Digging for Jefferson’s Lost Courthouse

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

Thomas Jefferson lost courthouse
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

Brian Bates was standing in front of a red brick county courthouse in Buckingham, Virginia, trying to describe something he has never seen—something, in fact, that vanished more than 130 years ago. "The original portico was massive," he said in his thick Virginia drawl, spreading his arms wide. "It was all about coming across as larger than life." Bates, a Buckingham native and an archaeologist at Longwood University in nearby Farmville, was looking for traces of the courthouse, built between 1822 and 1824, that Thomas Jefferson designed. The original structure burned down in 1869, and the current one was built on top of the ruins three years later. Historians say Jefferson left no specific architectural plans for the building, so all Bates and his co-workers had to go on were letters between the former president (some 12 years out of office when the correspondence began) and county commissioners, plus whatever evidence they could find in the Virginia clay.

One sunny day this past May, Bates, three students and his longtime assistant, Gary Gossett, were chest-deep in a 25-foot-long pit they had dug in a 4-foot-wide space between the courthouse and a 1960s-era addition. They wore jeans and T-shirts caked in dirt. Kelly "Pretty" Forman and Will Pettus, both students, were on their hands and knees working with trowels, delicately removing dirt inch by inch, while Gossett carried the diggings in a bucket out to a pile near the courthouse entrance; they would put the dirt back when they were done. "We're looking for builders' trenches," Bates said, meaning the rubble-filled ditches that 18th- and 19th-century builders employed to support foundations.

Their search was made all the more difficult by a 1973 courthouse renovation, which involved digging beneath the building and which Bates feared may have obliterated some evidence of Jefferson's original structure. Still, in 2003, Bates and his co-workers found where three of the walls had stood. This year they went back to find out how the fourth wall fit in. "There's a fair chance," he said, "that what we're looking for is gone."

The research, which promises to shed light on a lost achievement by one of the most influential architects of his time, is a big event in Buckingham, a county of 15,000 about an hour west of Richmond. Bates, whose bulky build and close-cropped hair make him look less like an academic than the volunteer fireman he is in his spare time, patiently answers questions from onlookers. Usually. "Hey, Brian," a sheriff's deputy asked, "found any buried treasure?"

"I get that all the time," Bates said with mock exasperation.

No one knows why Jefferson's original courthouse burned down, though there's no shortage of legends. Some say that in the chaotic years after the Civil War, carpetbaggers set it ablaze so they could get paid to build a new one. Others say lawyers started the fire—by destroying the legal documents stored inside, the thinking goes, they would profit from redrafting them. Bates figures the cause was more mundane, most likely a stray ember.

Oddly, interest in the design of Jefferson's courthouse is relatively new. For more than a century historians and local residents believed that the replacement, completed in 1873, forty-seven years after Jefferson's death, was an exact replica of the original. But Delos Hughes, a professor emeritus at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, argued in 1992 that the existing building didn't match the one that Jefferson described in his letters. Instead, Hughes posited, the new building was a very loose interpretation of the original design. Bates—and most architectural historians—agree.

Knowing more about Jefferson's design may help scholars better understand his approach to civic architecture. The third president didn't just want to design buildings, he wanted to influence history. In Jefferson's day, public buildings were often poorly designed, badly built wooden structures. Jefferson, concerned that America wasn't establishing a lasting architectural tradition, set out to create sturdy buildings based on classical principles. "How is a taste in this beautiful art [of architecture] to be formed in our countrymen," he asked in a letter to James Madison in 1785, "unless we avail ourselves of every occasion when public buildings are to be erected, of presenting to them models for their study and imitation?"

Jefferson was on the right track, says Charles Brownell, an architectural historian at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond: "He knew that Americans frequently built by imitating standing buildings. He knew that if he set models, the odds were good they'd be copied." Along with at least one other courthouse, in Charlotte County, Virginia (1823), Jefferson designed the Virginia State Capitol (begun 1785), residences at Monticello (1796-1809) and Poplar Forest (begun 1806), and the original buildings at the University of Virginia (begun 1817). It's a small oeuvre, but some of these Classical-style buildings have been copied many times over. "America never had a more effective cheerleader for things classical," Hugh Howard writes in the 2003 book Thomas Jefferson, Architect: The Built Legacy of Our Third President.

Growing up in Buckingham, Bates had heard about the Jefferson courthouse. But he didn't get to dig any deeper until January 2003, after learning that the building was about to undergo a massive expansion that could wipe out evidence of the original building. Bates got an $18,000 grant from Virginia's Department of Historic Resources to excavate the site, and brought in ground-penetrating radar to determine where to dig. Then, with help from students, he spent February to May last year digging three-foot-deep, 400-square-foot pits along the sides of the courthouse, looking for the original building's foundations. He found seven trenches; one, located about 12 feet to the right of the existing structure, indicated that Jefferson's courthouse was wider than its replacement.

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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