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Historian to speak on Jefferson Classicism and how it influenced county courthouse

Did one of Thomas Jefferson’s workmen, Dabney Cosby Sr., incorporate Jefferson’s architectural ideals when he built the Halifax County Courthouse? 

Is the temple-like front of the county’s courthouse a testament to Jefferson’s desire for the common man to experience architecture in “the purest forms of antiquity?”

Do the tall, white Ionic columns send message to remember ancient Greek democracy and a young America’s new democratic government? 

Or is the 173-year old Greek Revival brick courthouse just a building style of the times? 

University of Virginia architectural historian, Richard Guy Wilson, Ph.D., may have the answers to these questions and more when he presents “Thomas Jefferson’s Architecture and his workman, Dabney Cosby,” Sunday, Oct. 14, at 2 p.m., at the Halifax County Courthouse. 

Professor Wilson’s presentation will focus on the architectural accomplishments of Thomas Jefferson and how Jefferson attempted to train a cadre of workmen to continue his visions of classicism across the commonwealth. 

   The talk, sponsored by the Halifax County Historical Society, is free to the public and will be held in the courtroom on the second floor.

   During his presentation, Professor Wilson will point out elements of classicism used in the design of the University of Virginia’s “Academical Village” and how Jefferson’s views shaped the perspectives of builders who would construct homes and buildings throughout the commonwealth for decades after the university was completed. 

According to Wilson, “Considered will be Jefferson’s impact on the work of several of his workman including Dabney Cosby Sr., and Cosby’s buildings in Halifax County.” 

   Dabney Cosby Sr., credited with building the present Halifax County Courthouse in 1838-39, had worked closely with Thomas Jefferson in 1819-1824 as a brick mason on the construction of the University of Virginia. 

   Wilson, a noted lecturer, advisor and commentator for PBS, C-Span, the History Channel and A&E, is the author and co-editor of over 16 books that deal with American and modern architecture. His research has strengthened his conviction that the University of Virginia was ultimately Jefferson’s own design as opposed to historians who believe Jefferson took his ideas from buildings he visited when he was in Europe. 

   Wilson’s research shows the scope of the project was larger than first thought. Initially, historians thought it took 300 laborers and craftmen to construct the nine pavilions, 10 dormitories and Rotunda, but according to Wilson, recently found papers reveal that it was more likely around 400 men. 

“Given that it was taking place in a relatively rural, out-of-the-way place, the investment is rather extraordinary in terms of time and money,” said Wilson. 

   A decade and a half later in the town of Banister—later to be named Halifax—also a rural, out-of-the-way place, things were booming. Seven stagecoaches passed through the village each week, and there were 11 mail deliveries. 

Approximately 250 people lived in the town, including three lawyers and three physicians. Businesses were booming thanks to profits from the sale of tobacco. 

County commissioners decided they needed a bigger and more impressive courthouse and requested bids. Dabney Cosby Sr. was selected as the builder/architect. Cosby had already built several courthouses including those in Lunenburg, Goochland and Sussex counties, and is thought to have built the Buckingham County Courthouse known to have been designed by Jefferson. 

Cosby Sr., and his son, Cosby Jr., living in Halifax, began construction on the two-story, T-shaped courthouse in 1838, and it was completed in Sept. 1839. Cosby Sr. was paid $6,659. 

   Dr. Wilson will tell attendees that it has been 192 years since the cornerstone was laid for Pavilion VII, the first of the Lawn’s complex of buildings at the University of Virginia, “and it’s fair to say that Mr. Jefferson’s creation has been a resounding success. The American Institute of Architects recognized the Academical Village in 1976 as the nations proudest architectural achievement in its first 200 years.” 

   The University and Monticello have been named along with three other structures as a World Heritage Site. 

Halifax County’s Courthouse has been named part of the Halifax Historic District, a designation made by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.