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This Old Academical Village

Preserving a national treasure

As plans for the University of Virginia began to take shape in Thomas Jefferson’s imagination, he envisioned a lawn surrounded on three sides by housing for students and professors, connected by covered walkways. The arrangement, he wrote, would form “an academical village, instead of a large & common den of noise, of filth, & of fetid air.” It’s been 192 years since the cornerstone was laid for Pavilion VII, the first of the Lawn’s complex of buildings, 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 nation’s proudest architectural achievement in its first 200 years. Additionally, the Academical Village—grouped together with Monticello—is one of only four man-made structures in the United States to be named a World Heritage Site.

However, the historical and architectural significance of these buildings doesn’t spare them from the onslaught of the elements and the wear and tear of daily use. Time has taken its inevitable toll, and many buildings at the University’s historical core are in need of considerable maintenance and restoration.

Several years ago, a team effort to address these challenges was begun by the Office of the Architect, Facilities Management and UVA’s Historic Preservation Advisory Committee, which includes expert University faculty and preservation professionals from the likes of the Monticello, Poplar Forest, Colonial Williamsburg and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

These historic preservation projects are supported almost entirely by private donations. An effort is under way to raise funds for the restoration and maintenance of the University’s historic buildings, both on the Lawn and elsewhere around Grounds.

The Rotunda

“Horrible! Horrible! Horrible! The thing gets worse the more I think about it,” wrote University student John T. Thornton about the fire that consumed the Rotunda on Oct. 27, 1895.

From that traumatic event, a debate rose from the ashes that continues to this day: Once the Jeffersonian original—already substantially altered by the annex addition completed in 1854—was destroyed by fire, how should the design of the Rotunda evolve?

Renowned architect Stanford White had the first say in the matter, when his redesigned version opened in 1898. A restoration in the mid-1970s returned the Rotunda’s interior to a Jeffersonian style and replaced White’s copper roof with a brilliant white dome.

“While it is difficult to prove how the dome was first skinned, we can demonstrate that its shape and character were altered at least five times over 150 years,” wrote the late Murray Howard, curator and architect for the Academical Village, in a 1997 report on the Rotunda. “But we do know that the present brilliantly white dome is a product only of the 1970s.”

Once again, things are about to get interesting. Within a couple of years, the Rotunda’s roof—now leaking—will need to be replaced. It appears highly unlikely that the dome’s current appearance will be replicated because it represents neither Jefferson’s nor White’s design.

Two versions that are more historically correct are receiving the most consideration. One option is a roof made of tin-coated steel shingles that will weather to a chalky gray, which researchers now believe best represents Jefferson’s original plans. The other possibility is reintroducing the greenish patina of Stanford White’s copper dome that topped the Rotunda for nearly 80 years.

“White’s dome was here as long as Jefferson’s dome was, so that’s a very strong argument to return to copper,” says David Neuman, architect for the University. “A copper dome shows the evolution of the many years in which the University was committed to the Jeffersonian spirit and design, but was trying to make a long-lived and fireproof building. The counterargument is that because the ensemble of the Lawn—with the colonnades and the pavilions—is Jeffersonian, the Rotunda should be within that spirit. That would mean a grayish-white finish on the dome and a copper dome would detract from that sense of totality of place.”

Brian Hogg (Col ’83), the University’s senior historic preservation planner, adds additional perspective to the debate. “You could re-create the Jefferson roof, but then you’d have a Jefferson roof on top of Stanford White’s exterior,” he explains. “Or you could acknowledge that 95 percent of this building is the work that Stanford White did. The only thing that’s really left of Jefferson is the brick. Are we faithful to the White exterior, or do we try to recapture more Jefferson? It goes back to the question of whether the Jefferson moment is the University’s great moment and whether we should try to recapture that. Or is this building’s history so apart from the rest of the Lawn that its complete history should be taken into account?”

The president and the Board of Visitors, along with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, will make the decision. Regardless of what form the roof takes, the overall maintenance, repair and restoration—occurring in phases over the next six years—will be completed with a goal of restoring Jefferson’s vision for the Rotunda as a center for daily University life. The building will open more fully to students and faculty by improving access and reintroducing classroom and lecture space.

“One of the real goals of this project is to make this building one that you walk into, not walk past,” says Hogg.

