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Surrounded by History

President Casteen Peggy Harrison

One of the pleasures of living and working in the University and the surrounding community is daily engagement with buildings whose rich histories are sewn into the University’s and our nation’s fiber. That engagement is both as physical as touching bricks and timbers, and as visceral as seeing newfound subtleties of shape or shadow that make these buildings such powerful images for all of us. Determining appropriate uses of these buildings as needs evolve can be challenging. We work to preserve them for future generations, but also to use them as working spaces for living and learning.

Two current projects involving preservation and use of two of our most visible buildings—the Rotunda and Carr’s Hill—may illustrate issues involved in this aspect of University life.

The historic Central Grounds and Monticello appear on UNESCO’s World Heritage List of sites that hold “outstanding universal value.” The list includes the Taj Mahal, Versailles and China’s Great Wall. When the International Council on Monuments and Sites recommended that the Academical Village and Monticello be added to the list, the council described Jefferson’s creations as “works of perfection.” At the north end of the Academical Village, Jefferson’s library, the Rotunda, the focal point of this work of perfection, presides as the University’s head or mind.

Most of us know the Rotunda’s story. Construction began in 1823 and was completed in 1828, two years after Jefferson’s death. An annex, added during 1851-54, burned and was ultimately dynamited in a futile effort to save the Rotunda’s dome, on Oct. 27, 1895. Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White took on the assignment of rebuilding the Rotunda and designing new classroom buildings (Rouss, Cocke, and Cabell Halls at the south end of the Lawn) to replace the annex. During 1973-76, the University removed much of White’s interior and, to the extent possible, returned the space to its original design. Today, mechanical and electrical systems and a painted sheet-metal roof placed over White’s copper roof are worn out, and we are applying modern structural integrity tests to the original walls.

In 2006, John G. Waite Associates, a firm respected for its prior work on Jeffersonian buildings, began preparing an historic structure report on the Rotunda’s condition and developing options for future use. We asked to know specifically what elements remain from Jefferson’s and White’s work, and to assess the accuracy of the 1973-76 re-creation of Jefferson’s interior. We asked also for an inventory of ways to bring the Rotunda more directly into the everyday lives of students, faculty members and staff.

This study of uses becomes especially important when one recalls that in addition to being the library, the Rotunda originally housed classrooms, labs, social spaces for students and faculty members, offices, and space for exercise and for storage. White’s smaller interior, combined with the library’s growth, made the Rotunda less suitable each year for these original uses. With the library’s move to the new Alderman building in 1938, uses of the Rotunda became less purposeful. On a daily basis, tourists and other visitors generally outnumber students inside the building.

John G. Waite Associates submitted its report last year. (See it here.) The report includes a detailed history of the Rotunda’s original design and construction, and of subsequent modifications. It concludes that the building is fundamentally sound but needs repairs and infrastructure updates, including a new elevator and renewed HVAC and other systems. It recommends opening the Rotunda to greater use by students and faculty, perhaps by returning the Dome Room to use as a library and converting the ground-level wings to teaching spaces. We are working now on materials for the Board of Visitors to use when it eventually assesses these and other recommendations. The task is to balance various, often competing, demands on the building with the core necessity to sustain it as the University’s head or mind—serious work because we are stewards of a treasure that is both the University’s crown jewel and arguably our nation’s greatest architectural achievement.

From Stanford White’s street-side steps of the Rotunda, one can look across University Avenue to Carr’s Hill, the last of White’s many designs here. Next year, we will celebrate the centennial of this gracious house, which has been home to all of the University’s presidents and their families. When Mr. Alderman became the first president in 1905, he and his wife, Bessie, wanted to create a house that would allow their family and all future presidents’ families to live comfortably in a house suitable for University gatherings. The Aldermans worked closely with White on the design until White was murdered in 1906. William Kendall completed the work, which as built is in some respects both a commentary on and reinterpretation of Jefferson’s pavilions, brickwork, balconies, and other design elements and probably also an egoistic assertion of White’s own grand style.

During 2009, we will celebrate the centennial of Carr’s Hill and of the seven families who have lived there. Meg Klosko’s new book about Carr’s Hill, a lively history of the house and its occupants with dozens of photographs, will appear in the fall. Special tours of the house will be available during 2009, and exhibits celebrating McKim, Mead & White’s work here will occur in at least two University locations. I will write later about the entire program of events. At some time after this year of celebration, Carr’s Hill will require some shoring up and modernization. See for an assessment of what will eventually need to be done.

We who come here as students and we who work here each day may sometimes grow too familiar with these surroundings. Familiarity may breed complacency as we pass by Thomas Jefferson’s (and Stanford White’s) grand works and walk the Lawn in sight of the Rotunda’s soaring dome. From time to time, as we have the privilege of doing now with the Rotunda and Carr’s Hill, we step away and appreciate these treasures and recognize anew our obligations to preserve and celebrate these gifts.