The University of Virginia estimates that renovating the Rotunda will cost about $51 million. Photo by the Washington Post

Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda, the historic heart of the University of Virginia, is among the most iconic structures in higher education. Yet a close inspection reveals that the proud Corinthian capitals above its entrance are crumbling. The elevator jams at inopportune moments. The roof leaks.

Coming up with the money to fix a building of such gravitas might seem a simple affair. Jefferson’s university is a storied “public Ivy,” with a $5 billion endowment. Someone could, presumably, write a check.

But the endowment is largely off-limits for capital projects. And Virginia lawmakers closed their annual session Sunday without budgeting a single dollar toward the $51 million Rotunda renovation. University leaders are prepared to raise nearly half the cost from donors - but only if the General Assembly commits to paying the other half.

To Virginia lawmakers, the Rotunda repairs were Line 1054 on a list of projects awaiting funding, one urgent need among many for a higher education system that inspires both pride and anxiety in Virginia’s leaders.

“It was really a tremendous tragedy, for the Rotunda and other very essential capital projects,” said Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania), a U-Va. alumnus who sits on the Senate Finance Committee.

Public investment in state universities, and U-Va. in particular, has stalled as the universities’ other revenue sources have grown.

State dollars now cover 7 percent of the cost of operating U-Va., down from 26 percent two decades ago. State appropriations to the university dwindled in the recent economic downturn from $167 million in fiscal 2008-09 to $136 million in 2010-11.

In the halls of government, there is no want of enthusiasm for repairing the Rotunda, which Jefferson modeled on the Pantheon in Rome. The archetypal image of the dome and the facade, its six columns topped with a triangular pediment, has become a visual trademark for U-Va. and historic Virginia.

But as the legislative session closed, the project fell victim to political stalemate. For now, the marble capitals remain draped in black mesh netting - to protect people walking below from pieces that might break off.

“The Rotunda is the part of the university - not the basketball team, not the football team, not the marching band - the Rotunda is the symbol around the world for which the university is known,” said Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), a former gubernatorial candidate. “We have an obligation to fix it.”

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