Tender subject: Would TJ order brick?

Sure, Chick-Fil-A tastes good, but the more local question is "Will it look good?" At the Architectural Review Board meeting June 20, a new Chick-Fil-A was unveiled to the county's tastemakers.

For the restaurant– to be located adjacent to and accessible from the Lowe's parking lot– company representatives proposed a two-tone brick scheme: dark gray for the bottom of the fa├žade and cream-colored for the top.

Almost immediately, board member Charles Lebo objected to this chromatic combination in favor of a more "Jeffersonian" brick. "I know it's a Chick-Fil-A, but..." said Lebo, implying that even a fried chicken chain within the bounds of Albemarle County ought to echo architectural genius.

As benign as the opening of Chick-Fil-A may seem, the question of its looking "good" is an especially sensitive one for many Charlottesville residents for whom WWJD? seems to be the only litmus test. What would He do or, more realistically, what would He sort of do? For others, "good" means anything but Jeffersonian: there is simply too much of him around.

The developers will be back in July to try their luck again with the Board. Are we really splitting hairs over a Chick-Fil-A located far outside Charlottesville proper? What does Jefferson have to do with fried chicken?

There was a time when the president of the United States embodied the kind of smarts and talent characteristic of a leader. Jefferson was the only President who was also a noted architect– even if the profession had not been fully defined in his day. Since he was born in Shadwell and primarily lived in Charlottesville, his legacy has become an undeniable cultural resource for the region.

Beyond our borders, though, Jefferson's architectural legacy did not survive as a brand or style; other architects of the day like Charles Bulfinch were much more successful in creating an aesthetic for the young nation.

What's "good" about Jeffersonian architecture is its spirit rather than a formula. "Jeffersonian" implies interpretation, experimentation, and a continuing desire to reconstitute the built environment. Jefferson's constant tweaking at Monticello demonstrates the point. Down the mountain, the spirit permeates the University. Jefferson surely would have applauded most the University's expansion, even if what was built would not have been what he would have built.

When Lebo suggests that the new Chick-Fil-A have Jeffersonian brick treatment, he's alluding to the typical red-brick scheme at Monticello, the Rotunda, the Lawn, and the Range. But can we really consider red brick to be a Jeffersonian material? It had been used long before Jefferson's time and has been used since for both practical and stylistic reasons.

Jefferson chose brick for its economy and its association with the Italian architect Andrea Palladio– whose use of brick instead of marble saved his patrons a few dollars. According to noted architectural historian William Morgan, author of the Abrams Guide to American Houses, "Jeffersonian" brick is misleading. "He used brick because it was cheap and because he could make it easily. If he were alive today, he'd use materials that are similarly economical and practical."

While Chick-Fil-A and Palladio are unlikely bedfellows, it underscores the point that "Jeffersonian" is not about a look, but about a particular logic.

We should hold Chick-Fil-A to a Jeffersonian standard of brick only if its construction seeks economy over flash or a Palladian ideal over a corporate ideal. Since Chick-Fil-A is about selling chicken, and its new location will be in a commercial hinterland, the county ought to relax.

A fried chicken chain on 29 exists as a dining experience– not as a civic touchstone or to revive a long-dead architectural standard. The continued encouragement of sprawl along 29 North and elsewhere in the county is anathema to anyone's sensibilities– most of all Jefferson's. In this light, what should make Charlottesville and Albemarle County "Jeffersonian" is not how "good" its buildings look, but the degree to which they promote smart growth.


Two tones of brick
PHOTO COURTESY CHIK-FIL-A