April 17, 2008 — The University of Virginia was well represented at the official White House observance of Thomas Jefferson's 265th birthday, held April 14 in the East Room.
University President John T. Casteen III, and his wife, Betsy Foote Casteen; Commonwealth Professor of Architectural History Richard Guy Wilson; and the Virginia Gentlemen, a student a capella group, were guests of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush for the celebration.
Wilson offered remarks on Jefferson and architecture. He noted that Jefferson was the first full-time resident of the White House — then known as "President's House" — which Wilson described as being chaotic at the time. "Much remained unfinished; many rooms ... were large, bare, brick caverns. The grand staircase was absent, and the floors were rough. ... Guests remember [Jefferson] taking the tools to fix locks, pound nails in window moldings along with going outdoors to work in the garden."
Later, Jefferson worked with noted architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, whom he also appointed as Architect of the Capitol, to design the White House's distinctive north and south porticos.
"It took many years to get the porticos built," Wilson said. "Things were not that different then as now on getting government projects under way, funded and then finished."
Wilson outlined Jefferson's other architectural accomplishments, including the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, one of the first public buildings constructed after the Revolution, which he said set the "look of American government architecture for the next several centuries"; his Charlottesville home, Monticello; his retreat at Poplar Forest; and the remodeling of almost every residence he occupied, from the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg to his dwelling as American Ambassador to the Court of Louis XVI.
Wilson described U.Va.'s "Academical Village" as Jefferson's greatest legacy.
"Thomas Jefferson is sometimes labeled a 'gentleman' or an 'amateur' architect, but this is a misnomer," Wilson said. "Yes, he was self-trained, but there were no architectural schools — they were not invented in this country until the 1860s.
"... Jefferson's architectural achievements were considerable. He contributed greatly to Washington, D.C., … and he created three of our national icons: the Virginia State House, Monticello and the University of Virginia. Architects are known for their considerable egos; Frank Lloyd Wright, frequently classed as the greatest American architect — and he had a large ego — once said: 'If Jefferson were alive, he would be at the head of the table.'"
Following Wilson's remarks, Laura Bush introduced the Virginia Gentlemen, making their first White House appearance. They concluded with "The Good Old Song."