More than a century ago, the University’s Central Grounds rose from the ashes of the 1895 Rotunda fire, and much of the original character of Jefferson’s Academical Village began a process of alteration and evolution. Using designs by the firm of McKim, Mead & White, the University rebuilt the Rotunda and closed off the south end of the Lawn with the construction of Cocke, Rouss and Cabell halls. The final building in that era of growth was Carr’s Hill, which has housed University presidents and their families for 100 years. In recognition of the Carr’s Hill centennial, a yearlong celebration will pay tribute to the evolution of the Grounds with exhibits of Jefferson’s original plans and drawings as well as the architecture that followed.
The Rotunda fire of 1895
Before the University of Virginia was canonized as an architectural masterpiece, it was disparaged for the odd proportions and outdated style of its pavilions and “frail” materials. And long before Thomas Jefferson was hailed for his genius, skepticism persisted that such an amateur could have designed it himself.
Jefferson died in 1826 believing he had created a leading educational institution and an architectural landmark. Posterity continues to reappraise it; perceptions have obviously improved, though speculation over the sources of his ground plan—the gardens at Marly-le-Roy? The Hôtel de Salm in Paris?—has become an absorbing hair-splitting exercise among historians and critics.
Jefferson’s study of Pavilion VII, July 1814 (detail). Jefferson combined suggestions from architect William Thornton with his own for the first pavilion, basing its order on the Doric of Palladio. The cornerstone of what is Pavilion VII was laid on Oct. 6, 1817. Photo courtesy of the University of Virginia Library
For U.Va. architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson, ongoing research has strengthened his conviction that the University was, ultimately, Jefferson’s own design. In the U.Va. Art Museum’s current exhibit, “Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village: The Creation of an Architectural Masterpiece, 1817-1826,” his rule breaking reveals itself. A reprise of a 1993 exhibit, the current show explores the genesis of the University through a trove of original drawings, Jefferson’s correspondence with colleagues and newly gleaned information about the construction process.
“Lurking in the background are multiple types of influences, but there was never a direct influence,” says Wilson, the exhibit’s curator. “We’ve discovered more that it was an evolving process. Indeed, it was unclear when they broke ground how it was going to turn out.”
The preliminary ground plan that Jefferson drew in 1814 was one he had been mentally sketching for 10 years. In 1804, when L.W. Tazewell solicited his ideas for a university proposal to be submitted to the state legislature, Jefferson wrote that a large building to house the whole institution was not to his liking. “Large houses are always ugly, inconvenient, exposed to the accident of fire, and bad in cases of infection,” he wrote. “A plain small house for the school and lodging of each professor is best. These connected by covered ways out of which the rooms of students should open would be best.”
By 1810, Jefferson had further refined his concept. Each professor’s “small and separate lodge” should contain “only a hall below for his class, and two chambers above for himself … the whole of these arranged around an open square of grass and trees.” When he submitted his plan in August 1814 to the committee responsible for finding a location for “Albemarle College,” as it was then referred to, the blueprint contained nine identical pavilions flanked by 10 dormitories on each side, situated around three sides of a square and connected by covered walkways. In each pavilion was a hall on the ground floor for instruction and two rooms upstairs for living quarters for the professors.
The idea to use the pavilions for a didactic purpose isn’t mentioned until later; in an 1816 letter to Virginia Gov. Wilson Nicholas, Jefferson described the pavilions for the first time as “exhibiting models in architecture of the purest forms of antiquity, furnishing to the student examples of the precepts he will be taught in that art.” His concern about the lack of appropriate models of antiquity, though, dates to his Notes on the State of Virginia, wherein he lambasts Williamsburg’s buildings.
Jefferson’s plan for a typical pavilion and dormitories, August 1814. Jefferson’s plan, designed for economy but envisioning expansion as needed, called for nine identical pavilions flanked by 10 dormitories on each side, situated around three sides of a square and connected by covered walkways. A chinoiserie railing recalls the treatment of the wings at Monticello. He listed nine professorships to match the number of pavilions; architecture was among them. Photo courtesy of the University of Virginia Library
In the years since the first exhibit about the Academical Village, further investigations have made it clear that the scope of the project was larger than previously thought. The initial list of 300 laborers and craftsmen—enslaved and free—has grown to more than 400 names, though details remain sparse about many of them. “This was one of the largest building projects going on in the U.S. at that time,” says Wilson. “Given that it was taking place in a relatively rural, out-of-the-way area, the investment is rather extraordinary in terms of time and money.”
Researchers say it is difficult to accurately calculate what specific builders and other workers earned during the years of construction because the University’s system of accounting was primitive and poorly organized. Complicating matters is the fact that the University’s proctor, Arthur Brockenbrough, failed to keep proper records for at least the first year.
As Jefferson worked on his scheme for the Central Grounds, he sought advice from several people and made important alterations in his plan based on their suggestions, most notably from architects Benjamin Henry Latrobe and William Thornton, and Joseph Cabell, his chief legislative advocate and fellow Board of Visitor member. Interestingly, Jefferson’s correspondence with Latrobe and Thornton in 1817 was prompted by the fact that he had recently sold his substantial collection of architectural books to the Library of Congress to replace what was destroyed in the War of 1812. Bookshelves bare, Jefferson was forced to seek outside assistance.
In July 1817, work began on the site, a slanting cornfield a mile west of Charlottesville. The site’s irregular topography forced changes, as did the availability of skilled workmen and perennial budget woes.
“If the masonry had been available, would stone have been used instead of brick? Stone was the elite material,” Wilson says. “That’s always been a point of speculation.” The stone they did buy, limestone from a northern Virginia quarry, proved a disaster for the carving of the column capitals and inflamed the tempers of the pair of Italian stonecutters brought over to do the job. In the end, Carrara marble capitals had to be imported from Italy.
Latrobe’s letter with sketch for ground plan, July 24, 1817. Benjamin Henry Latrobe is credited with suggesting a large central domed building to serve as a focal point. Jefferson adapted the idea but reworked it until it became his own design. Photo by Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Jefferson tested his ideas on colleagues but nonetheless could be irascible. “Challenging Jefferson on any aspect of the project meant tiptoeing lightly,” Wilson writes in the exhibit’s catalogue. “Joseph Cabell wrote to fellow board member John Hartwell Cocke that when suggesting modifications, ‘We should move in concert or we shall perplex and disgust the old Sachem.’”
Cabell must have found a diplomatic way to suggest moving the gardens—which in Jefferson’s scheme were located behind the outer row of hotels and dormitories—to a spot between the pavilions and hotels. Jefferson thought the change unworkable because it would block carriage access to the rear of the pavilions, but he returned to the drafting table. In a new version, he added perpendicular alleys to solve the problem of access. Later still, he added the serpentine walls.
It remains unclear what Jefferson’s intentions were for the south end of the Lawn. “What is more evident is that there was, throughout the 19th century, an uncomfortableness with the openness of it,” Wilson observes. Over the years, there were multiple attempts to close it off: proposed huts for statues of Jefferson, buildings, chapels, even a triumphal arch commemorating Confederate soldiers. It appears inevitable that the vista was finally blocked with the construction of Cabell, Rouss and Cocke halls beginning in the 1890s.
That so many of the documents on display have survived is a tale unto itself. Luckily for us, many of Jefferson’s sketches were never properly archived in the University’s library, in which case they would have perished in the Rotunda fire of 1895, Wilson notes. In the 1920s, a stash was found in one of the maintenance buildings on Grounds, in relatively good condition because no one had bothered them.