Thomas Jefferson Papers

Isaac A. Coles’s Account of a Conversation with Thomas Jefferson, [before 23 February 1816]

Isaac A. Coles’s Account of a Conversation with Thomas Jefferson

With Mr Jefferson I conversed at length on the subject of architecture—Palladio he said “was the Bible”—. You should get it & stick close to it—. He had sent all his Books &c. &c. to Washington, or he would have drawn yr House for you—it would have been a pleasure to him—but now he could not undertake to do it before the fall when he expected other Books from Paris—He disapproved of parapet walls—no House could be made perfectly tight with them—there must be a gutter along the wall which in heavy falls of rain &c. would sometimes overflow—1 as was the case with the Presidents House in Washington & every other House similarly constructed that he had ever seen—the roof should cover the walls & the Balustrade could be raised above it as at Monticello which tho not handsome was safe—The flat roof He thought very practicable—the sort he most approved of was the one I described to you of sheet Iron with a rise of half an inch in each foot—viz of 12½ Inches to your House 50f. wide—your cross gutters &c &. would never do, & ought not to be thought of—He lays it down as a rule never to be departed from “That a gutter over a wall can never be safe”—Your South Portico would be very handsome & should be supported on arches as you proposed—the height not to be less than 16f.—The rule was that the height of a room should be equal to its width—20f therefore would not be too much but 16f would do—his was 18f which gave chambers over all the smaller rooms on the north of his House which you might have in yours.—The tuscan order was too plain—it would do for your Barns &c. but was not fit for a dwelling House—the Doric would not cost much more & would be vastly handsomer—his was doric—you could get drawing2 of the Columns, cornice &c &c. &c. from him—Dinsmore who is now in Petersburg he recommends to you as a good & faithful workman or Oldham who is (I think) in Richmond—either of them would build you a House without any false architecture, so much the rage at present—The Italian rule for windows is a third of the whole space—viz—7 feet of light to every 21. feet of wall—He is a great advocate for light and air—as you predicted he was for giving you Octagons—they were charming—they gave you a semicircle of air & light—He thought the3 window you proposed would be very handsome for a passage or Hall &c. but seemed not to know that they were in use & fashionable for rooms.—In a word the old Gentleman entered as he always does in to every thing, with great Zeal into your building scheme, and I now regret more than ever that you did not see him

I cannot recollect, much less write the one half of what he said to me; but when we meet which will be very soon I will repeat much more of our Conversation—

RC (ViU: JHC); extract by the Editors from Coles to John H. Cocke, 23 Feb. [1816]; partially dated “Saturday Night Feb: 23d,” with year assigned based on endorsement and internal evidence, although 23 Feb. 1816 was a Friday; signed: “I. A. Coles”; addressed: “Genl John H. Cocke. Bremo”; endorsed by Cocke: “Colo I A Coles Feby 23d 1816.”

In the unextracted portions of this letter, Coles explained that he could not accompany his brother the next day because his planting was not yet complete and could not be trusted to agents for another week, and he described negotiations he conducted with a workman on Cocke’s behalf while “On my way to Monticello.”

John H. Cocke set plans in motion in 1815 for the construction of several new buildings at his Bremo estate in Fluvanna County. He did not begin building his new house until 1818 (Fiske Kimball, “The Building of Bremo,” VMHB description begins Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1893–  description ends 57 [1949]: 5–6, 11). Andrea palladio was a sixteenth-century Italian architect and writer who interpreted and popularized ancient Roman architectural ideas for an early modern European audience. For editions of his works owned by TJ, see Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends nos. 4174–5, 4181, and 4215, and Poor, Jefferson’s Library description begins Nathaniel P. Poor, Catalogue. President Jefferson’s Library, 1829 description ends , 12 (no. 723).

Writing from Bremo on 14 Jan. 1816, Cocke’s first wife, Ann Blaws Barraud Cocke (d. 1816), described the architectural plan under discussion here in a letter to her mother, Ann B. Barraud: “My husband has amused himself all the bad weather in drawing a plan for our house—he is full of it and we hold long consultations about it—I have here given you a sketch of the result of his last Labours—I have given you the basement story the 4 front rooms of which will be situated like Mr Ambler dining but the north rooms will be several feet below the surface the conveniencies of this story are many but there are some objections to the story above—The room over the dining room would be my Chamber—That over the Servants hall The Nursery—over the store room a private room for myself—Over the Lodging room a drawing room—Over the Library and Nancy store-room—Lodging rooms—The house you must understand is but one story and the basement—The back passage which is cut in small cellar-room below—would on the second floor be similar to Mr Tuckers My husband thinks it will be the most convenient plan and that he can make it very handsome—Let us know what you think of it—Our minds are not at all made up” (RC with sketch of floor plan in ViU: JHC).

1Coles here canceled “a Balustrade was best.”

2Manuscript: “grawing.”

3Manuscript: “to.”

Index Entries

  • Ambler, John; house of search
  • architecture; books on search
  • architecture; TJ advises J. H. Cocke search
  • Barraud, Ann B.; and Bremo (J. H. Cocke’s Fluvanna Co. estate) search
  • books; on architecture search
  • Bremo (J. H. Cocke’s Fluvanna Co. estate) search
  • Cocke, Ann Blaws Barraud (John Hartwell Cocke’s wife); and architectural design of Bremo search
  • Cocke, John Hartwell; and Bremo (house) search
  • Cocke, John Hartwell; TJ provides architectural advice to search
  • Coles, Isaac A.; Account of a Conversation with TJ search
  • Coles, Isaac A.; visits Monticello search
  • Dinsmore, James; TJ recommends search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Books & Library; TJ’s personal search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; A. Palladio search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; architecture search
  • Library of Congress; TJ replaces books sold to search
  • Monticello (TJ’s estate); architecture of search
  • Monticello (TJ’s estate); Visitors to; Coles, Isaac A. search
  • Oldham, James; TJ recommends search
  • Palladio, Andrea; TJ on search
  • Palladio, Andrea; works of, owned by TJ search
  • President’s House; gutters at search
  • Tucker, Mr.; house of search