Pavilion X

A stroll down the Lawn provides a window into the inner workings of the mind of Thomas Jefferson, revealing his philosophies on architecture and education. But the Academical Village isn’t as Jeffersonian as you might think. Modifications over the years—some subtle and some significant—have obscured portions of his original design.

That’s not to say Jefferson wouldn’t recognize the place he created. The essential character of the Lawn’s pavilions, student rooms and colonnades remains largely intact, unlike the much-modified Rotunda. Because so much of the buildings’ historical integrity remains, fine-tuning the details and reversing inaccuracies will go a long way toward returning them to the way they appeared in Jefferson’s day.

“There’s a set of details that we can retrieve,” says Brian Hogg. “We hope they will provide a more complete understanding of Jefferson’s design for the pavilions and the colonnades.”

The prototype for these changes will be Pavilion X, where restoration work—limited to the original part of the building—will begin this spring.

“We’re going to see the real Jefferson design that disappeared and will now be reincarnated,” says David Neuman.

The most prominent change for Pavilion X—Jefferson’s adaptation of the Theater of Marcellus and the Temple of Nerva Trajan in Rome—will be the re-creation of the attic parapet. Another key component is the restoration of student-room roofs to their original flat appearance and the return of the Chinese railings to their original design, height and position.

Pavilion X as it appears currently (left) and a computer rendering showing parapet

The other changes around Pavilion X will provide a preview of what the rest of the Lawn might look like, pending approval of the broader project.

Glossy white paint on columns will be a thing of the past, and the original finishes will be restored. Extensive scholarship and analysis have shown that the colonnade columns were originally a tan, sandy color, with a rough-textured finished. The larger pavilion columns will be further analyzed during restoration work, and when their original appearance is determined, they will also be restored.

The dark green paint currently on the shutters, which appears almost black, will be lightened to a medium green, the original color discovered by paint analysis completed by the University’s conservator, Mark Kutney.

While these changes might be jarring for those who have grown accustomed to the Lawn as it currently appears, preservationists argue that regaining historical accuracy outweighs preserving the status quo.

“Once the president, the Board of Visitors and the Department of Historic Resources make a decision, we can move forward with restoring the entire Lawn to the Jeffersonian design and, frankly, that’s what I’d like to see done,” says Neuman. “These questions are very interesting from a historical, architectural and aesthetic perspective, but some people may be emotional about the way the Lawn has always been for them. To some, change will not be regarded as appropriate. To others, the changes will be seen in the spirit of returning Mr. Jefferson to the Lawn.”

The Chapel

Outside of Thomas Jefferson’s original Academical Village, the University Chapel might be the most beloved building on Grounds. Steeped in nostalgia, it has hosted weddings and memorial services, and has been a meeting space for academic departments as well as administrative and student groups.

Designed by Baltimore architect and University alumnus Charles E. Cassell, the Chapel opened in 1890 and has remained largely intact and unaltered for the last 110 years. Construction funds came largely from gifts collected by the local YMCA and the Ladies Chapel Aid Society.

The first structure on Grounds built exclusively for worship, the Chapel, with its Gothic Revival style, is in sharp contrast to the secular classicism of the nearby buildings on the Lawn. According to The Campus Guide: University of Virginia, by UVA architecture professor Richard Guy Wilson and Sara A. Butler (Arch ’96, Grad ’01), the Chapel was built in response to 19th-century accusations of heathenism that had been leveled at the University. An excerpt from professor Maximilian Schele de Vere’s address at the 1885 cornerstone-laying ceremony seems to attest to this sensitivity: “The pointed window, the flying buttress, the pointed steeple, all lead the eye upward, and with the eye the heart also is lifted up, aspiring to heaven.”

The Chapel is part of a long list of buildings—which includes Brooks Hall, Carr’s Hill, Varsity Hall and Fayerweather Hall, to name a few—that have played integral roles in the history of the University. “There’s always been a lot of attention paid to the Academical Village, and rightly so,” says David Neuman. “The real challenge is to expand people’s perceptions about the quality and quantity of other post-Jefferson buildings and landscapes here that are very significant historically. These buildings demand a lot of attention as well. It’s incredibly sustainable to preserve and reuse our buildings. We’re sustaining the culture and vitality of the institution, but we’re also sustaining its future because we’re not condemning older structures to the landfill.”

