Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from François Cointeraux, 16 June 1789

From François Cointeraux

Paris, 16 June 1789. He believes it his duty to advise TJ that the efficient method of construction employed by the Romans, although little used in France owing—according to one author—to “une fatalité inouie,” would be of great assistance in America. He thinks it important that TJ should convey to his compatriots “des moyens d’une facile éxécution pour les defrichemens immenses quí sont à faire.”—If France should adopt the advantageous art that he has perfected, it is certain that she would draw forth a much greater produce from her land.—” Vous me permettrés de vous observer, Monsieur, qu’en emportant seulement mes prospectus aux américains, vous ne leur procurés que des avertissemens qu’il vous est facile de changer à present en un mémoire instructif, lequel rendant service aux Etats de l’amerique, vous satisfaira pleinement à votre arrivée.”

RC (DLC); 3 p.; beneath signature: “architecte de Lyon”; endorsed. Recorded in SJL as received the same day. The enclosed prospectus was a two-page printed announcement entitled: “Attelier de modeles de maisons économiques et incombustibles.—L’art de batir économique des anciens, perfectionné et rendu plus universel.—Moyens pour garantir d’incendie les vieilles habitations des bourgs et villages; et méthodes abrégées pour construire, et peupler les campagnes du royaume de nouveaux logemens et chaumieres incombustibles” (DLC: TJ Papers, 49: 8421). In this announcement Cointeraux described himself as an architect of Lyons who had devoted his whole life to perfecting the pisé method of construction and offered to communicate his procedures either by models or plans showing how economies could be effected in constructing barns, stables, cattle-sheds, sheep-folds, and other farm buildings, as well as orangeries, hot-houses, and ornamental as well as useful “Ruines, Rotondes, Belveders, Salles champetres et autres.” His atelier was located at No. 74, rue du Faubourg St. Honoré: interested persons could address their plans to him, together with a note of the price and quality of materials, especially of the and to be employed; owners and others visiting his atelier were asked to contribute the cost of a half-day’s work for each visit, since such inspections involved loss of time and extra expenses.

TJ, who must have known about rammed-earth construction from his reading of Pliny and who had seen specimens of this type of building in the South of France in 1787, was inclined to question “how far it may offer benefit [in America] superior to the methods of the country founded in the actual circumstances of the country as to the combined costs of labour and materials, and the circumstances of durability comfort and appearance” (TJ to Short, 13 Apr. 1800, acknowledging receipt of “the book on the method of building in Pisé,” which must have been François Cointeraux’ Ecole d’architecture rurale, Paris, 1790–1791, a copy of which was in his library [Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–1955, 4 vols. description ends No. 1177]). While he was secretary of state, TJ was asked by Washington to comment on Cointeraux’ proposal to come to America to demonstrate his method and TJ’s response was one of indifference (TJ to Washington, 18 Nov. 1792). The first treatise to be published in America on pisé and mudwall construction was evidently S. W. Johnson’s Rural Economy: containing a Treatise on Pisé Building; as recommended by the Board of Agriculture in Great Britain, with Improvements by the Author (New Brunswick, N.J., 1806), and it contained the following dedication to TJ: “It having been the leading principle of the greatest statesmen that have benefited mankind, to regard with peculiar respect the welfare and advancement of Agriculture; and from the attention and interest which you have hitherto manifested in its prosperity, by your own valuable improvement in the plough, I feel a confidence in presenting you with a testimony of my attachment to rural life, and an attempt at some improvements in it” (Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–1955, 4 vols. description ends No. 1178). Johnson’s work, based indirectly on Cointeraux’ method as translated by the English Board of Agriculture in 1797 and as exemplified in pisé buildings erected at Woburn Abbey by the Duke of Bedford, contains an engraving of a building “erected by the Author, at New-Brunswick, twenty-seven feet long, nineteen feet wide, and fifteen feet high … carrying chamber and loft floors, and capable of bearing great weights and a tile roof” (same, p. 1–6). This building is no longer standing. Others (of both pisé and mud-wall construction) are extant in Virginia, though there is no evidence that TJ had any connection with them or any experience in the actual application of either method. He advised his friend John Hartwell Cocke concerning the design of Bremo, but it was Cocke who built, in the last decade of TJ’s life, no less than four dependencies in pisé at Bremo Recess and at Upper Bremo. These still survive (Fiske Kimball, “The Building of Bremo,” VMHB description begins Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1893- description ends , lvii [Jan. 1949], 3–13, with illustration of one of the pisé buildings at p. 6). Cocke was evidently the first in Virginia to employ pisé and mud-wall construction: “I know of no person in our country who has built mud walls but myself,” he wrote years later. “It was not an original conception of mine, it having been in use for centuries in Europe” (quoted by Philip St. George Cocke, “On the Value, and Mode of Construction of Mud Walls, for Farm Buildings and Enclosures,” Farmers’ Register, iv [July, 1836], 172–4; N. Herbemont, “On the Use of Pisé in Constructing Houses and Fences,” same, iii [Dec. 1835], 490–2; A. W. Bohannan, Old Surry, Petersburg, Va., 1957, p. 30). Cocke was unaware of Johnson’s priority in New Jersey, as John Plaw, Ferme ornée, Paris, 1796, seems to have been of that of Cointeraux when he claimed for himself the honor of having first mentioned this type of construction (Plaw, Ferme ornée, cited by Kimball in the above article, p. 5). As for TJ, considering as he did in everything else “the actual circumstances of the country,” brick and wood clearly remained his favorite building materials.

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