Why Did Thomas Jefferson Draw the Hammond-Harwood House?

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By Mark Wenger, Preservation Architect

Plan and elevation for an undesignated project, inspired by the Matthias Hammond House.
Thomas Jefferson. 1783-84.

 

Thomas Jefferson, looking across what is now Maryland Avenue, drew a plan of a house. He must have prepared it during the winter of 1783-1784, while Congress was meeting in Annapolis. Ostensibly, it provides a measured plan and elevation of Matthias Hammond’s unoccupied house as designed by William Buckland, but the drawing may not be what it seems.

An obvious clue is that the proportions of Jefferson’s main house bear little relation to those of the actual house, despite accurate vertical measurements appearing on the elevation. Based on those dimensions, his carefully drawn representation of the house scales just 35 feet wide. (The actual house measures 49 feet.) One could argue that the width of the paper confined Jefferson’s rendition, thus reducing the breadth of the house. Yet the width of each wing scales correctly. Why would Jefferson compress the most important element, but leave the wings unchanged?

Another important anomaly is that Jefferson’s wings stand in a different relation to the house than the actual wings. Today, their squared front corners stand slightly behind the dwelling’s main façade. On Jefferson’s plan, the corners stand well in advance of that façade. Clearly, the width of Jefferson’s paper cannot explain this departure from the actual building. Additionally, Jefferson’s drawing lacks the hyphens that join the wings to the main block of the house. While it seems he admired the semi-octagonal bays of Buckland’s design, evidently Jefferson was not a fan of hyphens, and indeed, his own home, Monticello, includes the bays but not hyphens.

At the main entry, Jefferson showed a Doric frontispiece, while the actual doorway is Ionic.[2]  The correct vertical dimensions on Jefferson’s elevation leave no doubt that he measured the Buckland house. But his drawing seems to represent a new design, inspired by careful study of that structure.[3]

The Jefferson drawing. Scaled dimensions appear in red.
These are based on vertical measurements Jefferson recorded on the elevation.
All but the widths of the wings deviate from actual measurements of the house.

This supposition accounts for Jefferson’s radical alteration of the main house; it explains his anomalous placement of the wings; it makes sense of his Doric doorway, and it reveals why he showed double doors in that portal. Attracted by the quiet richness of Buckland’s design, it seems that Thomas Jefferson sought to entertain himself by recording, and then re-imagining one of the town’s finest houses. Compelling as it is, the result of this exercise tells us little about the Hammond-Harwood House we don’t know. A possible exception is Jefferson’s rendition of the roof, which appears as a covering of round-butt wooden shingles. This would have been a plausible covering in pre-Revolutionary Annapolis, but square-butt wooden shingles have been noted in an early context at the Ridout House.[4]

 

Scaled measurements of the present house.

 

[1] Elsewhere, this drawing is universally identified as a depiction of the Hammond-Harwood House. See N527, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Architectural Drawings, Massachusetts Historical Society. The assertion is not entirely wrong, but it misses an important point.

[2] Jefferson carefully drew capitals which could represent either Doric or Tuscan orders, but each of the column bases display two torus members, identifying the frontispiece as a Doric composition.

[3] Dimensional comparisons of the drawing and house appear on the following page.

[4] See VAF Guidebooks, Poe House and Ridout House in Annapolis, and Ringgold House in Chestertown.

Posted on Jun 10, 2020 in , , , , by Hammond-Harwood House

 

 

Hammond-Harwood House

The mission of the Hammond-Harwood House Association is to preserve, for public education and enjoyment, the architecturally significant Hammond-Harwood House museum and its collection of fine and decorative arts.
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