Thomas Jefferson: Pigeon House Designer?

The Virginia preservationist who built the presidential pigeon house has no intentions of eating its inhabitants, as Jefferson probably would have. (Photo: chrisdorney/Gallinago_media/Shutterstock)

Harding had golf. Carter had fly-fishing. Johnson had cars. Teddy Roosevelt had hunting. George W. Bush had doggy portraiture.

While every commander-in-chief has exhibited a knack for a particular passion or leisurely pursuit, none quite fit the bill of presidential polymath like Thomas Jefferson. A true renaissance man who dabbled in just about everything — violin-playing, horseback-riding, astrology, linguistics, horticulture and oenophilia — it's a surprise that Jefferson, the man who penned the Declaration of Independence, had time for anything during his political career.

Of his many apolitical avocations, it's architecture for which Jefferson is best known. "Architecture is my delight, and putting up, and pulling down, one of my favorite amusement," once proclaimed the founding father responsible for drafting the blueprints of a nascent nation.

And he meant it.

Jefferson not only designed Monticello, his neoclassical plantation house in Virginia, but also was behind or partially responsible for numerous other buildings, including the Virginia State Capitol Building, a gaggle of stately manor houses and several of the original structures at University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded in 1819. He's certainly the only former U.S. president with a distinctive and once highly influential architecture style to his credit (think porticos, white trim, red brick and octagons aplenty).

Dovecote: Status symbol of the rich and famous

dovecoat or pigeon house in Nymans Gardens, England
This dovecote in Nyman's Gardens in West Sussex, England, is a good example of the pigeon houses of the era. (Photo: Andy Potter / Dovecote, Nymans Gardens [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

Self-taught and largely inspired by the writings of 16th century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, Jefferson didn't limit himself to buildings of a certain type or size, although grandiose edifices were his specialty. He also drew up designs for more modest structures ... like pigeon shelters.

Yes, Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, designed a birdhouse.

Dating back to ancient Rome, the pigeon house — also known as a dovecote, pigeonaire or colombier — was, once upon a time, the must-have outbuilding of the rich and powerful. A status symbol in medieval Europe, dovecotes were also all the rage in early America, where any respectable estate boasted at least one ostentatious freestanding pigeon shelter. Essentially, these structures were an early version of the high-end backyard chicken coop.

While dovecotes are indeed practical — most included pigeonholes inside for nesting birds — they're also largely ornamental. Early dovecotes took the form of cylindrical stone towers with sloped roofs, no windows and ample architectural embellishments.

The buildings, of course, were used to house pigeons and doves. This was, mind you, back before those squawking urbanites known as feral pigeons entered the picture and tainted the fine reputation of the entire Columbidae family. Derived from the rock pigeon, the domestic pigeon, particularly the tender young squab, was, once upon a time, a culinary staple. Strategically built not too far a walk from an estate kitchen, dovecotes functioned as a walk-in pantry of sorts.

As for Jefferson's dovecote, designed in 1778 to be erected at Monticello, it too was intended to house a host of delectable winged dinner entrees. However, Jefferson, a proto-foodie and self-confessed Epicurean, never got around to building his pigeon house. Maybe he was just distracted by the Revolutionary War.

Whatever the case, that pigeon house sketched out in ink by Jefferson more than 200 years ago was finally built. It's not at Monticello but 100 miles away at Rose Hill, an 18th-century plantation house in Virginia's Rappahannock Valley that was treated to an Architectural Digest-worthy renovation by current owner and preservationist John Cay.

To bring the basic architectural drawing (it lives at the Massachusetts Historical Society and is available to view online) to life, Cay worked with William Rieley, a Charlottesville-based landscape architect who Garden & Gun describes as being "a student — to the point of near obsession — of Jefferson and his architecture."

Here we have a match made in preservationist heaven: Cay, a wealthy gentleman with an interest in period pigeon houses, and Rieley, a Jeffersonian architecture nut whose past projects include an array of historic Virginia plantations and the Thomas Jefferson Parkway. Sporting "beautiful proportions and elegant simplicity," Reiley describes the column-supported dovecote as a "pigeon loft in temple form" that, in true Jeffersonian form, manages to "blend tradition and innovation."

Writes Garden & Gun: "The frieze is punctuated at its midpoint by a hole through which pigeons can enter, which, Rieley says, reveals the utilitarian side of what appears to be a decorative element. Since Jefferson never got around to designing the actual nest boxes, Rieley added a handsome 'little apartment house' beneath the roof. When the master builder Steven Chronister completed the structure last spring, the next order of slightly complicated business was installing the residents, thirty-six pairs of white pigeons."

As for the pigeons, they won't be plucked from Rose Hill's dovecote at any point soon as Cay relayed to Garden & Gun that he has no plans to feast upon its occupants. However, incorporating the pigeon dung into Rose Hill's gardens as a nutrient-rich fertilizer — a very Jeffersonian move — isn't out of the question.