from Speer to Gropius to Loos and back. Fists are raised. Voices escalate. Wright laughs.
“Vat is the meaning of your meek columns,” Speer demands to know from Gropius.
“Gracefulness,” Walter answers. He asks Speer, “And your overly thick columns sans tops and bottoms? Vat do those mean?”
“A triumph of will!”
Wright softly interjects, “Gentlemen, I’ve heard no one speak of organic architecture yet. Am I off-topic here?”
The argument erupts into rage.
“Stop! Stop!” Jefferson separates the feuding crowd. “Are you men or are you animals?”
BOOM! “Aw, let ’em fight, Tommy.” A raspy voice forces itself upon the room. “I always enjoy a good fight. Gets my juices flowing.”
Jefferson bellows, “Now who goes there? Exactly how many commissioners are there in the District, anyway?”
A radish red face sporting a wisenheimer smile emerges from a dark alcove. The library hushes. We hear, Let me introduce myself / I’m a man of wealth and taste. A tall, overweight figure looms. It has orange-blond hair. “I ain’t no commissioner, Tiny Tom. You are looking at the best president this country will ever have. Maybe even its last.” The man picks up remaining drawings scattered on the floor, gives each a once-over. “Yep, garbage.” He drops the pile into a wooden wastebasket and then yanks the sheet out of Speer’s hands. “This one has possibilities, though. Can we gold leaf the dome, Albert? Maybe some chrome and glass columns? I don’t know. A lot of people say great buildings are made of great big walls. You tell me.”
“Out!” Jefferson shouts. “All of you! BEGONE!”
Loos and Gropius exit stage left. Speer and Trump disappear into the far right. Wright dissolves under the arch.
ACT 3. Later that day, the rain has stopped. Sunlight peaks through the library’s square window panes. Birdsong fills the room.
Knock-knock. We see a disheveled Jefferson hunched over his desk, head resting on the table. Jefferson opens one eye and says, “Go away, Isaac. I require rest.”
“Tis I, Master. Mister Coles has gone home.” Sally Hemings enters with a cup of tea and places it near Jefferson. “Drink, Sir; it will restore your spirit.” Jefferson smiles and is about to say something when Sally continues with, “There is a gentleman in the parlor to see you. Says he brings a late entry to the competition.”
Rubbing his eyes, Jefferson asks, “And what be the color of this man’s head? I pray it is not gaudy gilt. And what foreign tongue doth he speak?”
“His hair is brown, Master. I recognize not his accent, but I tell you this: I spied the other commissioners from whence they came. They sailed o’er fury and wind. This fellow cometh under a rainbow. He calls himself Amos.”
Jefferson straightens, unwrinkles his clothes. “By all means, then. Show him in.”
“May I stay, Master. I promise to be discreet.” Sally recognizes Jefferson’s expression as “No,” but she only pretends to leave. She crouches behind the wooden portico model sitting in the corridor.
Amos is dressed in a twilled tartan shirt and denim trousers. “Good of you to see me, Mister Jefferson. This package is for you.”
Jefferson unrolls drawings onto his table and studies the first sheet. After a moment, he says, “Finally.” Jefferson turns to the next sheet. “Amos, I applaud you. You are a great architect. I had feared you would be Beelzebub in disguise again. Instead, you are an archangel. I hereby award you the commission for the new Capitol. It comes with a five hundred dollar prize and—”
“No, no. I claim no credit. I am not an architect. A colleague by the name of William Thornton, a physician, asked me to bring his work to you.”
“He told me the east front of the Louvre inspired him. For the portico and lantern, he looked to the Panthéon in Paris.”
Jefferson studies the scheme. “Yes, I see those references.” Jefferson calls the ideas straightforward and elegant. But there are shortcomings. “The American Capitol will be the first temple dedicated to worshiping sovereignty instead of a god,” he says. “It will be a temple of liberty. A dome is needed, not a lantern. I think the dome of Rome’s Pantheon would be appropriate. And Corinthian, not Ionic columns…” Jefferson claps his hands. “Never mind. I can work with this.”
Amos slips into a sad smile, bows, and begs his leave. Jefferson wants to know if something’s wrong. “Memoria praeteritorum bonorum,” Amos says.
“Hurrah! A commissioner speaking a language I know.” Jefferson translates the Latin as The past is always well remembered. What does Amos mean by it?
“I mean… Sir, the rose of retrospection is a mythical flower. We want to believe the past was better than the present, but we fool ourselves when we try to reclaim it. Nostalgia is a specious foundation upon which to build a future. Fallacies support only disappointment.”
Jefferson looks confused.
“Architectural meanings are temporal. They are based on stories, and stories change or fade away. One day, no one will remember what is meant by a Parthenon pediment or Pantheon rotunda. The symbolism of a round arch versus a pointed arch is already lost on the public.
Jefferson looks annoyed.
“Sir, the American people will appreciate our Capitol because of new stories, the narratives of what does—or does not—happen inside its hallowed walls.”
“No, my good man.” Jefferson counters that Classicism is architecture’s universal messaging device. Throughout the ages, Athenian democracy and Roman Republic icons have delivered the moral that self-governing equals freedom. “That is why the signature style of American civic architecture must allude to this noble past.”
“Where you see the story of democracy, Sir, others see tales of tyrants. Reality overpowers references.” Amos adds, “Buildings of false narratives are perceived as deceptions.”
Jefferson notices Sally hiding behind the portico model. He calls to her. She emerges, saying, “It appears that we are both enslaved to history, Master.”
“I am curious, Amos. You talk of perceptions.” Jefferson turns to a window. “By what means do you know all of this?”
“I am a man of science.”
Jefferson’s gaze returns from the clouds. “As am I.” He studies Amos’ face. “And what be your field of research?”
“I research the mind, Sir.”
The company gathers on stage to conclude the drama. Jefferson approaches the audience and tells them he now believes we must build for the present, not the past. He has also learned that no architecture has the power to be meaningful over millennia. “Homo sapiens have the most developed brains on the planet,” he tells the assembled, “yet, we are frequently delusional.” He looks at Amos. “What did you call it? ‘Illusionary correlation?’ “
Now Amos speaks. “Buildings come, and buildings go, as do the people who commission, design, and inhabit them. Architecture begins as a product of its time, but time eventually hijacks and usurps architecture for its own purpose.”
Jefferson finds Sally amongst the cast and brings her forefront, into the spotlight. “Citizens,” Jefferson says to the audience, “upon reflection, I would do things differently today.” He stares into Sally’s eyes, and then links arms with her, saying, “Beginning with no more hiding behind false façades.”
Music swells (There’ll Be Some Changes Made), and the couple bow to each other. They slow dance as the rest of the cast minuets themselves offstage.
Feature image: Hitler’s drawing of the Great Hall (1925), via Wikimedia Commons.