Designs on Monticello


Local firm hired to take historic site back to the past

March 22, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

How can contemporary architects improve on one of the most revered works of American architecture?

That's the challenge facing a Baltimore firm hired to design additions to Monticello, the neoclassical plantation home Thomas Jefferson designed for himself in Charlottesville, Va.

Ayers Saint Gross of Baltimore was selected over more than 20 national firms that vied to design the Monticello Visitors Center and Administrative Offices for the property's owner, the nonprofit Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Foundation president Daniel P. Jordan describes the assignment as "the most ambitious building project at Monticello since Jefferson walked the grounds."

Architect Adam Gross, who is leading the design team, said it's an honor to be working on such a prestigious project.

"This is the most consuming project I've ever worked on," he said. "There's a very powerful connection between the landscape and the building."

Constructed beginning in 1769, Monticello has been described as the autobiographical masterpiece of Thomas Jefferson, who served as the third president of the United States from 1801 to 1809 and also was an educator, diplomat and one of the leading architects of his time.

Jefferson's family moved into the north wing in 1772 and construction was finished in 1784. The house was enlarged from 1796 to 1809, and Jefferson died there on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after signing the Declaration of Independence.

Today, the house and grounds draw more than 500,000 people a year, making it one of the most visited house museums in the country. Loosely translated, "Monticello" means "little mountain," a reference to the 2,000- acre tract on which the house sits. It contains 43 rooms and is the only house in America on the elite World Heritage List of the United Nations.

The project involves removing modern intrusions from the Monticello mountaintop, where the house is, while providing visitors and staff members with improved and expanded facilities.

"It will help make the mountaintop more authentic, enhance our visitors program and educational outreach, and provide a much-needed consolidated facility for the staff," Jordan said.

A large part of the assignment is "to remove the 20th and 21st centuries from the mountaintop," Gross said. "The goal is to get it back as much as possible to the way it was in Jefferson's time."

Ayers Saint Gross was selected after competing against such nationally prominent architects such as James Stewart Polshek, Robert A. M. Stern, Hartman-Cox and Robert Venturi.

Other members of the winning design team include Michael Vergason Landscape Architects, of Arlington, Va., and exhibit designer Ralph Appelbaum and Associates of New York. Barton Malow Co. of Southfield, Mich., will provide pre-construction services.

Preliminary plans call for the 45,000-square-foot expansion to be completed in two locations, both off the mountaintop and away from the historic residence.

The visitors and education center will be located at the base of the mountain, and will contain classrooms, exhibit space, a gift shop and a dining facility. All buses and cars will stop there, and visitors will take a shuttle up to the house.

The administrative campus, designed to serve employees and visiting scholars, will be on another mountain half a mile east of the entrance to Monticello.

Several buildings that don't date from the 1700s, including a gift shop and staff offices, will be removed from the mountaintop. The designers also want to introduce more greenery to replace paved areas, just as they did on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus.

The new architecture won't mimic the red brick and white trim esthetic of Monticello, as the local airport does.

"It's to be non-referential to the house and fit in with the landscape," Gross said.

"We don't want a mini-Monti," added company principal Jim Wheeler.

The estate has not always been in secure hands.

After Jefferson died, his daughter and grandson were forced to sell nearly all of the contents and eventually the house and plantation, too. For 89 years, Monticello was owned and cared for by the family of Uriah P. Levy, a naval offier who admired Jefferson's views on religious tolerance.

The federal government waived three opportunities to acquire the property for the nation. In 1923, the Levy family sold it to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, now known as the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. It receives no regular federal or state budgetary support for its work.

Ayers Saint Gross is a successor to Buckler and Fenhagen, one of the oldest firms in Baltimore. In recent years, it has specialized in campus planning, town planning, academic and student-life buildings, and in landscape architecture for clients in the United States and abroad.

For more than 15 years, it has worked on another property associated with Jefferson, the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville.

The firm recently established a cultural-facilities studio to focus on projects such as Monticello. It is headed by Sandra Parsons Vicchio, who serves as the project manager for the Charlottesville project.

Gross this year has been elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects and will be inducted at the organization's national convention in Chicago in June.

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