Some of that well-deserved attention is being paid to the Chapel. In 2006, the Chapel’s tower was stabilized, its drainage system was carefully redesigned and rebuilt, and the roofs of the tower and belfry were re-covered. Crews disassembled the top several rows of stone in the tower and meticulously reconstructed them. A 1,200-pound bronze bell, made by the McShane Bell Foundry in Maryland and donated by the Drama Club in 1897, was also conserved during the project.

There is more work to be done, however. Damage and wear to the Chapel’s exterior—including leakage in the stone masonry and around the windows—must be addressed quickly because they threaten the building’s interior. The pews, plaster and chancel platform are next on the restoration wish list, followed by a plan to refresh and clean the interior woodwork, masonry and walls. In addition, the Chapel’s organ needs to be replaced because it has reached the end of its life span. Replacing the cork flooring with a pine floor to match the original is a longer-term project.

Monroe Hill

The oldest buildings on Grounds sit atop Monroe Hill. These buildings, a law office and a house built by James Monroe after he bought the land in 1788, predate the Academical Village by more than 20 years. The University plans to study and ultimately restore Monroe Hill—an often overlooked but integral part of UVA’s formative years.

In 1817, the Board of Visitors of Central College (the University’s predecessor) purchased nearly 43 acres where the Academical Village would be built. A second purchase shortly thereafter included Monroe Hill and its buildings, which served as management headquarters for construction of the University.

In 1848, two ranges of student rooms were built on Monroe Hill, the first new buildings constructed after Jefferson’s death. When the University established its first residential college in 1986—now called Brown College—Monroe Hill House became the college principal’s residence.

Pride of Place

Versailles has a craft shop. The Parthenon has one, too. And now, so does the Academical Village. UVA’s specialized craft shop is referred to as Cost Center Four, or CC4. But don’t be fooled by the drab name; its members are bringing the fine art of craftsmanship to the University’s historical core. “The best historic facilities have their own craft shops, where people are committed to that facility, to learning about it, to understanding its history and to feeling pride of place,” says David Neuman, architect for the University. “Every job is treated as specific and important to the whole of that historic structure.”

CC4, created about a year ago as a division of the Facilities Management Department, is a group of highly skilled tradesmen—two carpenters, two painters and four masons—who are dedicated to the preservation and restoration of the Academical Village. They tackle problems that may not be obvious to the naked eye but nevertheless interfere with the design and structural integrity of the buildings.

“The genesis of CC4 came from a recognition that work on the historic Central Grounds buildings requires special, unique construction skills and knowledge,” says Joseph Lahendro (Arch ’82), a UVA historic preservation architect.

For instance, a lime-based mortar was used to hold the bricks together when the University was being built. At the turn of the century, Portland cement was used to replace the lime mortar. Unfortunately, the harder Portland cement eventually pulls the softer bricks of historical buildings apart, ultimately threatening the whole structure. CC4 is currently replacing critical parts of the buildings with lime-based mortar. It’s a process that follows one of the basic principles of preservation: “Where replacement is required, match the original material,” says Lahendro.

The Chinese railings that run along the roofs of the colonnades on the Lawn have provided another opportunity for the group—in collaboration with UVA’s renovations department—to translate research and planning into tangible results. “Without their commitment to executing these projects well, all the planning in the world wouldn’t mean anything,” says Brian Hogg, the University’s senior historic preservation planner.

According to a recent investigation by architects from Mesick, Cohen, Wilson and Baker, the railings over student rooms and the pavilions are supposed to be level (currently, the railing is higher in front of the pavilions). Also, the railing posts don’t align with the columns of the colonnades beneath them, which mars the originally intended harmony of the design. It’s an issue of subtle symmetry but important to the calibration of architectural elements that Jefferson had in mind.

“Jefferson did not simply pick a post width out of the air,” the report states, “but based it on its relationship to the column below.” CC4 and the renovations department plan to make corrections to Pavilions VII and IX this summer.

“Just being able to work on the Academical Village is pretty special,” says James Zehmer (Arch ’02), a historic preservation project coordinator. “Having the opportunity to take care of it and make the buildings enjoyable for generations to come is an honor.”