A lesson from Thomas Jefferson

Historical precedent: a lesson from Thomas Jefferson

Dennis A. Dixon

Whenever Americans think of Thomas Jefferson, a number of images of him come to mind: author of the Declaration of Independence ambassador, farmer, revolutionary, statesman, president, point man for the Louisiana Purchase. He is rightfully remembered and appreciated for all of his accomplishments. But I personally admire him for the contributions that he made to the architectural and building traditions of our country.

While representing the United States, Jefferson had toured Europe extensively. His travels always included famous buildings, palaces, and residences. As a self-taught student of architecture, he kept extensive notes and dimensional drawings of many of these structures, along with their architectural detailing, scale, and geometries. Jefferson’s notes carried his opinions about elements he favored as well as those he did not. His overall goal was to learn design and design practices from the architectural masters of Europe and extract applications of their work for use back in America.

Jefferson spent the better part of 40 years designing, building, re-designing, and remodeling Monticello, his home located near Charlottesville, Va. From the extensive historical records, diaries, writings, and architectural plans, historians have concluded that Jefferson considered his home a living laboratory to carry out his architectural ideas, theories, and practical design applications. He wanted to “get it right” in terms of satisfying his own standards. Time and money were usually irrelevant.

One of the many stories about Jefferson and his ongoing efforts at Monticello involved a significant change to an architectural detail. The circumstances and fallout surrounding that change bear lessons applicable to present-day architectural design and custom construction business practices.

Jefferson had been directing and supervising work that was being conducted in Monticello’s music parlor (which functioned much like the modern family room). His plans defined in great detail the wood species, mill pattern, and layout of the wood flooring that was to be an integral part of the music room. The wood flooring was to be a plank-style maple installed in a staggered joint, butt pattern. The wide planks were large by today’s standards and were to have a layout pattern similar to that found on the floor of any present-day high school gym basketball court. As the floor approached completion, Jefferson halted work and requested a change.

The tradesmen working on the floor were under Jefferson’s employment (most were slaves) and were accustomed to his eccentricities and proclivity to changing horses mid-stream. He now wanted the floor to be similar to a style he had seen during his tenure as ambassador to France. He would design an intricate floor to complement the exquisite angled-wall music room. A simple floor pattern would not do.

As luck would have it, Jefferson came up with a parquet design too intricate to be milled and installed by the local tradesmen. The floor design was comprised of a central solid tile of cherry about 16 inches square surrounded by a four-sided picture frame of oak made of 4-by-18-inch pieces with diamond miter patterns at each corner. In addition to the complex pattern, Jefferson insisted that the floor not contain any exposed nails or wood plugs. The floor was to be blind-nailed–quite a request for 300 square feet of flooring. He soon realized that he needed experienced European tradesmen to perform the work.

After spending considerable time searching for qualified individuals, Jefferson found two offshore tradesmen capable of executing his design. He arranged for these workmen to be transported to the New World and shuttled to rural Virginia to begin their work. The two parties (owner and subcontractor) thoroughly discussed the floor’s design, materials, and finish. Samples were made, revised, and agreed upon. Jefferson wanted no miscommunications, no assumptions. He was going to be away from Monticello on government business during the time the work was being conducted. Every detail was defined and drawn out. It was all spelled out on parchment. Everything, that is, except the price.

When the floor was finally completed, it was presented to Jefferson upon his return home. He was ecstatic. The floor was exactly what he wanted and what the room needed. It was a floor that would inspire and influence future work in Colonial Virginia and beyond. Everything was great until the tradesmen presented their invoice for the work. It was $200. (In today’s dollars, that would be approximately $50,000, but it is difficult to quantify because currency in Colonial America was hard to come by. The colonies were, for the most part, a bartering economy.)

Thomas Jefferson was beside himself with anger and frustration, some of which must have been directed at himself. I assume his comments would have been similar to those directed at any modern custom builder whose clients were unprepared for the cost of a change order: “How could any floor cost that much?” “Parquet flooring is all over Europe and it doesn’t cost that much to produce it there!” “My brother-in-law could’ve done the work for half that!” “You guys never quoted me a price!”

After owner and contractor talked it out, they arrived at a mutually agreeable payment solution. Jefferson compensated them with some money, farm produce, and cured meat.

Not only was Jefferson a founding father of our country, but he also contributed a basic business lesson to construction professionals from one of the first documented and problematic change orders to occur in the United States. Now I have a rhetorical question with regard to misunderstandings and change orders: How many times has history repeated itself?

–Dennis A. Dixon is all author, contractor, and speaker with 21 years experience in the building industry. You can e-mail him at dixven@aol.com.

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