David Watson Writes a Letter Criticizing Thomas Jefferson and his Designs for the University of Virginia, 1819

[David Watson to John Hartwell Cocke, March 8, 1819, The Cocke Family Papers, MSS 640, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library:]

I saw Mr. Jefferson, on the road, the day I met you, & did what was necessary in the business that carried you to Mr. Madisons. While I was up, I visited the University, which, to my shame, I had not seen, since the foundation stone was laid; & I now regret this the more, as the buildings are not upon a plan to meet my notions of convenience & utility. I should have used the first moment of leisure to write to you, but I know not how to direct a letter to you by post. I wished also to write to Mr. Cabell on this subject, but supposing the assembly would break up before my letter could get to Richmond, I am equally at a loss how to direct to him. I write now with a hope of finding some conveyance for this from our Court to day -- and I must very briefly &imperfectly, state some of my objections to the plan of the buildings.

Convenience, & fitness for the purposes for which they are intended, is certainly the first requisite. Without this architectural order, & chastity, & beauty, which Mr. Jefferson talks of, will be all thrown away. The pavilion which was first raised, is altogether unfit for the residence of a professor who has a family. It has only two rooms; & where will a family store away the articles of h[o]usehold furniture &c. which are not in daily use? The cellar is barely sufficient for a kitchen; & where will meal, meat, & all the necessary articles of ordinary subsistance, which you can readily imagine, be kept? The second pavilion is larger, & of course less objectionable; but even that will be deficient inconvenience. But most of all, I object to the dormitories. I see nothing like convenience about them. They are too small, & they will be too publick for study; for the fine walk in front of them, under the projection of the terrace, will be a thoroughfare; & when the doors will be necessarily open for air, in warm weather, (for the windows alone will be by no means sufficient,) the student will see & hear his idle fellow students walking & talking & sporting within arms length of him, every moment in the day; for the floor of his room will be upon a level, or nearly so, with the street before the door. They will not be safe to lodge in when the windows are open; for along armed man might stand in the back ground & reach ones clothes from the bed side; or he chose to enter, might easily step over the window sill. Where will a student put his table, his trunk, his pitcher & wash bowl; & where is he to keep fuel for his fire? If he is to buy & take care of fuelfor himself, he must keep it under lock & key. The boarding houses are an important appendage. The servants of the boarding houses must be the attendants of the students, to make their fires, clean their rooms, shoes &c. & supply them with water &c. The boarding houses ought, if possible to have gardens attached to them; gardens also would be very convenient for the professors tenements. If the dormitories could have been two stories they would be much more convenient, & also cheaper, as more room would have been under the same roof. I fear too that the flat roofs will leak, for I scarcely ever knew a flat roof in Virginia that did not. The interior of the pavilions are built too expensively. The floors, for instance, are too costly both as to materials and the manner of laying them. Not being private property, they will soon be defaced, & require carpets or oil c[l]oths; & plain substantial floors would have been just as good.

These observations are set down hastily; but I feel it my duty to submit them merely as hints to your better judgment in these matters; for I am quite an ignoramus in architecture; but I can feel what is convenient & inconvenient; and, by all our ardent prayers & wishes, let us not sacrifice the important, long sought object, for the want of suitable convenience in the plan of the buildings, & other arrangements. You must excuse me, my dear Sir, for saying, that in this business, I have more confidence in your judgment than in any other of the visitors. There is no time to be lost. If you think it necessary, try to get the assistance of some one experienced in planing large establishments. I should thin<k it> not unlikely that the judgment of Mr. Divers would be <worth> consulting in this business. Mr. J. is sacrificing every thing to Attic & Corinthian order & chastity; about which I know nothing, & care almost as little; tho' I certainly should be pleased that the establishment should have a neligant & dignified appearance. Perhaps, some of my objections about convenience might be obviated by appropriating some of the contiguous dormitories to the use of the pavilions. I wish I could see you & Cabell together to talk about this business; but my ignorance mak<es> it not of much importance.

When I received your invitation, some ago, to meet Peachy G<il>mer at your house, I was in bed with the rheumatism, with an open orifice in my arm. With the Sincerest respect….

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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