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Maison Carrée, Hubert Robert, 1733-1808, oil on canvas

Jefferson’s design for Virginia’s capitol was inspired by this Roman temple built around A.D. 1–10 in what is today Nîmes, France—a building he considered “the most precious morsel of architecture left us by antiquity.”

Gérard Blot, Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, N.Y.

Maison Carrée, Hubert Robert, 1733-1808, oil on canvas

A Classical Model for the Republic

Many of the nation’s founders studied ancient Rome. Classically educated, they were well versed in Roman law, government, history, and literature. They prized classical architecture for its nobility, timelessness, and beauty, and also for its associations with a great, self-governing civilization.

Thomas Jefferson enthusiastically promoted classical architecture for the new city’s public buildings. Through these structures, he hoped that Americans would spread this style throughout the country. Jefferson already had designed a reproduction of a Roman temple for the Virginia state legislature in Richmond, the first such building since antiquity.

The buildings being planned for the new seat of government in Washington offered an even greater potential for architectural education.