While Thomas Jefferson is best known as a principal "architect" of the United States Constitution, having authored the Declaration of Independence, he was also an accomplished architect of buildings, laying the groundwork for the Virginia State Capitol, the University of Virginia campus, and his own home, Monticello.
Driven by the idea that architecture should express the ideals and stature of the new nation, Jefferson combined the templelike motifs of Roman Neo-Classicism with materials found on his 5,000-acre estate to design an architectural masterpiece that—two centuries later—is still one of the great houses in history.
So when the Thomas Jefferson Foundation decided to build a new, 42,000-square-foot visitor complex on the grounds of Monticello, they were faced with the challenge of supporting the landmark without overwhelming or upstaging the comparatively diminutive 11,000-square-foot dwelling.
The foundation put the sensitive and—at $43 million—expensive project in the hands of Ayers/Saint/Gross in Baltimore. Both the foundation and the architecture firm were in agreement from the start that the new complex must communicate Jefferson's vision without imitating it. "We wanted to create a building that would be worthy of its site and its mission," says Sandra Parsons Vicchio, AIA, principal of Ayers/Saint/Gross and the project's director. "Architecturally, we wanted to create a sustainable modern structure with a certain timelessness of style, quality, and beauty."
At the nearby University of Virginia, recent battles have raged over whether to adhere to Jefferson's original template when designing new buildings and additions, or to depart from it with works of modern architecture. Especially contentious was a new complex of buildings under construction on the grounds' South Lawn (read the 2006 article from The New York Times).
At Monticello, the new Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith Education Center comprises a welcome center, gift shop, indoor/outdoor café, two-story exhibition gallery, and an education building with three classrooms and an entertainment theater. The center celebrates its grand opening April 15. Officials anticipate 500,000 visitors a year to the center and the house at the top of the mountain, the only private home in America included on the United Nations World Heritage List.
The center, designed as a "village" of wood-and-stone pavilions, is embedded in the lower slope of the hillside. Each pavilion is connected by a red cedar-covered walkway, paved in bluestone and ringing a central courtyard. Visitors can gather on the terrace, relax under honey locust trees, enjoy the soothing fountain, and explore the planting gardens reminiscent of Monticello's Mulberry Row.
ASG architects and landscapers kept preservation in mind during the construction phase, ensuring that the pavilions would rest lightly on the Virginia Piedmont and protecting the existing forest, native plantings, vibrant shrubs, and meadows of perennial grasses.
Project manager Robert Claiborne said that restoring the natural forest ensures a visual separation between Monticello and the new visitor center. "The view [of Monticello] is always sheltered by forest and woodland, so there are no vast views until you arrive at the house," he explains. "The center is subservient to the house; it's the gateway to Monticello."
ASG followed Jefferson's example in using regional materials, and it incorporated new practices in sustainable design to conserve water and energy—among them, a geothermal heating and cooling system, two "green" roofs, and an advanced stormwater-removal system.
At today's grand opening, the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith Education Center will unveil four exhibitions, an introductory film, and a "discovery room" with "hands-on activities for visitors of all ages." Visitors seeking guaranteed tour times should purchase tickets online; tickets also can be purchased at the center's Dominion Welcome Pavilion on a first-come, first-served basis. Admission prices are $20 for adults, $8 for children ages 6-11, and free for children under 6.