Picking an Era

Board endorses ‘planning framework’ for future Academical Village work


Preliminary work begins in preparation for Rotunda roof replacement project.

When U.Va. restores historic buildings to their former grandeur, should they be returned to how they appeared when first built? Or should they look as they did when Edwin Alderman became the first University president in 1904? Or how they looked in the 1970s? Is there a time period that best represents the historical significance of a building?

The U.Va. Board of Visitors believes there is. In June, it approved guidelines that identify “periods of significance” for future restoration work in the Academical Village, one of the oldest parts of the University and a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site. The period of significance for the exterior of the Rotunda was determined to be 1898—the year of Stanford White’s reconstruction after the 1895 fire. The period of significance for the pavilions, colonnades and student rooms on the Lawn was pegged at 1825, the year the University opened.

The new guidelines come in the wake of years of discussion and historical research, culminating in an April symposium of national experts that focused on interpreting the periods of significance for various elements of the Academical Village.

“[Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village] is often referred to as the greatest example of American architecture that exists,” says former board member L.F. Payne, who chaired the Buildings and Grounds Committee.

David Neuman, architect for the University, stresses that wholesale changes are not in the works. “This is not the start of a campaign to restore the entire Academical Village,” but merely a framework to guide future decisions, he says.

The first test of the new guidelines will likely come this fall, when the board is expected to receive a recommendation for restoring and repairing the Rotunda’s leaky roof and crumbling column capitals.

Fire Marshals of the Past

Students examine Rotunda fire in University Seminar


Ruins of the Rotunda annex after 1895 fire

Did the use of dynamite hinder the fire that destroyed the Rotunda in 1895? Or did it help spread it? In a University Seminar this past semester, 10 undergraduates used digital technology to research and re-create the fire that nearly burnt the Rotunda to the ground more than a century ago.

The students, led by professors Bill Ferster and Kurtis Schaeffer, spent hours researching every aspect of the fire—how it started, how it spread, the Rotunda annex where it began, architectural issues, the lack of fire management plans, and, of course, Professor William H. “Reddy” Echols’ unsuccessful attempts to fight fire with dynamite.

The fire started when a trolley ignited an electrical burst in the Rotunda’s annex. In their research, students found that the annex was particularly messy, and filled with papers that easily caught fire. As students and others frantically tried to remove books and valuables from what was then the library, Echols took matters into his own hands, using dynamite in an attempt to destroy the connection between the annex and the Rotunda proper.

University Seminars such as this one are designed to give students—first-years in particular—an opportunity to work closely with faculty members to hone critical thinking skills. Findings from the seminar are available on the class website, where an interactive timeline depicts the events of the fire.

Equipping 19th-century Rooms for the 21st-century Student

University renovating West Range rooms

Fifteen rooms on the historic West Range were modernized this summer, except for one, which instead was restored to the mid 1820s. Fourteen rooms had their floors refinished, plaster repaired and painted, sinks replaced, ceiling fans installed and window sashes replaced. Though the Lawn and Range rooms are the oldest student housing on Grounds, they already had hard-wired data ports and full wireless service. “The renovation and restoration are designed to make a nice livable space for a 21st-century student in a 19th-century room,” says James Zehmer, historic preservation project manager for the University. 

However, No. 13 West Range, where Edgar Allan Poe lived as student in 1826, is closed off, frozen in time with the sparse furnishings of the school’s early years. Renovations for Poe’s room will include new lighting, a new voice recording that explains Poe’s life and possibly more historically accurate furniture.

“We are re-examining the furnishings to see if we can determine with greater accuracy what’s appropriate,” says Mark Kutney, architectural conservator with the Office of the Architect. Members of the Raven Society have been the stewards of No. 13 West Range for the past 104 years and are collaborating on the restoration.