Digging for Jefferson’s Lost Courthouse

Archaeologists in Virginia found the footprint of a red brick building lost in the mid-19th century

The third president left no specific drawing of his courthouse design, but archaeologists have found new clues to the Classical Revival structure. (Illustration by Stan Fellows)
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Bates has confirmed the original building's height from the size of column bases that he found scattered around the courthouse's front yard—and, in one case, in front of a church down the street. He says the courthouse was likely a two-story structure, 52 feet wide and 65 feet deep, with 20-foot-high walls. A courtroom, three jury rooms and a balcony fit inside. It had a 27-foot-deep portico in front. Two pavilions, one on each side, were added in consultation with Jefferson to provide additional office space.

But Bates still didn't know how the building's back looked. The modern courthouse is squared off, but plans for another courthouse Jefferson designed had an apsidal end—in this case, resembling three sides of an octagon. The shape was common in Jefferson's work, and pops up at both Monticello and Poplar Forest. Bates and his co-workers went to find an answer this past May.

After a week of painstaking excavation and, as it happens, on their final day of work, they found the northern end of the builder's trench filled with rubble—mostly bricks and pieces of mortar—two-and-a-half-feet-deep. The trench turned inward, suggesting that the building indeed had an apsidal end. "To actually get results that far exceeded my expectations was incredibly satisfying," Bates says. "Any evidence that we can find is important in reflecting how the preeminent architect of his age thought about such buildings."

Over the course of his architectural career, Jefferson trained a small army of masons, carpenters and draftsmen in classical design—and encouraged friends and colleagues to hire his workers. Not surprisingly, other buildings near the Buckingham courthouse bear traces of Jefferson's design principles, such as brick walls (still rare at the time) instead of wood. "They were definitely influenced by Jefferson's design, and may have even been built by his builders," Bates says. In fact, Bates speculates that the designer of the replacement courthouse likely drew on those structures for inspiration: "It comes full circle."


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