Douglas Bradburn is founding director of Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith Library for the Study of George Washington, where he works with Adam Erby, an assistant curator.
Travis McDonald is the longtime director of architectural restoration at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest residence.
Katherine “Kat” Imhoff is president of Montpelier, home of James and Dolley Madison, and the former vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
They all have one thing in common: a degree from UVA. At least 15 alumni work at presidential homes or centers across the nation—and at least a dozen more have done so in the past.
While it’s hard to assess how those figures compare with other universities, Richard Guy Wilson, UVA’s Commonwealth Professor of Architectural History, says the experience of living and studying in the shadows of Thomas Jefferson’s university and his Monticello residence appears to influence students’ career paths. “The Jefferson legacy is without a doubt a factor in this,” Wilson says. “A huge swath of UVA graduates from the Architecture School and architectural history department are out there. We’ve awarded approximately 1,000 degrees in architectural history. I can’t guarantee there’s one in every state, but I’d bet it’s close.”
Douglas Bradburn (Col ’94) says the Jefferson effect goes beyond architecture graduates, touching all students, regardless of career direction. “Undergraduates really gain a relationship to that place,” says Bradburn. “And the narrative of preservation is part of that, where all of the things around you are loaded with meaning—the landscape, buildings, flora, fauna and history. The University is a unique place in that regard.”
Imhoff (Arch ’80, ’86) agrees. “Absolutely, going to UVA and being on that campus for four years shapes you, no matter what you plan to do for a career,” says Imhoff, whose career has encompassed two presidential residences. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel the power of place at the University of Virginia. You recognize it when you are there.”
Credit for the prevalence of UVA presidential preservationists also goes to University officials who set up the bachelor’s degree in architectural history in 1958, when preservation was hardly a top major. According to Wilson, UVA’s is the largest and oldest architectural history program in the country.
McDonald (Arch ’80), the restoration director at Poplar Forest, had been working with the chief architect for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., when he decided to go to graduate school at UVA in 1977. “At the time, only three schools were doing anything in historic preservation and architectural history: UVA, Columbia and Cornell,” recalls McDonald. “Back then, if you wanted to study architectural history, those were your choices.”
While preservationist organizations such as the Mount Vernon Ladies Association and efforts like Colonial Williamsburg were around before that, the idea of saving old buildings entered the national consciousness in 1963, with the widely derided demolition of Penn Station in New York City, Wilson says. President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the National Historic Preservation Act followed in 1966, which had the goal of saving America’s heritage from the excesses of urban development.
Awareness was sparked by these types of events, which certainly contributed to the University beginning the master’s degree program in 1964,” Wilson says. “The emphasis with many students was, and still is, in historic buildings, saving them and working with them. There are different angles to take in regard to that interest. Every state now has a historic preservation office, the National Park Service is involved with preservation on the federal level and many organizations exist in local communities. Then there is the historic house/museum angle, and that’s where many of these graduates headed, toward presidential residences.” Being on Grounds was enough to inspire many students.
Adam Erby (Col ’10) had an inkling that he would pursue a career in political science, perhaps go to law school and enter politics. But in his first year at UVA he took a course, Art and Cultures of the Slave South, taught by Louis Nelson, an associate professor of architectural history, and Maurie McInnis (Col ’88), at the time a professor of American art and material culture in the College of Arts & Sciences, now UVA’s vice provost. “That class changed my view of architecture and the decorative arts, showed me how to use them to interpret history,” says Erby, who most recently curated the exhibition “Gardens & Groves: George Washington’s Landscape at Mount Vernon,” which offered insights into Washington’s landscape architecture skills. “The class really explored what buildings and artwork could tell you about the past.”
Erby recalls how Nelson and McInnis used the Lawn as a teaching tool. “We looked at the Lawn a different way from how Jefferson might have intended,” Erby says. “We saw the enslaved persons who worked at the University, serving the wealthy plantation owners’ sons who were housed in the school. After that class, I followed both professors the rest of my time at the University.”
Of the UVA alumni currently working in presidential preservation, McDonald, of Poplar Forest, has the longest known record within a single institution. He first visited the site as a graduate student during a field trip in 1978, when the residence was still privately owned. The late Frederick D. Nichols, the architecture professor who led the 1976 restoration of the Rotunda, brought the class to see it and pointed out many of the features as they walked through the private residence. “I didn’t know at the time that I’d be working here, of course,” McDonald says.
“I took all types of architectural history and was deeply influenced by Professor Nichols and Richard Wilson, who was a new professor then,” says McDonald. “I enjoyed all the early architectural history I could get. It was a golden era at the school at the time. People were beginning to teach historical preservation. There was a real cross-fertilization of ideas produced by putting four departments in one building. The classes had people of all different perspectives in them.”
During McDonald’s first three years at Poplar Forest, Nichols came to lead his UVA class on a tour of the residence. “I bit my tongue because some of what he pointed out was wrong, simply because we’d begun doing research on Poplar Forest and had uncovered new clues about the place,” says McDonald with a laugh. “But by the third year, Nichols announced to his students, ‘Mr. McDonald will give the tour.’”
Because he grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia, Douglas Bradburn was already steeped in historical preservation by the time he arrived at UVA. Although he loved to write, Bradburn found he had more affinity with the history department than with the English department. “You are attuned to the continuing legacy of the past at UVA,” Bradburn says. “It’s more of a living museum than Colonial Williamsburg, with an emphasis on tradition.”
Nonetheless, on advice from a professor, he went to University of Chicago to get his doctorate, returning to Charlottesville soon afterward to take a fellowship at Monticello. “I enjoyed being back and was perfectly content to stay forever.”
But then, the opportunity to work at Mount Vernon came “out of the blue,” Bradburn says. He arrived there two years ago to direct the new library just as the new 45,000-square-foot facility was completed. During that time, he’s tuned in to Washington’s frequency after years of being a Jefferson devotee.
“Washington worked on this home for 30 years,” says Bradburn. “It was his showpiece, as much public space as a private residence. It was on the major north-south road and he had a lot of visitors [including Jefferson]. He used his house to promote republican simplicity in a world of extravagance and monarchy. With his whole estate, Washington was attempting to tell Americans to embrace simplicity and virtue. Mount Vernon played a tremendous role in the new nation where there were no monumental architectures or even monuments. It was the most famous house in America.”
And for UVA graduates who’ve gone on to work at presidential places after studying at perhaps the most architecturally famous school in America, they’re ultimately preserving more than just buildings of dead presidents. “All of the Founding Fathers, even John Adams, were interested in architecture,” says Wilson. “It was a way to create a national identity.”